Martha Beck
Illustration: Dan Page
There are people for whom showing up, following through, and getting things done seem almost impossible—and habitual scatterbrain Martha Beck is one of them. Good thing she has a five-step plan to keep flakes on track.
This morning I was scheduled to take my car in for service, so I got up early, using two alarm clocks in case my brain ignored the first one. Then I spent an hour meditating outside. When my second alarm went off, two chipmunks were perched in my lap, so I kept sitting for five more minutes. Or 20, or whatever. Then I got dressed, stopping only to fix a broken shower rod, answer a phone call, and check my e-mail. I was just opening a kitten video when the car dealership called to ask why I was an hour late.

Welcome to the utterly exasperating world of a congenital flake. Some people have minds like steel traps; mine is more like a bowl of Raisin Bran. Thoughts and intentions get soggy or sink to the bottom. It's not that I don't care about commitments; I do. But no matter how hard I try to stay on target, I get distracted.

You may have some experience with this problem. Perhaps you are flaky yourself—whether you were born that way or have flaked out as a result of the nonstop hurricane of information endemic to our era. Or maybe you're as focused as the Hubble telescope, but other people around you aren't. Wherever you fall on the flake-o-meter, understanding why people flake out—and knowing how to handle flakiness in yourself or others—is an essential coping skill that can save you all kinds of heartache and frustration. And late fees, too.

Why We Flake

In nature, sustained focus and distractibility are both highly useful traits. If a lion couldn't focus, it wouldn't have the patience to catch dinner; conversely, if a gazelle couldn't be distracted from grazing, it wouldn't notice and escape the lion. Since humans may be either predators or prey, evolution has given us both the power to focus and a propensity for distraction.

These qualities aren't blended equally in everyone. Some—say, Nobel Prize–winning physicists—can stay focused for decades. Others—say, me—set goals only to find themselves sitting with woodland creatures in their laps, oblivious to their own best-laid plans. Flakiness (or lack thereof) isn't entirely under our control. Each person's brain seems to decide at a subconscious level which things will grab her attention and which she simply won't notice. For example, consider the "cocktail party phenomenon": When some people hear their own name spoken by someone in a nearby conversation, their attention will be involuntarily diverted toward whoever is talking about them. Even if they wanted to, they could no more stop their attention from shifting than lift cars over their heads. The point is, our brains can attune themselves to things without our consent.

Business experts use the word "monochronic" to describe people who focus tightly on linear sequences of tasks. Folks who multitask and drift from one distraction to the next are called polychronic. Our culture has been deeply monochronic since the Industrial Revolution, when mass production suddenly made it essential to show up punctually and work in lockstep. Our schools and workplaces were designed to create reliable, undistracted laborers. Nowadays, we're more likely to work with information in ways no one had even imagined during the industrial era. Yet we find ourselves still trying to be monochronic in this wildly polychronic environment, creating stress that only makes us flakier.

Next: How to handle living in a monochronic society


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