One of the main ideas Marcus Aurelius focuses on in his stoic writings is the notion that the mind is immune to all external things. For example, you can’t control a situation’s circumstances, but since they do not affect your mind, you can control how you react to them.
Photo by Bradley Weber.
The same goes for all of the “external things” you pursue or try to avoid when you’re trying to get work done.
You do not pursue distractions because they command you to do so; you pursue them because your mind chooses to. You do not avoid distractions because of their nature; you avoid them because you believe you can’t control yourself around them.
Basically, something is a distraction because you allow it to be, because you judge it so. All distractions require your input for them to exist — otherwise they are just a thing that exists in the world.
But if you adjust your input, if you choose to see those external things as just that, as things, they lose their draw. When you’re not pursuing or avoiding something, it’s simply there. Out of judgement, out of mind.
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This concept can be hard to grasp at first, so perhaps a real-world example is the best way to explain its practicality. Say, you have a video game that’s eating up all of your free time. You know you have side projects to work on, errands to run, and relationships to maintain, but this game is keeping your from getting anything of value done.
This game, then, is a distraction, an “external thing”, because you’ve made it so. You’ve judged it as something you want, or even as something you believe you need. Your mind has given its input, turning a simple object into something that demands your attention.
You could try to avoid it or hide it away, sure, but it’s still a distraction in your mind. Your judgement of the game hasn’t changed — it’s still something you’ve decided you want — so you’ve merely applied a band-aid to a wound that requires stitches.
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But what if you took a step back and decided to reappraise the game, to rewrite your input? You could judge it in your mind as just a thing — like a tree, or a blanket, or all the other things that are not forcing themselves on you. Then the game is not something you pursue or avoid, it’s just there, still.
So, when you’re feeling distracted, try this thought exercise. Remember that your distractions — be it a game, a TV show, a book, etc. — are not forcing themselves on you. They can’t. They’re inanimate things with no such power. You’re forcing yourself on them.