Read My Mind

Driven to Distraction

by Dr. Robert Glover on Nov 30th, 2012.     10 comments

distracted-manDistraction and procrastination are a common problems for many Nice Guys. I speak from both personal and professional experience.

For Nice Guys, distraction can be due to a number of factors. One is an attempt to manage anxiety.

At its core, The Nice Guy Syndrome is all about managing anxiety. Ironically, since anxiety is a lifelong companion for Nice Guys, the brain gets used to feeling it. Trying to let go of this familiar companion actually creates a new and more frightening kind of anxiety for the brain.

The brain seeks to maintain the familiar, even though by doing so, it creates all kinds of problems for its host (you). By procrastinating, avoiding, distracting and not finishing, you always have something hanging over you. This perpetuates a constant free-floating anxiety and “dis-ease.”

This anxiety feels normal and familiar to your brain. Therefore, it will work to do whatever it takes to maintain this familiar-feeling state. Doing things that might reduce this state of self-induced anxiety creates a different kind of anxiety that feels new and different. And therefore, frightening.

One part of your brain will convince you that it is a good idea to procrastinate, avoid, not finish projects, and keep too many irons in the fire just so another part of your brain can continue experiencing an old familiar anxiety and avoid having to deal with a new unfamiliar anxiety. At the same time another part of your brain will criticize you for being such an underachieving loser.

I’ve watched this firsthand in myself. When I have cleared my slate and am all caught up, I feel an anxiety of being in a new and strange situation. My brain says, “What am I supposed to do now?” This new feeling is unsettling at first. But I’ve found that it quickly dissipates and opens doors for more creative endeavors, true relaxation, recreation, and intimacy.

I began confronting my distracting patterns a few years ago by limiting the number of projects I had going at any given time. I limited my list to three, and I couldn’t add any more until I completed one and crossed it off the list. This practice alone increased my productivity and decreased my anxiety. When it comes to getting really big projects done, I’ve found that I can only have one thing on my list at a time.

I’ve also practiced a “DO IT NOW” philosophy for the last few years. Most tasks don’t get any easier by putting them off. Therefore, you might as well do them NOW!

A number of recovering Nice Guys I have encountered have some degree of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This makes it extremely difficult to stay focused on any one thing. And, people with ADD have to work harder than everyone else to get the same results. Unfortunately, that hard work can be exhausting.

A couple of traits I’ve seen in adults with ADD are high use of caffeine (the stimulant helps people with ADD stay focused) and the use of pot and alcohol to calm the brain – especially at night to induce sleep. If you think you might have ADD, do a little research online. A good book on the subject is "Driven to Distraction,” by Hallowell & Ratey. Maybe go online, search for “Adult Attention Deficit Disorder,” and take an online test or two.

Here are a few suggestions to help keep you focused:

  • Write it down. Keeping lists and keeping them updated is essential for staying focused and productive. Make sure you look at your list several times a day.

  • Prioritizing. It is easy to get caught up in majoring in minors. Do what is most important early in day. What you put off, rarely gets done.

  • Send yourself reminders. I use a phone ap to send myself reminders of the things I need to do throughout the day.

  • Break it down. Your mind will make everything seem bigger than it really is. It believes that if you get started, you have to do it all and do it all perfectly. Break every task down into manageable little parts.

  • Ask yourself, what is my mind afraid of? Don’t dwell on it or get caught up in the “paralysis of analysis.” Just go “hmmmm, I wonder what the payoff is for avoiding this task?”

  • Turn every “Oh no, I have to” into an “Oh boy I get too.” Don’t dread anything. This will paralyze you.

  • Get to work. It doesn’t get any easier later.


Topics: Personal Growth


Bill says ...
What's the app you use?
Robert Glover says ...
Bill, I use NotifyMe to as my online reminder.

Kevin says ...
Excellent post, Dr. Glover. I especially like the suggestion to turn a task I dread in my mind into "I get a chance to do this exciting thing".

I personally suggest accomplishing the first four suggestions and the last one (write it down, prioritize, send yourself reminders, break it down, & get to work) by using the Getting Things Done (GTD) process developed by David Allen. This has benefited me most by getting things out of my head and written down so I don't have anxiety about what I need/want to do. It's all recorded in an orderly way so I can begin tackling my projects. I find that simply creating lists of things to do can be overwhelming in reading these lists again everyday, whereas GTD helps me organize my lists in a way that I can feel confident of what I need to do next.

Also, I agree with Dr. Glover that doing most important work in the morning is best. I feel less anxious in the morning and naturally more focused, which helps me accomplish things before my anxiety ramps up. Also, at night I plan my next day's schedule, taking anywhere from 1 - 1.5 hours to plan. I find that working in a startup as I do, priorities/objectives/tasks change so quickly, that it's important to spend a substantial portion of the day revising the next day's schedule taking all the new changes in my environment into account. I find that substantial planning allows me to really be focused when I do tackle the next day's activities.

Alex says ...
Great suggestions. Learning about personal productivity, project and time management have been a HUGE help to me. I personally use for my personal and work life, along with Google Drive and Google Calendar (I do BLOCK scheduling, helped me a TON). I would suggest Robert Allen's book "Getting Things Done," it's a system for organizing your time, tasks, priorities, and any information coming at you.
Amy Alkon says ...
I'm a newspaper columnist and author who frequently references Dr. Glover and has had him as a guest on my radio show.

I realized that I spent a lot of time not writing in between writing. (A passage would get hard and I'd check my email.)

I subsequently downloaded a timer from Robbie Hanson (and sent him a donation, although it's officially free), and now must write for an hour before I do ANYTHING else.

This means I solve problems I would have run from and gone back to later and picked at. I feel better about myself vis a vis the writing process and also get loads more done.

There's also a clock on your iPhone, I know -- but I write in a cafe and don't want to disturb people with the noise. Also, it's good for me to have on the top of my screen.
Robert Glover says ...
I also like David Allen's material. Especially "closing the loops" and the "next action required."

I just finished reading a great book by Steven Pressfield called "The War of Art." I highlighted half the book. A quick but challenging read that will help you become aware of "resistance" in your life and work.

Nori says ...
In my opinion, lists can be dangerous for perfectionist people (i.e. for NG). To do a complete list of tasks and a list of preliminary arrengements for each can be a form of procrastinating or avoiding.

But there is a form of avoiding anxiety: routine and loneliness. I mean that this post can fit only a part of NG, or a part of each NG life. My brain creates anxiety when I cannot avoid tasks, specially relating to other people, but it keeps calm when I stay on known territories.
Aslan says ...
As much as I love i find it much too easy to give in to distraction. I now go very low tech when I really have to get somrthing done.. That means pen and paper when writing and actually turn off my phone for everything else.
David says ...
I advise students at a small college on study skills, and a main one is time management. I would say the number one help is showing them exactly how much time they DO have and when. First they discover how much time they must be wasting (we add up their free hours in a typical week), but second they see visually and thus concretely the blocks of time they otherwise only imagine vaguely--the vast blobs of time they think they have, say, from dinner until bedtime. When they then regularly plan on paper, they have a more realistic picture of how their day and evening available time is structured. I realize people reading these posts have different lives than undergraduates, but I think the visualization of available time blocks--and I'd recommend a week's worth at a time, if possible--would still help. It does for my wife (who was diagnosed with ADHD in her thirties), it did for me as a grad student (I taught myself back in the old days), and it still does today for me as a pretty nice guy.
GeoffreyB says ...
Robert, what you wrote about for your time management strategy is very close to Michael Linenberger's One Minute To-Do List, available as a free pdf here:
The basic technique is that you use urgency as the only prioritization criteria, and there are three urgency zones.
1. Critical Now - these are the items that must get done today. If you wouldn't stay late at the office to finish it, it doesn't go on the list. You can have no more than 5 items on this list at a time. This list gets reviewed several times a day.
2. Opportunity Now - these are the items that you would finish if the opportunity presents itself. The time window for these items is the next 10 days. You can have no more than 20 items on this list. Review this once a day.
3. Over the Horizon - This is the list that collects every thing else that you have to do. There is no limit to the number of items on this list. Review this list once a week.

There's much more in the e-book, but that's the gist of the method. What I've found useful in this method is the limit on the number of items that can be active on the first two lists. That helps me avoid overwhelm when looking at the things that I need to do.

I'd be interested to hear what you think.


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