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The Distracter Factor

By Mary Ann Bailey

Two of the most common complaints I hear from my clients when they are having trouble accomplishing goals are "I don't have enough time," and "I'm just too busy." Although there may be some truth in these statements, I don't think they adequately explain why people have difficulty reaching their objectives. I believe that there is something else that keeps us from achieving what we want - and it is what I call the Distracter Factor.

The Distracter Factor comes in all shapes and forms and its sole purpose is to do whatever it takes to keep us distracted and diverted from successfully reaching our goals. Some of the more obvious strategies it employs are television, video games, movies, and naps. How often have you found yourself frittering away your time watching TV, playing video games, or just "zzzing" out on the couch?

Most of us, however, can recognize when we are using these kinds of activities as an escape or distraction from something more important that we could, or should be, doing. But the Distracter Factor can also employ more subtle approaches.

It can trick us into believing that busy work is actually important work. It can lead us to think that as long as we are doing things, we must be accomplishing something valuable. It doesn't matter that somewhere along the line our attention has been diverted to less meaningful tasks such as answering e-mails, browsing the Internet, engaging in long-winded conversations, or running unnecessary errands.

How often have you found yourself at the end of the day wondering where all your time went and why you haven't gotten more done on a specific project? You know you were really busy, but somehow the one goal or task that you really wanted to get done somehow seems to have fallen through the cracks, or has been the victim of your distractions. This is the Distracter Factor at work.

But the most toxic ramification of the Distracter Factor is that it can lull us into accepting the fact that we actually don't have the time or energy to achieve our goals, and that what we have accomplished is fine because we at least gave it a good try. It gives us permission to settle for less, to play small, and to sell ourselves short - all under the guise that we are working hard and doing the best we can. So, how does one protect themselves from the Distracter Factor? How can we make sure that we are staying the course, focusing our time and energies on our priorities and not getting sidetracked by its diversionary tactics?

The following exercise offers one strategy for managing distractions and accomplishing goals.

1. Choose one thing you want to accomplish in the day. Start with something small - something that can be completed within 1-2 hours. Be very clear about what it is you want to achieve. Write down your intention and post it where you can see it.

2. Set a time schedule for accomplishing this task. How long will this project take, and exactly when during the day are you going to do it?

3. Once you begin working on the task, observe what happens. Where does your mind go? Where do you see yourself getting distracted? What other activities do you think about doing? Where do you get off course?

4. When you find your attention being diverted to other activities, gently bring yourself back to the task at hand. If you honestly need a break, then take 10-15 minutes and give yourself permission to do something totally different. It might be useful to set a timer, so that you don't go past the 15 minutes. When the time is up, return your attention fully to your task.

5. Repeat this exercise with other small tasks. Observe your actions as a scientist. Be objective, not judgmental. You will soon see how you are using distractions to keep you from reaching your goals and experiencing true success. As you become more aware of your distraction habits, try the exercise with larger, more complicated tasks.

The important thing to remember is that the Distracter Factor only has power when you are not aware of its existence. Once you are able to recognize the strategies it uses to divert your attention, its power disappears because you now have the ability to self-correct and keep yourself on course until you reach your goal.

Mary Ann Bailey, MC, is a life coach who specializes in working with people going through midlife career transitions. She is also the author of the recently published book, "Changing Course, Changing Careers."
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