Paul Ford has written an interesting piece about distractions and how they influence his life. Ford differentiates between wide distractions and narrow distractions. Wide distractions are tangential and shallow. They lead you away from your course, drawing you a short way down many different sidepaths. Narrow distractions are more focused, not so much straying from your original course as delving more deeply into it; perhaps this can be best explained as stopping to examine a bird or a tree or a flower along the trail. Ford writes:
The Internet is the widest possible distraction because it lets you wander so far afield that getting work done if you are, like me, the distractable sort of person—getting work done is almost impossible. I’m not the sort of person who can read a book with footnotes and ignore the footnotes. I have to read every footnote. I often prefer the footnotes because they point in so many directions. But when wide distractions are available I avoid the narrow distractions, and those are the useful distractions. Let’s say you’re thinking hard about a concept—say, kittens. Kittens are young cats. They have paws and they are sometimes friendly. Your stepmother, you remember, didn’t let you have a kitten. Why was that? Was she allergic, or did she really just hate you? Now, that’s something worth thinking about. A concept worth exploring. That’s a narrow distraction, a good distraction.
Ford has articulated a concept of which I’ve had a vague notion, but no words to describe it. I, too, am easily distracted. Especially by the internet. The internet is so distracting that I find it impossible to be productive with an active connection nearby. I tend to do the minimum necessary instead of devoting time and effort to produce quality work, not out of malice or negligence, but because as I’m working, some thought will occur to me — “I should look up the history of the ten-key” — and I’ll slide over to spend an hour in increasingly tangential web searches. My work suffers, whether it’s home or on the job or for fun.
Without wide distractions, however, I’m more focused. I am diverted by narrow distractions, too, but find that these are generally more rewarding. Narrow distractions are short, introspective, and often enlightening. More importantly, they are not time sinks.
One reason I’m opposed to television is the ease with which a person can be sucked into regular viewing, consuming gross numbers of hours every day. I’m no different, except my vice is the internet. If I were not connected, I might succumb to some other wide distraction — my encyclopedia, perhaps — but no other wide distraction can possibly approach the infinite as closely as the world wide web.
Lately, I’ve been more conscious of how much time I spend browsing and exchanging e-mail. What if I were to use this time for something remotely productive? What if I were using it to write short stories, or even a novel? What if?
This is a recurring theme in my life, a sort of monkey on my back that I cannot lose. I’ve written about it here in the past. I probably sound like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. I’d love to learn some techniques for avoiding wide distractions. Maybe I could google for some.