We’ve all heard about “analysis paralysis”—being unable to make a decision because you’re bogged down in weighing all the possible factors. But there’s another mental trap we tend to fall into that doesn’t get as much attention, which I call “action distraction.”
We fall into this trap when we stay constantly active and busy to distract ourselves from what we’re feeling inside. The way we do this is unique to each person. Maybe, for example, we work seven days a week so we don’t need to experience the loneliness of our personal lives. Perhaps we put loud music on in the background all the time to shut out our sadness. Maybe we constantly socialize to avoid the fear we feel when we’re by ourselves.
How I Saw This In Myself
My own flavor of “action distraction,” when I was a lawyer, involved working obsessively to take my mind off the “big picture”—the overall impact I wanted to make in the world. In the rare moments when I’d stop to ask myself “why am I doing this job?”, I wouldn’t be able to come up with a satisfying answer, and so I worked nonstop to avoid that empty, directionless feeling.
With constant activity, I kept myself from experiencing that sense of emptiness for a long time. This approach got me plenty of praise from others—my superiors loved my work, and others in my life saw me as diligent and ambitious. Unfortunately, all the extra work it took to avoid the big picture began to tire me out—more and more, I started having to painfully drag myself out of bed in the morning to go into the office.
When I finally resolved to sit quietly and be with how I really felt about my work, it definitely wasn’t easy. I felt practically crushed by the weight of my unfulfilled wants and needs. But it was also an intensely liberating experience–it helped me let go of a lot of the draining busy-work I was filling my time with, and set out on a path toward fully giving my gifts to the world.
Discerning Your Distractions
So, I think it’s helpful to let go of the activity and busy-ness we use simply to take our minds off what’s going on inside us. But this is easier said than done. In our culture, we’re conditioned from an early age to stay in constant motion. When we were kids, our parents and teachers didn’t usually reward us for thinking about how to do our homework, or resting to regain our energy—if they checked on us and didn’t see us reading or writing, they suspected we were slacking off.
And, of course, we do some activities because they genuinely fulfill us. Action, in other words, isn’t always a distraction. I don’t coach clients, for instance, to avoid feeling lonely—I do it because it deeply nourishes me. Because of this, several people at talks I’ve given have asked me: how do I tell the things I’m doing to distract myself apart from the things I really enjoy?
Stop and Listen to Yourself
I’ve found that a good technique for drawing this distinction is to pause briefly in what you’re doing and watch what you feel. Whether you’re working, partying, playing golf, or something else, stop for a moment, and notice the sensations coming up in your body when you pause.
Several people I’ve recommended this to have found their bodies tensing up or aching, as if they were withdrawing from some drug, and found themselves desperately wanting to go back to what they were doing. If this happens to you, ask yourself whether you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing, or are just using it to escape from some experience you’d rather not be having.
As I and others have found, letting go of the ways you distract yourself from what you’re feeling can free up so much energy to pursue what you really want in life.