Do you know where the word “tantalize” comes from?
Thank the guy in the photo above.
His name was Tantalus, and he was banished to the underworld by his father, Zeus. There, Tantalus found himself wading in a pool of water beside a tree that dangled a ripe fruit just above his head.
Yet whenever Tantalus tried to pick the fruit, the branch moved away, and whenever he bent down to drink the cool water, it receded so he could never quench his thirst. He was thus doomed for all eternity to yearn for things he could never have.
His story is why we call something desirable but just out of reach “tantalizing.”
It’s hard to conceive a better representation of the human condition. We are constantly reaching for something: more money, more experiences, more knowledge, more status, more stuff. The Greeks thought this was just part of the curse of being fallible mortals and used the story to portray the power of our incessant desires—desires that, without careful management, will distract us from the things we value most in life.
But there’s more to the story of Tantalus and what it reveals about our struggle with distraction.
Traction and distraction
Distractions impede us from making progress toward the life we want for ourselves.
To visualize this, imagine a line that represents the value of everything you do throughout your day. To the right, the actions are positive; to the left, they are negative.
The positive actions represent traction: they draw or pull us toward what we want in life. The word “traction,” in fact, comes from the Latin trahere, meaning to draw or pull.
The negative actions represent distraction—the opposite of traction. Distractions are things that pull us away from what we want most in life.
Internal and external triggers
All behaviors, both traction and distraction, are prompted by triggers, both internal and external.
Internal triggers cue us from within. When we feel our belly growl, we look for a snack. When we’re cold, we find a coat to warm up. And when we’re sad, lonely, or stressed, we might call a friend or loved one for support.
External triggers, on the other hand, are cues in our environment such as the pings, dings, and rings that prompt us to check our email, answer a phone call, or open a news alert.
External triggers can also take the form of other people, such as a coworker who stops by our desk to chat. They can also be objects, like a television set whose mere presence urges us to turn it on.
Whether it’s an internal or an external triggers that prompts us, the resulting action is either aligned with our broader intention (traction), or misaligned (distraction).
When we put them together, they create a four-part Indistractable Model:
The challenge, of course, is that our world has always been full of things designed to distract us. Today, people find themselves attached to their mobile phones, but these are only the latest potential hindrance.
A few decades ago, people complained about the brain-melting power of television. Before that, it was arcade games, the telephone, the pinball machine, comic books, and the radio. Even the written word was blamed for creating “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” according to Plato.
Though some of these things seem dull in comparison to today’s enticements, distractions have and always will be facts of life.
Today’s distractions, however, feel different. The trinity of more data, faster transfer speeds, and ubiquitous access to new content, means the world can be more distracting than ever before. If it’s distraction you seek, it’s easier to find it now than at any time in human history.
The cost of distraction
What is the cost of all that distraction? In 1971, the psychologist Herbert A. Simon presciently wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else … a poverty of attention.”
Researchers tell us attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing. In the age of increased automation, the most sought-after jobs are those that require creative problem solving, novel solutions, and the kind of human ingenuity that comes from focusing deeply on the task at hand.
Socially, we see that close friendships are the bedrock of our psychological and physical health. Loneliness, according to researchers, is more dangerous than obesity. But of course, we can’t cultivate close friendships if we’re constantly distracted.
Consider our children: how can they flourish if they can’t concentrate long enough to apply themselves? And what example are we setting if our loving faces are replaced by the tops of our heads while we stare into our screens?
What is the story of Tantalus really about?
Think back to the tale of Tantalus. It’s a mistake to suppose that his curse was simply to suffer from ceaseless hunger and thirst.
He was already in hell, after all, and (last I checked) dead people need neither food nor water. His real curse was something deeper.
What if Tantalus had just stopped reaching?
Seems like a simple fix but he was obviously oblivious to this simple corrective.
It’s here that we start to understand his real doom: He could never come to see that he didn’t need the things he was reaching for in the first place.His curse wasn’t spending all eternity reaching for the unreachable, but rather being ignorant to the greater folly of his actions.Tantalus’ curse is also our curse.
We feel compelled to reach for things we supposedly need but really don’t. We don’t need to check our email right this second, or give in to some other distraction, no matter how much we feel we must.
Fortunately, we’re not doomed the way Tantalus was. We have the power to step back from our desires, recognize them for what they are, and do something about them.
We want companies to innovate and solve our evolving needs, yet we also need to ask whether better products help us be our best selves. Though it’s not our fault that distractions exist (they always have and always will) managing them is our responsibility.
If you care about your work, your family, and your physical and mental well-being, you must become indistractable. Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do. Indistractable people are as honest with themselves as they are with others.
When we remember the principles of traction versus distraction, coupled with the conscious control of internal and external triggers, we can focus on what matters instead of being tantalized by things that don’t.
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