The Art of Distraction

by Tucker Angier 

For me, the key to balance in life has always been a healthy separation between work and play. It can be a physical separation like creating a “work nook” in my apartment, or a mental one like delegating time for a hobby, or doing truly nothing; as long as I rigorously stick to these distinct borders, I find I create a positive feedback loop that benefits me and everyone in my life (just ask Hannah, my girlfriend). So as you might imagine, things got a bit tricky in March. Navigating a seven-hundred square foot apartment in downtown Chicago was not beneficial to any of the parties involved, and Hannah’s forty-pound piglet, Bernie, took up far more space than one would think.

Fortunately for us, Hannah’s parents live in Wisconsin on a beautiful lake, so we decided to move there and wait out the storm. What exactly do you do in Wisconsin during a pandemic? Cheese, beer and bratwurst become staples, and the lakeshore also provided ample space to wander and created a much-needed connection with nature. But as great of an escape as it should have been, I was also in overdrive. I was studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), taking a physics course online, supporting Hannah through her first year of medical school, and still working full time for a retail giant trying to navigate the crisis.  The MCAT felt like my golden ticket to the future, but my exam date was cancelled twice with no makeup in sight as COVID numbers soared. The beer and brats only helped so much.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to find any semblance of balance in my life. I became dejected, morose, and unproductive; “dismal” would be an understatement. And that’s when Hannah, in her typical wisdom, gave me water skis for my birthday. For the past four years she has been trying to teach me how to slalom, a rite of passage in her family, but I’d never managed to get up on one ski and there was no “beginner” option: you either got up, or you got dragged behind the boat. The middle ground happened to be floating by yourself in the middle of the lake, which was slightly preferable to getting dragged behind the boat. I got comfortable floating.

The double skis were a game changer. Using (and staying) on them was far more intuitive, and after several successful runs, I got a little cocky and decided it was time to go back and try just one. Start. Drag. Fall. Drag. Restart. Drag. Fall. Drag. Restart. At least the water was a comfortable temperature. Drag. Fall. Lose a ski. Start. Drag. Fall. Drag. Start. Drag. Stand. Fall. Start. Drag. Stand. Ski. Hey… this isn’t so bad. And then I did it – I stood up on one ski and DIDN’T FALL! For the rest of the day, I was in the best mood I’d been in since before Bernie the Pig reached her adult body weight.

The process and results of deeply focusing on something, anything, no matter what or how repetitive is, seems to transcend the activity itself. There are no shortcuts to focus, and I often find it elusive, especially when nothing is going right; I have to get over myself first. But once I stopped obsessing and managed to truly plug in, it seemed like there was an eternity in that short run. Suddenly, it didn’t matter how well I’d been studying, how worried I was about the future, or what physical altercation Bernie had gotten into that morning with the family dog (Gus). All that mattered was standing up, and that small victory produced a domino effect of results.

Thanks to waterskiing, I passed the MCAT with flying colors. My point? Whatever the activity is, finding something that helps you shut out your thoughts and the world, if only for 15 minutes, lets you conquer a small piece of it, and makes you feel like you can conquer everything else, too. It’s not a cure-all and it needs to be a regular habit, but there’s magic in tricking yourself. I think some call this meditating; I call it waterskiing. And right now, more than ever, we all need to find our “skis.”

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