• On Distractions.

  • Distractions are all around us, and they stop us from achieving our full potential. How do we fight back?

I recently read an extremely interesting book called “Happiness by Design”, in which the author discusses happiness in a way that I had never considered.

Instead of seeing happiness as the usual “something happens that I like, it makes me happy”, the author gives an analogy to the economic process of creating value.

Normally, we start with a few base raw materials, and put them through a process, and out comes a product at the other end.

If we want to maximise the number of products or goods that we can make, we have to focus on two things:

The amount of raw materials available to us over a given timeframe so that we have enough resources to actually create the products or goods.

The efficiency of our process, to ensure that as much of the raw material is used correctly and there is little waste.

I think you see where I am going here.

We all have plenty of raw material in our life to be happy. Overall, we are living in the most materialistically abundant time in human history, but I am actually not just talking about material goods. We’re also living in the safest time. Violent deaths by war, homicide, and disputes are lower than ever, which is a point that Ian Morris makes in his book “War. What is It Good for?”

I’ll give you an incredible example of how the human mind can find happiness almost regardless of the situation.

I recently visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This is a place of pure evil, and in some ways it is worse that the concentration camps that can be visited in Europe, because the perpetrators of the atrocities in this particular place corrupted the foundations of human advancement. You see, this was not a purpose-built prison and torture centre, it actually used to be a high school, and was then converted into a place of misery and suffering.


Walking between the various buildings, you can almost imagine how all the school kids used to sit amongst the blossoming trees, waiting for their classes, talking and playing.

In one of the exhibitions inside one of the large communal prison cells, I saw pictures of children who would have been old enough to have been students at this school, who had been drafted into forced work brigades, to build ditches outside of the city.

I don’t need to tell you that in the tropical heat, this is back breaking work for a fully grown man, let alone for a child.

And yet, in these pictures, I saw something that was amazing, and the longer I looked, the more of it I saw.

I saw smiles, I saw how groups of children were laughing at one that had just cracked a joke, I saw a look of amused curiosity regarding something that was out of the picture, I saw humanity.

And that’s my point, even in a forced labour camp in the heat, human beings can still find a little joy, and most of us in the world today have it so much better, so we really don’t have any excuse.

So if the issue isn’t finding enough raw materials (experiences, material goods, other people, etc) to be happy, then we should focus our attention on the second point, which is the process in which we turn these raw materials into happiness.

How the hell should we do that?

By paying attention.

I found it quite strange at first too, nobody had ever told me that I should pay attention to be happy, and, more specifically, that I should pay attention to paying attention!

And yet, it makes perfect sense, and actually fits perfectly into my current philosophical model for life, Stoicism.

Stoicism gives us several nuggets of golden advice, but for me the key one is that there are some things that we can control, and some things that we cannot.

I’ll quote here the first chapter of the classic Stoic text The Enchiridion of Epictetus:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

So this advice is telling us to focus (i.e. pay attention) to the things that we control. This is great advice because it fits perfectly into the framework of how human happiness works.

Rather obviously, we tend to pay attention to the things that matter to us. So if money matters to you, you will pay attention to how much of it you possess, and you will be happy if you have plenty of it, and unhappy if you don’t.

With this insight, we can now begin to craft a strategy to do the following:

  • Decide what we should pay attention to.
  • Design and change our behaviour and environment to best suit what we pay attention to.


The first thing to understand here is simple:

We have plenty of time to do the stuff that matters, and little time to take care of the all the worthless things in life.

It will take you less time to learn a language fluently than to watch every TV show in the last five years.

So what should we pay attention to?

Well, an obvious and slightly unhelpful answer is: whatever makes you happy!

So what makes us happy? Well, there have been a whole range of scientific studies and polls on this, but we can probably boil it down to a mix of pleasurable and purposeful activities and goals, and each person has to go and find the right balance for them.

Here are a few examples, and I’m sure you can come up with your own list.

  • Being healthy
  • Regular exercise
  • A sense of community
  • New experiences
  • Short commutes to work.
  • Challenging, meaningful work. (unemployment can be a disaster for happiness and well being)
  • Time in nature.
  • Regular sex.
  • Laughter

So once we have this personalised list, we can start designing our environment around paying more attention to this stuff vs other things. This is essentially what I write about in all my essays, so I won’t go into detail here, but I do want to tackle one aspect of the strategy, and that is reducing distractions.

Reducing Distractions

To just take a step sideways for a moment, it is quite interesting that one of the big changes in how many companies now view growth is not in absolute dollar value, but in how much attention they can capture, with the logic that the dollars will shortly follow. That’s why there has been a big push towards self-driving cars from companies that normally wouldn’t get involved, such as Google. This would save several hours per person per day, which means that there is a greater amount of attention time to capture.

This is all good if you’re into selling advertising, but it is worth stopping for a moment to realise that we are actually in unchartered territory. At no time in history has any human being been as distracted as the modern smartphone-wielding person of today. And this is just the beginning, our watches are becoming smart, and it’s not hard to imagine a future where the smartphone will be irrelevant and our data and connections will just exist everywhere around us.

While this will obviously be amazing in many ways, I’m beginning to feel that, as a society, we haven’t really thought this all through. Being constantly distracted all day by message notifications, updates, emails, chats, games, articles, invite, and whatever else you can think of, is actually changing us.

It changes the way we are able – or unable – to focus, and it even changes us physically. Many of us are at the stage where our brains actually crave the constant notifications and that small buzz and feeling of importance that we receive each time we look at them.

This is why I recently took the decision to completely remove all notifications from my phone, with the exception of the actual phone function. I’ve noticed some incredible changes since I’ve moved to this notification-less life, and that is why my recommendation towards reducing distractions is to firstly tackle the ubiquious technology that surrounds us all.

I’m not a luddite, I love technology, and at the time of writing I work as a Creative Director at a technology and design company, so I’m actually in the business of technology, but I think that like most things in life, there are two sides to this coin.

Technlogy makes us more connected, it makes things less annoying, easier, faster, cheaper, but it also contributes its fair share of issues.

I was out at a restaurant the other day, and I noticed a family of four that hardly spoke to each other for an entire hour. The mum and dad were glued to their phones, and the two kids both had an iPad to keep them busy. It reminded me of any of the countless movies and books that portray future populations as these dumbed down, controlled beings that have lost what it is to be human.

I’m beginning to feel that we’re not far away from this, and this argument actually links in to one of the biggest positives that I have noticed by turning off all notifications (except actual phone calls) from my smartphone.

When I am out with people, I am far more engaged. I can forget that my phone is in my pocket and that messages and emails and updates and everything else is coming in, because I’m not made aware of it. This makes me pay far more attention to my friends, which leads to a more enjoyable experience and a deeper connection, which is one of the things that makes me happy.

I estimate that I check my phone at least 5x less than I used, and all because of a simple choice.

It is actually quite amazing what we can do with our lives if we make choices ahead of time for our future self. It is much easier to discipline yourself in the future because it almost doesn’t feel like it is you, it is a little abstract. Trying to do the right thing right now, however, can be pretty damn difficult unless you’ve simply removed the problem ahead of time.

So don’t try and fight the temptation of the cookies in the cupboard, just don’t buy them in the first place.

Thanks for your attention.