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Focusing in the Age of Distraction: 3 Time-Proven Strategies

People have been complaining about the impact of distractions on creative thinking for centuries. Here are some time-tested, practical suggestions for dealing with distractions, provided by scholars from as early as the 1300s.

Frazzled

“It’s hard to get work done. There are just too many distractions.”
Sound familiar? From the recent spate of news coverage, you
would think this is a new problem, brought on by the proliferation of the Internet,
mobile phones, and social networks. But is it really?

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It turns out that people have been complaining about the
impact of distractions on creative thinking for centuries. Monastic life was
one extreme way to deal with this problem from at least the time of the Greeks. But that was never a practical lifestyle for
most people. So, from the “there is
nothing new under the sun” department, here are some time-tested, practical suggestions
for dealing with distractions, provided
by scholars from as early as the 1300s.

Georg Spalatin, a
scholar who lived in Saxony in the 1500s, wrote a letter to his patron, the
prince of Saxony, requesting an interruption-free work space for deep thinking. In his case,
this was partly to break free of the distractions created by his mother-in-law,
who he referred to as his “home-devil” (note: the more things change, the more
they stay the same). Spalatin found his refuge
in a chapel in the woods.

What would he say if he were
alive today?
Create a workspace with no TV, no Internet
surfing, and no text messaging. This can be a room in the house, a work area, or
a municipal park. Even a garden shed can become your place for contemplation. This is not an office with a computer and a
telephone–it is a studio for creative thinking;
your only tools should be a pen and paper. For example, I find that I get a
great deal of creative problem thinking done on transatlantic flights. No
telephone calls, no Internet, and no interruptions. If you can recreate that
space in your everyday experience, it will work.

cluttered office

Desiderius Erasmus a scholar who lived in Holland, in the 1500s, wrote,
in 1528, a blueprint for organizing a scholar’s life. In this text, The Ciceronian,
Erasums suggests setting aside time when “one can shut down.” On a practical
note, Erasmus recommends writing “in the dead of night, when it’s absolutely
quiet and deep silence reigns over all.” No outside distractions, no background noises.

What would he say if he were
alive today?
Take a nap in the
afternoon and avoid alcohol in the evening, in order to be alert at night. Turn
off the TV, set the Tivo to record the evening programs, and put the kids to
sleep. When everyone else is falling over, you will be raring to go. As college students will attest, a lot of
great work gets done in the wee hours of the morning. As long as you don’t have
an 8AM meeting.

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Francesco Petrarca a
Tuscan scholar from the 1300s, describes in his Life of Solitude, how to
construct “invisible walls” by developing the disposition to be less distracted
through an emotional detachment from ambient noise. Petrarca says you can
achieve imaginary solitude by “closing the doors of your senses in order
to achieve solitude in the presence of other people.”

What would he say if he were
alive today?
Take a computer to a coffee shop, library, or other place
where you can sit for long periods of time uninterrupted by other people. Bring
some music and plug in. Turn off your mobile phone, email, social media sites,
and all your other alerts. Create a bubble of solitude and get to work.

If these ideas don’t work, you can always find a list of monasteries
taking applications.

About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission.

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