There are two versions of the story I’m about to tell. Both involve you as you run up a hill. Your thighs burn, your breath quickens, your energy dwindles. In version one, you are fully aware of these sensations. Every time your feet hit the ground, every drop of sweat forming on your upper lip, every hint of the breeze that isn’t cooling no matter how much you wish it were. That’s version one.
In the second version, you have headphones in. You’re listening to something, I can’t tell what, but you must be enjoying it because you have a smile on your face. You barely notice the heat or the sweat. In fact, whatever you’re listening to must be funny because you just let out a laugh. That’s version two.
My question for you is: what version would you prefer? In version one, you are fully present. Fully aware of the pain running through your body. In version two, you are distracted. Your body works hard while your mind focuses on other things. Which one is better? You know that being present is a good thing. But is that always the case? Why actively feel pain when you don’t have to?
The power of focus
I can’t answer those questions for you. I can only speak for myself. And having tried out both versions, I lean heavily toward the second. Being present is a wonderful thing, but I’ve found that being present while doing something challenging makes me more likely to quit. To give up. Why? Because putting all my attention towards that feeling, it becomes even more acute. It grows louder the more I focus on it.
For example, take a deep breath. Inhale… one… two… three… four… five… Exhale… one… two… three…four…five. Do it again. Inhale… one… two… three… four… five… Exhale… one… two… three…four…five.
Now, with your hand resting before you, look at your index finger. Stare it. Hold that stare and, while doing so, see if you can feel your heartbeat in it. Focus on it. Take another deep breath. Focus. Breathe again. Focus. Continue doing that until you inevitably feel the pulse. With a bit of presence, breath, and focus, you’ve become aware of something that you go through nearly 100% of your day ignoring.
Distract yourself while doing the hard things
Attention is an amplifier. The more of it that you give to something, the more magnified it feels. And so, it’s up to you to determine what it is that you want to feel. Personally, when running, if all I have is the sound of me panting on a hot summer day, I’ll likely end up walking. Even though I’ve done that run dozens of times before with no issue, my concentration on it makes the effort feel that much more intense. And thus, feeling the crushing force of my pure focus, I give up.
Knowing that, when running half-marathons in the past, I tried to get into a distracted state as quickly as possible. The longer it took me to zone out, the more challenging the run was. Conversely, on training days when I had a lot of my mind, I could easily run a handful of miles without much of an issue.
If you want to experience the pain, go for it. It doesn’t work for me. And so, I’ve learned that there are two powerful ways to distract yourself while doing something challenging; whether that be going for a long run or writing a book.
1. If it’s the body, distract with the mind
If you’re doing something physically challenging, distract yourself with the mind. For example, when I go for runs today, I always have my headphones in. And the majority of the time, I’m listening to either an audiobook or podcast on something that I’m deeply interested in.
Now, if you’re thinking – An audiobook while you run? That’s way too boring! – I totally get it. But remember, the purpose of this is to distract yourself while your body does the work. So where a book may not get you as energized as an EDM playlist, it does something more important. It distracts you. It pulls your focus away from your body and into whatever you’re listening to. The more engaging the material, the easier the run becomes.
When I do 24-hour fasts, I distract myself by being busy. I don’t sit around and salivate over what’s for dinner. Instead, I’m intentionally active. I treat it as I would any other day – with meetings, blog posts, and afternoon runs. I let my body do the work of fasting while my mind is here, writing this article to you. My mind distracts while my body works.
2. If it’s the mind, distract with the body
Similarly, if doing something mentally challenging, distract yourself with the body. Admittedly, I find this harder to do than distracting with the mind, but still doable. For instance, when writing a blog post, I drink a cup of decaf black coffee. Waiting for it to cool, drinking it when I want a break from typing, even smelling it, all serve as micro-distractions that take away from the challenge of putting the words on the screen.
When I proofread, I have a small rock that I’ll often play with. I found it at the beach one day and brought it home. Since then, I have it in my hand as I go through the article. I rub my nails against it, grip it from different positions, and toss it to myself. Again, little things that channel some of the pain of proofing into a physical sensation.
The mind is harder to distract than the body. After all, the body is used to running on auto-pilot a lot more than your conscious mind is. Still, it is possible to distract with the body so as to reduce the attention that you give the mind. Any reduction of that burden can help.
Moving forward with distraction
When doing something challenging, anything challenging, use distraction as a tool. Temporarily give up some of your awareness so as to reduce the pain of the work.
When facing a challenge of the body, distract yourself with the mind. Listen to an audiobook or do something meaningful. When facing a challenge of the mind, distract yourself with the body. Get a toy that you can fidget with, have a beverage that pulls at your attention.
When you give your full focus to a challenge, it only serves to amplify it. Instead then, distract yourself. Redirect your focus towards something else while the rest of you takes care of the job. Just like when you felt the pulse earlier, you only became aware of the sensation when you gave it your attention. If you don’t give it your attention, it will still do its job. All the while, you can go about your day without lifting a finger.