How do you keep your mind clear to focus on your task when bombarded by horrendous noise and other distractions? I’m no expert, but I can share with you how I have been coping for weeks.
Across from my house, ancient kauri trees, preserved in wetland peat for about 50,000 years, are being extracted by a private commercial venture. These majestic giants are reluctant to leave their resting place. Every day, from 8am and often until 8pm, two massive diggers, a bulldozer, tractors, heavy 16-wheel transporters and chain saws create incessant din dragging these trees from deep in the ground. Engines strain at the effort, screaming at maximum revs – this is what I hear as I write this post.
Add to this, the last three months of diesel pumps droning away sometimes until 2am to drain the swamp and you get some idea of what I’m talking about: it’s like having an opencast mine on your doorstep.
And yet, I did complete the current travelogue on Papua New Guinea on time, and edit my next eBook – on human evolution and storytelling – a little ahead of time. My experience is a bit extreme, admittedly, but we all have to deal with noise and interruptions, so here are 8 steps that I learned the hard way and found helpful:
1. Recognise that it is not the noise itself that creates the most disturbance but our attitude towards it. Anger and indignation increase blood pressure and send stress chemicals sloshing around our bodies. They can take a long time to disperse – these are the real intruders on our peace of mind.
2. If we can do nothing to change the situation, sanity requires we accept and adapt. This gives us some power because we can do a lot to change our response. If the noise is children playing, people being happy, or something for the common good, like a repair to the water mains, it is easier to accept. And easier still if we can gauge when it might stop (in my case, about three weeks from now!) Acceptance is the hard part, after that there are practical things we can do.
3. Adjust our own environment to reduce the noise as far as possible: closing windows, drawing curtains, working in another room, (it is impossible to work in the tree house which overlooks the wetland), or play loud music as a counter-irritant. You might try ear-plugs, but I find having things stuck in my ears is more of an intrusion than the noise they are intended to baffle – and I need to hear when the kettle boils.
4. Write down the task you want to achieve. Be specific: not “write my book”, but “draft the third chapter”, or “edit the article”, or “write 1000 words.” There is something strangely ‘centering’ about the simple act of writing it down.
5. Break the task up into smaller bites – 30 minute sessions, or one page at a time for example – whatever suits your personal rhythm, and take a short break in between each to exercise and focus on something calm and attractive – music, pictures, cake – because, however well you manage to block it out, combating noise is stressful and tiring; you need more short rests to recuperate. Be kind to yourself.
6. For other interruptions and distractions like emails, phone calls (if you are unable to turn these off) or knocks on the door, my mantra is ‘deal or defer’. If it can be dealt with quickly, get it out of the way with a “yes”, or “no”, and move straight back to the task. If it involves discussion, stall firmly without long explanations that break your concentration: “I’ll call you back this afternoon…tomorrow…” Or, “Ask me again later.” Or, “Give me half an hour.” Many things are important but few are truly urgent. Knowing the difference is key to maintaining our focus.
7. And beware of people whose communications are always urgent because they leave everything to the last minute: that is their urgency; it doesn’t have to be yours.
8. Celebrate each part of the task completed as a major achievement – it is!
9. Ah, my concentration is incomplete because I forgot this one: to animate the noise-makers in a story of ridicule. A major survival value of Story is to diminish the power of things over which we have no control. Thus:
“These dinosaurs with long, jointed necks and pointed teeth on the outsides of their mouths are dirty fighters, ganging-up against their prey, exhuming corpses. But these are not their only victims. The tiny two-legged creatures scurrying around to serve them, have been enslaved by promises of gold, not realising that it will rot far faster than these ancient trees. And anyway, the taniwhas – spirits of the earth – will get them in the end.”
And why is Story so powerful?
From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters. A cautionary tale you can’t afford to ignore.