The disease of distraction

When we stop the busyness of the mind and come back to ourselves, the enormity and rawness of our suffering can seem very intense because we are so used to ignoring it and distracting ourselves. When we feel suffering, we have the urge to run away from it and fill ourselves up with junk food, junk entertainment, anything to keep our mind off the pain that is there inside us. It doesn’t work.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “No Mud, No Lotus”

If I have a forte, it is finding distractions. Texting, checking Facebook, playing with my 101 gadgets, listening to an audiobook as I fold laundry or a podcast as I get ready in the morning, playing a game as I watch a show …

Long story short, I have a really hard time being alone in my head. And not only is it bad for my punctuality (I can intend to check one Facebook notification and emerge like Rip Van Winkle hours later from the Internet), it’s bad for my brain. And yours.

First, it can be dangerous (like trying to send a text while driving). Second, it gives us little satisfaction from EITHER of the activities we’re trying to do simultaneously (you can’t focus your full attention and enjoy “This Is Us” if you’re also playing Bubble Witch 3 at the same time). Third, it makes us less effective at both tasks.

life-is-availableBut I get irritable and fidgety without my phone. As I said, I have a hard time being alone in my head. Without distractions, I can tend to “ruminate,” or continually replay problems in my mind. It often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, as well as depression, addiction and eating disorders. This article by psychologist Jennifer Mulder has some excellent info about rumination as well as coping strategies.

Distraction is one of coping with ruminating, though there are healthier ways to do it than scrolling endlessly through Facebook, getting in arguments with strangers over gun-control legislation. Um, not that I would do that. Mulder suggests that distraction is better used for coping temporarily with rumination than as a regular method. (See the linked article for more tips!)

So, I’ve just traded in one unhealthy habit for another when, instead of ruminating, I turn to my phone or computer to distract myself. The ideal, of course, would be to use mindfulness to stay in the present moment and not dwell on past or future stresses. And that’s a work in progress.

I’ve noticed that the distraction -> stress -> distraction cycle generally builds on itself. The more I allow myself to focus on distractions, the more restless and stressed I get when they aren’t present, to the point where even watching a movie or TV show without my phone in my hand becomes difficult.

To that end, I’m focusing on limiting phone and browser distractions. Some tips that have been helping me:

  • Keep your phone in your purse or your pocket, or in a drawer in your desk, if you’re at work, so you aren’t constantly tempted to check it.
  • If you tend to pick up your phone first thing in the morning and stay up too late using it, charge it overnight in another room. Get an actual alarm clock instead.
  • Don’t bring your phone EVERYWHERE with you. Unless you’re a surgeon who’s on call, you can probably leave it at home while you go for a walk.
  • Use Airplane mode if you MUST have your phone with you but don’t want the distraction of notifications. I often use this while I’m meditating (since I use the Headspace app on my phone).
  • Minimize notifications on your phone or other devices. Do you really HAVE to know every time someone “likes” something you post on Facebook? One study showed that receiving a notification can be as distracting as responding to a text or phone call.
  • Remember that you don’t need to respond to every message instantly. Your friend will be fine if you take a little while to reply “LOL” to that meme.  I promise.
  • Don’t leave social media tabs open on your browser, so it’s more difficult to constantly check in. (I’ve even taken to deleting the Facebook app from my phone at night so I’m not tempted to fall down the rabbit hole; I don’t re-download it until I’m ready the next morning.)
  • Before you pick up your phone or log in to social media, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to gain from this?” Are you genuinely in need of checking a message? Or are you seeking connection? Distraction? Inspiration? Make sure you’re clear on your intentions and that they’re healthy.
  • Set goals and rewards; go 30 minutes without checking anything and then maybe give yourself 5 minutes for your effort.
  • Use blocking software or extensions if you’re really struggling; I’ve had good luck with StayFocusd for Google Chrome and Cold Turkey for Chrome and other browsers. (There’s also a mobile version, but I haven’t tried it.)
  • You knew I was going to say it … but practice mindfulness. When I am in a more peaceful place mentally, I am less likely to feel that restlessness and go searching for things to distract me.
  • Remember that what you practice grows stronger. Every time you make a decision to pick up your phone for the third time in five minutes, you’re strengthening your “distraction” muscle. Every time you decide you really don’t need to check it yet again and choose to be present instead, you’re strengthening your “focus” muscle.

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