Balance in the Age of Easy Distraction

An explanation for my general absence: In the fall of 2015, I got a new job that almost immediately began drawing more time and mental energy than anyone anticipated when I was hired. It’s a great job – decent pay, meaningful work, reasonable hours even after accounting for the unexpected increase – but it does pull more out of me than what I was doing before it.

However, this is only a partial explanation for my absence. There have also been some health issues among my family that have reared their ugly heads, drawing additional attention and emotional energy. Everything has worked out pretty well for now, although one case is of a chronic illness that will likely make an undesired comeback in a few years.

And yet, that too is only a partial explanation. I’ve also been waging an on-again/off-again struggle to keep my own physical health under control, which has been made more difficult by the shift to a more traditional office-based job, the allure of easy-but-unhealthy options (especially when delivered) while caring for loved ones, and a move to place with a fenced yard for the dog that means I’m taking him for fewer walks. When the struggle is engaged, I’m focusing in particular on diet, which can be its own draw on willpower as I experiment with different approaches to getting only the calories I need while still feeling full. Combine all of that with the job and the family health pieces, and there have been a lot of draws on my attention and energy.

But plenty of other people prove able to get in time for some writing while balancing day jobs, family health matters, and personal wellness. (Also, it would be one thing if I was still getting some real fiction writing in instead of blogging, but that hasn’t been happening, either.) So what gives?

This is the long way of saying that writing has apparently become only intermittently a psychological need of mine. I still do story-related noodling with a pad every so often, and sometimes I even get around to outlining a short piece. Fingers to keyboard, though, just hasn’t been happening.

Nor should the pieces I outlined at the beginning of this piece be sacrificed in the name of fingers to keyboard. Day job equals ability to stay housed and fed, and it is emotionally satisfying and the good kind of mentally challenging more often than not. Helping out family members is nonnegotiable, especially when one is my significant other. And personal health has to be a long-term priority.

The one source of imbalance that I can control that I haven’t discussed yet is distraction. It’s not exactly an original observation to note that we live in a time when people are trying as hard as ever, and arguably more effectively than at any time in history, to capture our attention in the hope of placing some ads in front of us or otherwise making money. The catch is, many of the pieces I find myself giving time to are also entertaining and provide a useful escape…in moderation.

I find myself reminded of the concept of marginal utility from my econ classes of yore. The first unit of Netflix time, or podcast time, or whatever, carries high utility for me. By hour three, or when I’m stealing 15 minutes of podcast time between every hour and fifteen minutes of deep work at my day job (thereby derailing my brain for the next 15 minutes after I get back to work, instead of listening to lyricless music and capitalizing on those 15 minutes of walking as a way to help my attention shift to the next task), the utility has dropped or even gone negative.

Again, these aren’t original observations, but they are true for me and proof that even when I know where the trap is, sometimes I’m still lured by the bait. The answer, of course, is building alternative habits that satisfy the same limited need for escape before moving me to writing, which is ultimately more useful for my brain than that third hour in front of the television. Easier said than done.

Still, here’s one step down the path to better balance.