Escaping The “Action Distraction” Trap | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Escaping The “Action Distraction” Trap


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.

Link Love: Ian Peatey, who leads workshops in Nonviolent Communication, writes a heartfelt, thought-provoking blog that I recommend checking out.

12 thoughts on
Escaping The “Action Distraction” Trap

  1. Davina

    Hi Chris. I agree. We all seem to be on fast-forward these days. It even seems that activities such as yoga and meditation are just an escape rather than a support mechanism. What I try to be conscious of when I’m out and about is how fast I’m walking. I tend to walk at a pretty fast pace, even when I don’t have to be anywhere in a hurry. It’s quite a challenge to consciously slow yourself down and distract from the busyness.

  2. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Davina — true, spiritual practices can also be an escape from what’s actually going on for us — we can do yoga, for instance, to run away from the pain of sitting still. I like your walking practice, and it reminds me of a question I’d often like to ask people who drive really aggressively on the highway — “are you really going to be happier when you get where you’re going?”

  3. Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord

    My distractions are the opposite of busy-ness. I eat, sleep or zone out in front of the laptop. Taking a pause, though, and recognizing the source of my discomfort that makes me want to distract myself is so helpful. I don’t always overcome the desire to distract, but at least by taking a few moments to analyze, put space between thought/action. I know you’ve talked about that before.
    Good article!

  4. Robin

    Hi Chris – when I was a school teacher, a teacher friend of mine had a term for giving kids useless tasks to keep them occupied… “busy-work”. So it was interesting to see you using it here!

    One thing I’ve noticed since I started blogging is the popularity of productivity blogs – how to get up early and get more done and so on. But they don’t seem to question WHY you might want to get more of this “stuff” done! The admiration that being busy for it’s own sake receives is ridiculous.

    Your insights here are very useful, as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Robin — yes, I think the busywork teachers give kids to keep them under control is a good analogy — I think many of us give ourselves busywork because things feel out of control and scary when we end up sitting there with nothing on the schedule. And that’s a good point as well — “taking massive action” has its place, but if you are constantly in action because you find it too painful to be still, you don’t really have choice around what you’re doing with your time.

  6. Jannie Funster

    Oh, my goodness I sooo relate to this, as I used to put busy distractions in front of me when I did not have enough confidence that I could pursue music as a possible career, or at least as a deep hobby.

    And you are, like, the fourth lawyer who left their job for something more soul-fulfilling and now also authors a helpful blog!

    Are there really any happy attorneys?

    And as Robin says about school busy-work is is sadly so true. I wish the Montessori system could be the across-the board educational method.

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Jannie — doing busywork to put off pursuing your real goal is a good example — I definitely know and have worked with lots of people who never seem to “find the time” to do what they really want for this reason.

  8. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Michelle — good to see you here. That’s a good point — multitasking is a great way to avoid what’s really going on for us, because if our attention is scattered in five different directions we can distract ourselves from whatever thoughts or feelings are in the background even if we aren’t getting anything done.

  9. Stacey Shipman

    My distraction for about 18 years was exercise. I only just recognized this about 2 years ago. When I felt afraid or stressed, exercise was my “drug” of choice. I have “tendencies” to go back to that, but my yoga and meditation helped me find the quiet within to recognize when I’m distracted. (which, I agree with Davina, because of how yoga is taught in this country is now another distraction, which is unfortunate. As a yoga instructor, I try to help people see it otherwise)

    The best part, for me, is now when I’m distracted I can actually say, “Hey girl, you know you’re running from your fear, right?” But then, I like talking to myself :-) and I am a runner.

    This is a really important message not too many people understand. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Stacey — yes, I can definitely relate to either work or exercise being my drug of choice. It sounds like you’re aware of when you’re using it that way, and that in those moments you can pause and experience whatever it is you’re avoiding.

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