Distractions! Distractions! Distractions!

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 11, 2017

I’ve always wanted to be a person who could focus intensely on a project until it’s finished. Instead, I’m easily derailed by endless distractions. Don’t get me wrong, I love my distractions – that’s my problem – I love them too much. I have too many interests, too many things to do, too many people to visit, too many art forms to consume, too many ideas to write about, too many ambitions, too many book clubs, too many hobbies, too many distractions of all kinds.


As can be guessed from the previous sentence the solution is to have less of everything. I regularly meditate on the wisdom of minimalism but the best I can do is maintain a holding action against the thought-kipple hordes that eats up my time.

Psychologically I feel I have all the time in the world since I’m retired, but the reality is I don’t. Every morning when I wake, I spend a delicious half-hour planning my day or thinking about essays to write. I know not to be too ambitious. I’m quite aware of my limitations. Usually, I settle on three small goals, because that’s all I can remember. One task always involves writing. The other two deal with fighting the chaos that comes with everyday living.

If I ever found a genie in a bottle my first wish would be for the kind of mental focusing powers that allow complete control of going in and out of flow. Of course, as all the three-wishes stories tell us, there are dangerous side-effects to getting what we think we want. But this how I imagine focusing:


I know what it takes to get there. I’ve always known. I’ve written about it many times before. A great analogy is a rocket with a payload and a destination. The mathematics of space travel involves cruelly cold equations. Every bit of extra mass a rocket carries costs fuel. In the 1950 science fiction film Destination Moon, the astronauts used too much fuel landing their rocket ship on Luna. The only way to return to Earth was by jettisoning everything possible to lower the take-off mass.


Knowing this wisdom doesn’t change who I am, that takes more of something I evidently don’t have. It requires I throw out all my beloved interests but one. I usually spend my days alone in solitary pursuits. I love being with people in the evenings. This gives me six to eight hours to pursue whatever I want during the day. That should be more than enough to achieve take-off to any destination.

I dream of spending all those hours on one big ambition, writing a book. However, right now I can’t muster that kind of focus. The older I get the harder it gets to spend even two hours on writing small essays like this one. The reason why I write essays for this blog and other sites is that short essays allow me to pursue many subjects, and that appeals to my scattered-brained thinking. I’m like a dog trying to chase six squirrels at once. I enjoy the hell out of the pursuit but I don’t catch any squirrels. I need to pick just one.

And if that one squirrel I pick to chase is writing a book, it means giving up essay writing, something that’s become a habit during this last decade. Up to now, I couldn’t make that commitment. But today I’m wondering if I could try it for a month?

So, the plan is to spend the rest of August finishing up some projects and commitments and spend all of September thinking and writing on one subject as an experiment. I’ve imagined writing a nonfiction book by writing fifty blog-sized related essays on one subject. 50 x 1,200 words = 60,000 words. I’ve probably written 1,500 essays since 2007, or about 30 books worth of words. The challenge will be to plan one coherent topic that’s divided into fifty chapters that locked together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.  I’d need to learn to constantly redirect my thoughts to that one topic. I have a topic in mind too, but I don’t want to talk about it ahead of time.

Now that I’ve thought this out I need to spend the rest of this month jettison all the extra mass I can.


15 thoughts on “Distractions! Distractions! Distractions!”

  1. I think you are doing great if you can concentrate 2 hours on something. My attention span is about 30 minutes. I am thinking of making myself a weekly schedule and trying to stick with it. One thing that happened to me this week is that I figured out why I couldn’t practice piano more than about 15 minutes. The bench is too high and was causing my back to hurt. I brought in a folding chair and now I can go longer. A big step in the right direction.

    1. That’s a great observation, Carol. I need to think about the physicality of my working space.

      That essay ended up being 3+ hours. It felt really good to stay on target for so long. But it’s the first essay I’ve finished in several days. I’ve started many, but can’t keep my mind focused on them to finish. I was determined to get something out the door this morning.


  2. Yes, but…
    As Eric Burdon and War said,:
    “Spill the wine, take that girl!”
    Yeah, Jim, I really cannot do that anymore either – at least not very often. And yet, I have to say that an intense focus on things outside of the basic reality of life can lead one to think that the things that bite us are the only things we need to worry about.To that I say not so.

    We cannot undo the things that have been done in our names, nor that have been done before/to us. I do not advocate ignoring the s**t that we’ve been dealt. In fact, we should all do everything we can to fix, correct or other wise change that which we cannot live with. And yet, we still have to live, and therefore we still have to accept or act.

    You must continue to do that which is yours, and inspire us all to do something, even if it is not what you would do.

    Jeez, that really sounds too goddam twee; and yet I think it is true.

    1. That’s true, Jim. We have to be the people we are, but we can step back from ourselves, and study that person, like those people who die and claim they leave their bodies and see themselves from above.

      1. JWH,
        Given my age at the time the song came out (1970 or so) I’m pretty sure about 80% of my brain (and 97% of my thoughts) were in fact fully coherent with that idea.

        Not to mention I just found another verse on a lyrics website that did in fact include that very phrase.

  3. Why would you give up something that interests you, and why, if it interests you, would you call it a distraction? Prior to retiring didn’t you long to jettison all that discipline, organization, and those daily tasks that took up so much of your time that you couldn’t pursue what really interested you? You were probably too tired after work to do much of anything. And now that you have the time to pursue all those interests you previously could only dream of pursuing, you feel guilty and call them distractions? Why, oh, why?

    You’ve always wanted to write, and now that you’re retired you’ve become a published writer, and you’ve accomplished this without giving up any of your other interests — interests that you call distractions but in reality probably keep you interested in life. So why give them up now? You should be proud of your accomplishments and happy you have more interests than time to pursue them in.
    You’re retired. Remember? Lose the work discipline impulse and enjoy. Pity the poor retiree who because he has no interests is so bored he wishes he was back at work.

    1. Shadow, I do pity poor retirees without any hobbies. I always warn people about that when people ask me what retirement is like.

      I will only give up some of my pursuits for a while, until I can finish a big project, or discover I can’t do it. I know as I get older I will eventually reach an age where I can’t do a big project.

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