Blimey, we’re all very focused on the Distraction Problem, aren’t we. Our electronic devices ruin dinner, corrupt young minds. Our frenetic toggling is reshaping our brains in disconcerting ways.

Found on
Found on

I don’t disagree with the concerns. An inability to sit soundly and in flow with ourselves and life (or a culture that drags us from this very human need) is at the core of much of contemporary ill. But what about this new theory of distraction explored in The New Yorker recently by way of a critique of Matthew Crawford’s new book “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”?

The idea posited toward the end is that perhaps distraction is an antidote to the real issue: too much attention.

“The modern world valorizes few things more than attention. It demands that we pay attention at school and at work; it punishes parents for being inattentive; it urges us to be mindful about money, food, and fitness; it celebrates people who command others’ attention. As individuals, we derive a great deal of meaning from the products of sustained attention and concentration—from the projects we’ve completed, the relationships we’ve maintained, the commitments we’ve upheld, the skills we’ve mastered. Life often seems to be “about” paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life.

Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be.”

This throws up a good perspective in the debate. It’s forgiving, don’t you think? We’re not useless automatons; we’re folk just trying to cope.

The other thing it throws up is a call to action to back off from attending so much. This is a grand notion, I reckon. We are all trying too hard to absorb the entire information flood, pushing our kids too hard to focus on their 2309236 activities. We have to be on, all the time. On the ball. On fire. On deck.

I think the root trick is to back the f*ck off a bit, get a bit loose and – even – vague and aimless from time to time. I have just started to do this in the past year. I have backed off from “attending” to every email that comes in (if it’s not really important or life-enhancing, I now delete), I allow whole slabs of expertise to pass me by (I have no interest in knowing about Pinterest or cricket) and I actively ignore many social conversations on Facebook.

And here’s the takeaway from my POV: backing off as an antidote to hyper-attentiveness is far more pleasurable than being distracted.

What do you think of the idea of backing the f*ck off from things in your life?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Brooke

    I believe this is so true – everything is so on all the time – where does work start and finish, most things available 24/7, no mistakes or delay acceptable.
    I find my most treasured times are quiet times to back the f*** off from things in my life.

  • Sandy

    Thank you so much. It’s what I needed right now. To back the F off Stop trying to control everything and controlling nothing. I run from kids sport to kids sport to school drops to….. I don’t get a free weekend at all. It’s a rush to fit a bull into a can. Ridiculous.

    • I do really feel for mums today…pushed too far!

  • Chloe Green

    So true Sarah. I think we’re all so scared of turning off these days in case we miss some update, comment etc. We’re conditioned to be surrounded by white noise at all times. As a Mum with young kids I’ve made a conscious decision to change my habits recently and to lead by example. No endless phone monitoring, reduced screen time, no more Facebook – more ‘real’ time together. Sitting quietly and watching the clouds. Just being in the moment at a lot more. We’re all benefiting.

  • Josephine

    Love it Sarah! I backed the f**k off years ago from the competitive energy of good-intented parents trying to make sure their kids were on fire at everything – from academic to sporting achievements. I nag my kids not to be busy, to just hang out with us and enjoy the gorgeous sunset or the amazing spider web in the garden – and to try and be blissfully ignorant to all the hyperactive people around them! It’s the mantra I try to preach them – cause we all know they don’t learn it at school with the constant focus on “achieving”.

  • Sarah

    Thought provoking as usual Sarah. I like it.

  • What a relief to read this! I feel this pressure constantly – the need to ‘fill’ all the minutes of the day, motivated by my never-ending to-do list as well as my guilt if I *stop*. I think it’s reinforced by some of the ‘inspirational’ ideologies in parts of the wellness industry too (oddly, libertarian-ish views): ‘you don’t have time, you make time’, ‘be ambitious, get shit done’, ‘make it happen’. ARGH!

  • Elizabeth

    Wow I have to agree! I work in schools here in the UK as a speaker, and have recently started a programme to help with wellbeing; it has been primary schools who have latched onto the programme with a headteacher revealing that the pressure kids feel to pay attention, be the best, top their exams, is out of control. I think there is a lesson for all of us though, we feel the need to achieve so much, to be ‘on point’ all the time, to pay attention to everything but what our hearts and guts are saying. Kids should be allowed to just be kids, and in that be vague, be free, be themselves; and the same for adults too.

  • Sarah
    this resonates with me so strongly. I started this exact attitude/process two months ago after 18 months of intense learning and immersion for a new ‘life’.
    After which I was, of course, exhausted.
    The last two months have been so liberating and I am more focussed and FAR less stressed.
    Thanks for another wonderful piece of writing.

  • Kim Hubert

    So much could be said here Sarah I think you’ve nailed the biggest health issue of our time. Outward attention costs energy and Inward attention, that is just to be, restores and replenishes our energy reserves for health and happiness. I for one have decided to stop striving and start thriving.

  • Jabba

    I believe backing the F*ck off from the unimportant or useless has made a major impact on my life, it has allowed me to get more involved in the activities and people I enjoy, to me it is not so much backing off but more filtering out & then improving my skills on dealing with the enjoyable.

  • Patricia

    People who are constantly on the go and have to be doing, doing, and who cannot be alone with themselves, make me feel edgy!!