Calming my distracted mind

I have been struggling to read. There, I said it. Admitted the thing that, for me, is pretty embarrassing. I don’t just mean I don’t have time, I mean can’t focus on words long enough, can’t concentrate, can’t enjoy…

For a few years now, I blamed tiredness. I’m an English and literature teacher so I read and write and listen and speak all day. Endlessly. I also have to make hundreds (perhaps up to 1500) tiny and big decisions while doing these things and decision fatigue is a real thing. When I get home I have all those home things to do, then I have a bit of TV to watch with my partner (lucky if we get two hours of viewing in), then bed by 9pm because I’m pretty much asleep anyway. I sometimes pick up a book in bed but three sentences in and I’m done. Mornings are for writing.

Sounds fair enough, right? I thought so too and have repeated this story to myself to make it true and fair and right.

But it isn’t.

Currently it is school holidays so I don’t have to do all those taxing school things. I’ve cleaned the house and done the nagging errands I haven’t had time for and caught up with friends and family. And it is the perfect time to get all the reading I can’t do during term done. Right?…

I booked to see Gail Jones in conversation weeks ago and finally got to the bookshop to buy her new book The Death of Noah Glass the weekend before last week of term. Therefore I had about ten days to read it, half of which were school days. Naturally, it sat on my bedside table for at least five days. I then tried to pick it up but I couldn’t concentrate on it. I knew it wasn’t her writing or the novel itself as I absolutely love her work and I was excited to read it. I just couldn’t make my brain shift into reading. Not even when the house was tidy, I had nowhere to go, the fire was on, I was sitting right next to it with a cup of tea and it was pouring rain outside. I knew something was wrong when given the perfect reading moment – the ones memes are made of – I couldn’t concentrate.

So, what did I do? I picked up my phone (of course right next to me) and scrolled.

See, there is a significant thing I haven’t mentioned in my day: social media. Here is my confession of a habit I was convinced I didn’t have:

  • Facebook, Instagram, emails, weather, news – between 5am and 5.30ish in bed
  • Facebook, emails – between 6.50am-ish and leaving home at 7.35am
  • Instagram – sometimes during lunch breaks and/or times not teaching
  • Emails – constantly during the day
  • Facebook, Instagram – a good solid hour or more when I get home
  • Facebook, Instagram, emails, weather, news – on and off for the rest of the evening, including while watching TV
  • Facebook, Instagram, news – in bed before trying to pick up a book and/or sleeping

Clearly, I have a problem.

Kate Forster, who runs the awesome Ladybirds FB group recently told me to read Deep Work by Cal Newport. She said it has changed her productive, working, creative life. Kate works full time as well as writing books (five with Penguin and other ebooks too) and I’m going to listen to someone who is successfully doing these two things at once.

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All I knew about Deep Work was that it was about giving up social media. I didn’t like the sound of that and kinda of put off reading it, but then Kate told the group exactly how productive she’d been since using the strategies in the book and I thought I’d better read it after all.

Ironically (and the irony still makes me laugh), I downloaded the audio book and started listening in the car (that is, I was doing something else while listening to a book about distraction). Deep Work is about social media but actually, more interestingly, it is about distracted minds. While his premise – that we all want to be terribly rich and successful in the knowledge economy – is not really what I’m about, his thoughts about how our brains think, what ‘work’ really is and what we do that stops the real work happening is fascinating.

I realised I haven’t been able to read because I have a completely distracted mind. It is a miracle I have been able to write anything in the past three years! I have lost the ability to sit through moments of nothing – when SBS has a 30second ad, 30 seconds!!, when I’m waiting for the fire to catch, when I’m deciding to get up into the cold, when I’ve finished one task and need to decide what to do next. That is ridiculous!

But I get access to a lot of very interesting things via social media. Excellent articles, blog posts, opinion pieces from the New York Times…I only knew about the residencies and workshops and competitions I’ve entered because of social media. And this was the argument I made to myself about it. I couldn’t possibly stop looking because I would miss something that might just CHANGE MY LIFE!!! Plus, there is pressure to build a ‘following’ as an emerging writer because it may help later on (apparently…).

Then the other day I put the morning radio on as I potted around the kitchen. I used to listen to the radio, specifically ABCRN, every morning. I’ve listened to it for twenty years (yes, I was a 40-year-old when I was 20 haha). In recent years I haven’t listened because I thought I didn’t have time, and anyway, I got news from FB, often ABCRN FB. So, yesterday I was listening and thinking about how nice it was and the news bulletin came on and told me, among other things, that Scott Pruitt had resigned. I’m pretty happy about that news but I had no desire to go and read anything about it. I just knew it had happened and that was enough. I wondered how much I really needed to know about any particular random thing. No much, I decided. I was content to know Pruitt would no longer be destroying the environment.

The other thing that happened was a friend sent me an email with a link to images of historical supermarkets – just exactly the kind of thing I love to look at. I opened her email on the phone and began scrolling through them and it suddenly hit me that I wasn’t even paying attention to that. I wanted to look at the images closely, I was interested, I love this stuff but I couldn’t even concentrate on that.

I realised, this is why I can’t read.

I put the phone down.

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Perfect reading spot in my lounge.

I picked up The Death of Noah Glass and I made myself read it. I made myself keep reading. I read beyond the chapter I told myself I would stop at. I took the dog for a walk and lit the fire and went to the shops briefly. I did not look at my phone. I read more. Even when I got tired of reading and needed a break, I found something else to do other than look at the phone.

 

And my mind calmed.

I thought about all the cognitively difficult (as Cal Newport would call them) other things I want to do and need to do and that the only way I can do these things is to not be distracted all the time.

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Even found time to harvest grapefruit!

The next morning I did not let myself look at the phone in bed. I only picked it up later to check the weather and ring my mum. I am thinking about making specific social media times during the day. I know I work well with routine. I do not feel like I’m missing out.

 

Perhaps this is the beginning of new things – I’m already finding it easier to do little jobs I thought I didn’t have time for, like picking grapefruit – and I have plans and ideas about how to continue and improve this new approach, but if all it means is that I can read more, I’m happy with that.

 

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