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Procrastination & Poor Attention Management: When Stimuli Grab Our Attention And Paralyze Progress


You want to get your work done - and maybe you actually do work productively for several hours - but then you realize, you want to open up youtube, you want to play a quick online game, because you no longer feel focused or motivated.

And maybe at first, watching a quick video or playing a quick game made you feel better, because it helped you feel energized enough to get back to work.

But then, the next time you try it, you realize, you aren't getting the same boost from taking your quick break. Maybe this process gets worse and worse, until you realize,

you're spending your entire life playing video games or watching youtube,

instead of doing what you actually want to do: becoming successful in life and making your dreams come true.

Okay, now that I've checked facebook, I can check youtube and twitter, and then maybe I'll check facebook again to see if anything's changed. At least I'm not playing LoL anymore?

I think most people who use the internet suffer from this problem, to some degree.

Maybe you like to shop online. Maybe you get caught up in the latest sensationalized news story. Maybe you digest endless social media content that supports your viewpoints. Maybe you like to watch videos or play games online.

These distractions all have the same thing in common: they require zero planning, and they absorb your attention like a sponge.

When it gets bad enough, you might even realize what is happening, but you're still paralyzed - you're wasting time again, you're going down another hole to try to feel better. But there's nothing you can do about it, even if you tried to stop, in five minutes you'd be at it again. So you give up and go to youtube. There, your attention connects with what it wants: happy people doing trivial things, arguments to support your current personal views of the world, and a million different interesting things to focus on instead of fixing your own life, which is clearly impossible and hopeless.

It's the latest and greatest business model. The smartest people all over the world are working night and day to figure out how to suck more people in, to grab and hold your attention. Their latest creation: Esports! Watch other people play video games! It's less effort, but still feels just as fun!

So while you're distracting yourself through social media, video games, and other places on the internet, you're spending energy and attention focusing on your "preferred stimuli". Of course it feels as though you are gaining energy, because you feel energetic and happy. But in reality, you are actually losing momentum. Everything you're getting excited about has nothing to do with achieving anything in real life.

What's really happening, is that you are prioritizing your feelings towards short-term distractions, over your feelings towards important long-term goals.

You've come up with some fancy logic that it's okay to distract yourself, in order to placate your temperamental feelings. In reality, this might be an okay situation in the present, but it's a very unhealthy situation for your future, because you're not going to go very far in life.

Poor Attention Management

It's not that you're stupid. You've just developed a pernicious relationship with the internet, and it's reprogrammed your emotional compass. Once you decided that the internet feels good, it started rerouting your attention away from feeling good about being happy in the future. Like maybe you used to think about getting in great shape, improving your relationships, developing skills, or working towards your secret dream future that you've never told anyone about, but instead, now you just go on reddit.

Now why would it feel good to be distracted from your long-term goals? Maybe you are too hard on yourself, and so when you're distracted, you stop having negative thoughts. Maybe you have a negative viewpoint on life, so accepting the viewpoint of the internet, where everything is fun and easy in the present, is enjoyable. Whatever it is, you're not focusing your attention on being happy in your future.

So first we'll analyze stimuli, and try to get a feel for how they trick us into abandoning our long-term goals. Then, we'll go through a step-by-step process, to reprogram how you feel so you can avoid falling into the black hole of video games and the internet again.

Why do some stimuli seem to grab our attention so effectively?

Because, for whatever reason or another, we see them as a promise to feeling better, very quickly.

When you tell yourself that life is hard, or you tell yourself that your life is boring, or you judge yourself negatively in other ways, or you don't have plans for a happier future: you're setting yourself up to have strong temptations to leave your current mindset.

In life, we don't get instant feedback. Sometimes it takes years before you figure out if you're even going in the right direction. So you have to take risk, make a huge effort to reach life milestones, like getting a job, getting married, and starting a family - even though sometimes you don't even know for sure if it'll even make you happy.

Isn't this stressful to think about? It's painful isn't it? And if you feel this pain too much, you won't start making progress. And then when you get around to thinking about these ideas again, you'll label them as "hopeless" and avoid them even more.

And so instead of taking risk, facing negativity, pain, and hopelessness, we can instead experience easy fun by exploring the internet - playing games, watching videos, and reading social media.

When you are distracted, what you're really experiencing is an absence of negative judgments. Because you can't feel stressed about real life when you're distracted.

Once you realize why you're distracting yourself, you can begin to accept how it feels, and start working towards a better future.

Step one: Observe how you feel, accept how you feel, and stop over-reacting to it.

It takes a lot of effort to observe how we feel, and to observe our attention. So unless we go out of our way to do observe our thoughts, it rarely happens. But really, that's the fastest ticket out of being addicted to anything: to realize that the real hopeless situation is losing control of your behavior, and that focusing your attention on improving your life will always be better than distracting yourself with an addiction.

After observing how you feel, you need to make the conscious decision to accept how you feel, without reacting by doing something counterproductive. Don't try to rationalize with how you feel. Don't distract yourself in any way. Just realize what it feels like, and accept it. You don't need to be reacting to your emotions all the time. The goal is to decrease the intensity of your emotions, so that you can apply intelligent logic, and start moving towards a happier future. It really does work.

Over time, you will develop a kind of "mental filter".

The mental filter can let you skip over feeling bad, because you will quickly recognize how that feeling is old news. Instead your attention can easily be redirected to continue on to what you wanted to be focusing on in the first place.

You could also try meditation. It's all about looking at each thought, and using logic to decide if it's helpful or not helpful. In life, you're constantly rewarding or discarding thoughts, and the ones that stick around are the ones that you feel are helpful.

Sometimes people decide to keep negative thoughts around, even though they aren't helpful, and this makes them miserable. For instance, do you punish yourself for not being good enough? Do you beat yourself up for previously doing something wrong? If you spend time observing these thoughts, and realize they're not helpful, you will get better at turning your attention away from them. And then, you will be able to focus on working towards a happier future.

How much momentum do you have towards your future? Are you like an aircraft carrier, which really doesn't turn unless it wants to? Or are you like a little fishing boat that gets turned around so easily? The idea is that over time, you will feel more confident in your attention, and have more of your feelings invested in your current path towards the future, so you won't get turned around anymore.

You can also spend time observing your attention. When is your attention easy to control? When is it hard to control? How does exercise affect your attention? This is helpful, because being familiar with how your attention works helps build up a "mental filter", which you can apply to screen out thoughts that are distracting.

Step two: Be conscious of how you feel, each time you make a judgment.

A judgment is when you apply logic to a situation, and then get an emotional reaction out of it. (even if you're not aware of it)

So you might realize that you just wasted three hours playing a video game. And then, you feel bad because you told yourself you weren't going to do that anymore. That's a negative judgment.

Or you might start on a new project, like writing a novel, and write the first chapter, and you tell yourself that you're going to write the greatest book ever. That's a positive judgment.

The problem with these things, is that it's so easy for it to affect your attention. Negative judgments make you feel unmotivated and bring you down. Positive judgments make you too happy and have unrealistic expectations. Instead, realize that you're just on the start of a long journey, and that maybe you did have some small success or failure, but what you really need to focus on, is how to apply your attention to reach your future goals. As long as you're making progress, just keep doing what you were doing, before you started analyzing yourself.

Also: the worst thing you can do is judge your future to be "painful" or "hopeless". Once you realize that the things you once considered hopeless, are actually just judgments that might be wrong, it makes it a lot easier to do things that previously you might have avoided.

Step three: Imagine yourself in the future, after having accomplished a long-term goal, and how happy you will feel.

The #1 thing to focus your attention on, is how happy you will feel in the future, once you accomplish your current goal. Because when you can confidently tell yourself, "My future is going to be great!", your brain will generate its own energy, which will give you more focus to actually make it happen.

It can take a while to build up the confidence to really believe in yourself. This might sound silly - but you have to be able to feel your confidence.

For instance, can you imagine being the greatest ever at controlling your attention? Imagine being able to dedicate your entire brain towards whatever you want to achieve at any given moment in time. You'd get so much done!

Another thing that most people dream about: having a lot of money. And it's not really about buying things, it's more about having security and a peace of mind. Wouldn't that be nice? And when it comes down to it, the main thing holding you back, is all these negative judgments you make against yourself, which cause you to resort to distractions to moderate your emotions. Stop judging and start achieving! :)

Another good thing to think about, is a perfect day, far off in the future. Like imagine living however you want to live, maybe five or ten years from now. What will you have achieved by then? What will you be working on achieving? Who will you spend time with every day? How much money will you have?

I think a lot about running a 10K in 40 minutes. I'm still a long way from achieving that goal, but it's something I hope to achieve someday...

Step four: Realize that lasting change takes lots of effort over a long period of time.

Nobody makes real change overnight. Or even over several weeks. It takes months and years to maintain real life change.

You need resilience. Do you have it? If you don't, can you figure out how to build it up?

Journaling helps a lot, because it gives you a dedicated period of time to assess how things are going, and how you want to proceed. This is the ideal time when you can judge yourself, because it is your chosen time to plan your life. Also when you have a good journaling habit, and you have some negative thoughts throughout your day, you can remind yourself, "I'll journal about this later".

Don't be afraid to make big changes to your life. Spend more time with friends that want you to be successful. Get the right amount of sleep and exercise, read new books, get some sun, and see what happens!

It's a long-term process, and it requires lots of enthusiasm and positivity towards the future.

Step five: Get some cardio!

When you do 20-30 min of aerobic exercise each day, your attention problems will become much easier to manage and you will feel so much better. It really works!