Growing up, I watched my dad concentrate on his work. When I was very small, he had a desk in the attic of our three-story house where he’d intensely study his complex math problems in peace. Later, he used to sit and think on the screened-in front porch as the world went by in good weather, or bend over his clipboard on a chair in the living room when it was too cold outside. No matter who was passing through the room or what noises were blaring from TVs or radios, he kept working. He could concentrate deeply no matter what the circumstance, pursuing research in his head and making notes on his page.
It’s something I’ve always found intuitive: You need to tune out the rest of the world to get something truly good accomplished. But it’s much easier said than done.
Cutting through the noise is a key focus of Stoic thinking. Distractions, when not about entertainment, are often about status, reputation, wealth, attire, food, drink, or other things that don’t really contribute to our real accomplishments in life. They are the trappings of what we want, the side effects of outward success—a mere distraction from what our minds and “inner geniuses” (a favorite term of mine from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) truly need.
Sorting this out, though, is more complicated than ever these days. When I watch my older daughter deal with the stresses of middle school social life, I remember my own experiences growing up. I think back to just how difficult it was to try to rise above petty fights or pulls of peer pressure, the distractions of crushes and desires to impress everyone, to win attention or respect. But it’s worse now. Social distractions are writ large in social media. What used to be a minor moment of embarrassment can turn into a major debacle online, maybe even cyberbullying.
And screens keep popping up everywhere we look. We are surrounded by distractions, in the form of games, shows, videos, popups, podcasts, movies, news flashes, tweets, status updates, and much more.
Today’s online networks are designed to tap into reward systems in our brains, pumping us with dopamine when we get a positive response, keeping us coming back for more “likes” and “shares” until whole hours are consumed. Even reading news online—a favorite activity of mine—is perhaps just another form of distraction. From a Stoic point of view, I can’t control 1) how people respond to me and my posts and 2) how the news, politics, and external issues outside my direct circle develop. So why devote so much time and energy to focusing on both of these things?
Here’s the real question: how can we keep our attention on what really matters? Somehow, we have to become stronger in our efforts to fight distractions, big and small.
For me, Stoic thinking is about working on the self first. By doing so, we can free our minds and bodies to do the real work, aiming for achievements that make us better people and the world a better place.
The exact nature of that work is less important than the ability to turn our own virtues into something good—whether through raising a healthy and (relatively) well-adjusted child, creating beautiful works of art (especially functional ones, like the quilts I enjoy making), leading a battalion, developing a new technology, building a house, teaching someone a fresh skill, writing a blog, or just about anything that you and others can find value in. For me, the work is about first, raising my daughters, and second, exploring how Stoic thinking and a mindful approach can help me and those I love create a good life.
The ancient Stoics worried about distraction from good work, too. Marcus Aurelius offers these thoughts in his Meditations, which we must recall were his notes to himself:
Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.
I am not a man, nor a Roman, but I do long to concentrate with “genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.” And I am intent on becoming less “aimless” and “irritable”—especially as a mother and as a wife.
But to me, Marcus’ words read like a rather harsh pep talk. For today’s world, I’d like to try shifting the emphasis to address an encouragement for modern people, and, in particular, parents. Let’s stop and consider how to bolster parents’ ability to concentrate on their task, and to do it “tenderly, willingly, with justice.”
Everyone agrees that distracted parenting is a rising problem, at least in the US where I live. It’s obvious from even a casual observation: Go to any school pickup area or any local park and you’ll see dozens of parents or caregivers intently studying their phones.
Our devices not only offer entertainment for us as adults, which in many ways is more appealing than talking with or interacting with our own children. Let’s face it, sometimes hanging out with kids can be dull, so it’s hardly a moral failing to want stimulation—but we should be aware of the impact. (Dull might be an understatement. I remember my daughters going to the park as preschoolers and covering and uncovering their feet and legs with sand umpteen times. It only got “interesting” when another girl decided to throw sand in my kids’ eyes and we considered a trip to urgent care.)
Our phones also pull us away from other parents, robbing us of a community of people who could share in our challenges and give us some much-needed support. In fact, I’m quite embarrassed to recall the time when I acquired my first smartphone. My older daughter was entering school at a local elementary program where I knew almost no one. Sadly, I used the iPhone to shield my face from some parents who seemed scornful of me. It’s hardly an excuse, but I felt terribly awkward after trying to start a conversation a few times at class pickup, and being ignored or answered tersely. So the phone “rescued” me from facing other adults.
Now I try harder. When I have to wait to pick up my kids, I attempt to avoid automatically going onto my phone. I look for some other parents to connect with. And when I take the kids to the park, instead of gluing my face to the latest FB posts, I either talk with the kids or other people there, or I take a brisk circular walk around the perimeter, observing not just the children but the trees, birds, plants.
There is one fundamental problem, though, something that I doubt Marcus experienced as a man and a Roman. It’s this: the act of parenting itself is not only dull at times, it is really an exercise in constant distraction.
From the moment they are born, children are unpredictable beings with many needs. You never know in advance how to plan for all feedings, playtime, lessons, bedtime. I recall being told that babies are on their own schedule, and mothers (and fathers) are simply living according to their needs (for food, sleep, etc.). Parents who attempt to strictly enforce timed boundaries and pre-planned events quickly learn that the struggle to maintain a tight schedule is nearly impossible.
Many, many, many times my children have interrupted my work. For years I was their primary caretaker, always on call when they were at home, which was the bulk of the time. Even now, as a grade-schooler and middle-schooler, they still turn to me and their dad for help.
That presents a tough problem for parents: How do we find a sense of concentration and a freedom from unhelpful distractions as moms and dads?
I’ll propose a few key thoughts here. They may seem obvious, but helping to recall these and validate them as modern Stoics can make the fight against distraction more real and more serious.
First, when we turn to our devices, we can remember the real purpose of why we use technology. Is it to gather likes and friends? To get retweets? An online popularity contest leaves me cold. I’ve never been a joiner or a follower, in fact, and I find it odd to see the numerically huge networks some old acquaintances have built online.
I don’t love interacting solely online, because I crave a real connection with people, both in my personal life and in my professional career. The best way to do this is in person, where I can focus on an individual’s face, voice, expressions, and have a real face-to-face conversation and back-and-forth exchange. If that’s not possible, I’m still glad to connect and share, but I try hard to do that authentically, with passion and purpose, to share news or to forge a genuine link or to spread information or to teach/learn something, to make connections I’m not able to do in person because of some logistical limitation. I try to avoid what I perceive as bragging and attempt to measure my words so they don’t make someone else feel small.
Technology is a tool. It can bring us great learning and ability to remotely work and spread ideas far and wide. But to me, it’s not an end in itself.
Second, while with our children, we can strive to be present and mindful. Parents can do their best to bring a sense of focus and concentration to time with our children, though we must be willing to suffer countless interruptions. I have worked on this, and often failed, but I still continue to do so.
As kids get older, their needs drastically change. They are more able to do much more, and we should not be afraid to expose them to new things that separate us from our typical distractions. I recently took my older daughter to a “sound healing,” an unusual combination of Tibetan singing bowls, meditation, and silent visualization. We shared this rather incredible experience, both learning a new way to focus on internal thoughts.
Kids can learn to be more present, too, and to be less encumbered by distractions, if they are not constantly amused and entertained. When I noticed parents at the table next to me setting up an iPad with an animated movie in front of their toddler child while eating at a restaurant, I felt intensely sad. (I was glad when my daughters agreed.) And hiking on a hillside trail in Yosemite, we came across a man with a toddler in his backpack, watching a video on an iPhone while he hiked through an incredible wilderness. My family was rather horrified.
This approach teaches that children have a constant need/right to be entertained and distracted by fun, stimulating movies, and that parents do not need to work on being present for their kids while eating or hiking or doing just about anything. As much as we all love movies and shows, we have to agree on some limits.
Third, even though we generally feel our kids come first—and that’s a very good thing—we can still consider blocking out time for “deep work.” I liked Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work—he reminds readers of what my dad instinctively knew. We need to allow time and energy for doing more difficult tasks if we want to achieve something, and we must commit to really putting in the effort.
Epictetus spoke of this in his handbook. He pointed to an Olympic athlete, saying that everyone would like to be so strong and fit. But people do not realize that in reality, it takes enormous work, sacrifice, and dedication to get to that level of competition. It means missing out on the rest, comfort, food, and pleasures of regular life, and training long and hard. Are you willing to make tough choices to do what you feel called to accomplish?
If so, the first step is to work towards gaining the most precious resource: Time. As parents, we have to pay for time from sitters or daycare, but it’s often worth it to have the opportunity to get some time to focus. (If you can’t afford it, you may be able to swap babysitting time with other parents.)
It may not be easy. To concentrated deep work, you won’t only miss time with the kids. You will have to turn down the fun downtime distractions you enjoy. We can’t stream the latest Netflix series while we work on a passion project. To make the time, we have to be willing to give up something else.
But at the end of it, you will have done far more than consume someone else’s entertaining work—you’ll have created something of value, for you and for others. And that goes far beyond the fleeting pleasure of the endless parade of distractions.
Meredith Kunz is The Stoic Mom. She is a professional writer, editor, wife, and mother to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoicism and mindfulness can change a parent’s (or any person’s) life. Her passion project: a book-length version of The Stoic Mom, focusing on modern women, motherhood, and Stoicism. Follow her blog at www.thestoicmom.com.