“Life is a hailstorm of distractions. It’s not the monster that stops us but the mosquito.” ~ Robert G. Allen
DISTRACTION AS A HABIT
As the Information Age awakens to the dawn of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (pick your cinematic poison if you’re feeling nervous, Terminator or Ex Machina…both are pretty scary!), we humans have pulled off our own incredible feat; we’ve made distraction a habit. Even if we sidestep the research that shows teenagers, on average, spend nine hours a day on their cellphones (let’s say 80% is homework, insert eyeroll emoji), most of us keep our distraction within arm’s reach throughout our day.
How many times a day do we check our smartphone, even if it hasn’t made a noise, or vibrated? On average, we’re checking them eighty-five times a day. Think about that. If you’re awake sixteen hours a day, that means you’re checking your smartphone five times every hour.
Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine has done research and created her own digital distraction equation: the length of the distraction plus twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds equals the true length of distraction. So a quick check of Instagram, even one of fifteen seconds, costs you closer to thirty minutes of focus time. If we go back to the five times an hour checking the phone…the picture of distraction doesn’t look all that promising. Every hour, we are unfocused. If our habits become our lives, then what does the habit of distraction say about those individuals who are living this way? And what is distraction?
WHAT IS DISTRACTION?
A quick internet search produces two definitions of the “d” word. The first is “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else” and the second offers a different angle with, “extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.” These two definitions hit the mark. The other word we need to understand is habit, which is defined as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
The two distracted definitions create an eerie atmosphere of familiarity about the state of affairs today. Studies in recent years have shown that teenagers suffer from anxiety the likes of which has not been seen before. If we apply these two definitions to the plight of teenage anxiety, we might see something like this ~ teenagers don’t (or can’t) give their full attention to something because they’re distracted, which in turn produces extreme agitation of the mind or emotions. Add in the definition of habit and we might conclude that they are settled into the regular practice of being distracted.
DISTRACTION AS FREEDOM?
Some might argue that distraction is the ultimate symbol of freedom of expression, of individuality. Bored by what the family is watching on tv? Pull up a video on your phone. Not liking that you aren’t a part of the cool conversation about last night’s party? Time to text some people, or check social media. Jealous of that post that showed your friends having a blast on their vacation in the tropics? Take a few minutes to grab that perfect selfie, or take a photo of your food to share with the world. Distraction allows us to keep floating between those cheap good feelings we find from never having to tie ourselves down. And therein lies the real problem.
THE DISTRACTION LOOP
By chasing the release of dopamine we get every time someone texts or “likes” something we post, we reinforce the very behaviors that keep us distracted. We check our phones, post another picture, text another person. What happens when something we have to do comes up? We reluctantly starve ourselves from feeling good in order to get the thing done. And how much energy do we give this task? As much as is needed to get it over the finish line. Then it’s back to feeling good. Isn’t that the purpose of life? A bumper sticker ‘bout feeling good?
I would contend it isn’t. Where is the growth in distraction? Where is the sense of deep accomplishment that we acknowledge from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, the reward for a thing well done is to have done it? Distraction as habit is a wash-rinse-repeat cycle which, at best, offers the most fleeting sense of satisfaction. We lock ourselves into a vicious cycle that gives birth to the rigid sense that life has no more meaning than the cheap thrills found in a moment. Distraction is the ultimate procrastination to jumping into the waters of life. If we’re familiar with Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Man in the Arena quote, we are living in a world increasingly full of critics, with fewer and fewer people willing to actually get in the arena.
HOW TO ELIMINATE DISTRACTION
We must break the leash our technology has on us and take concrete steps that will lead us to greater fulfillment in our lives. How do we do this? Here are a few easy solutions to implement.
1. TIME BLOCKS
Block off periods of time each day/week that are focus-oriented. A key component of these periods should be distance from your handheld technology. I found when I wrote my first book, keeping my smartphone out of my office and in the kitchen was crucial to enhancing the quality of my focus. This has applications in our personal lives as much as it does professionally. If you’re a manager not getting the production you want out of your team, instituting focus periods may help. As a parent, implementing technology-free windows can foster quality family time or spur creativity by directing children to engage their minds without a screen in front of them. We can start small…one hour, then two. Keep persisting, better habits are waiting.
2. PRODUCTIVITY TIMERS
A cousin of time blocks, productivity timers actually go a step further than say, blocking off noon to one on your calendar; they count down while you work. Set the timer for twenty-five minutes, and you have the option of watching the timer silently count to zero, or you can listen to the seconds tick by. After the timer goes off, usually there’s a five-minute break where you can text, check social media, or take a breather before the next twenty-five-minute focus period starts. The time chunks can vary, and some apps available offer rewards of fifteen-minute break after a few consecutive productivity cycles.
There are countless ways to meditate. Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn’t where you zone out; it’s meant to be a period of intense focus. In high school, when I first started meditating, I would try to clear my mind of all thoughts. It was an impossible task, and left me feeling frustrated. In reality, meditation should focus on a particular attribute. If you want to work on being joyful, you might gather all the energy in your being and recall a time when you felt particularly full of joy. You then “ignite” your energy with the emotion of this memory to bring joy back into your life. As with time blocks, you can start for short periods of time; five to ten minutes. From there, build the habit.
BREAK DISTRACTION, LIVE FULFILLED
The scariest cinematic future I can think of is The Matrix, where we’re plugged in without ever really being alive. There’s a pretty evident path to success and fulfilment in life. Create goals. Visualize their accomplishment. Create plan. Execute plan. Adjust as needed. Accomplish. Wash, rinse, repeat. Distraction has no useful part in that path.
You want to stop and smell the roses? Makes perfect sense. The next time you’re in line for fast-food or coffee though, resist the urge to look at your phone. Life is more interesting, and gratifying, when we’re truly alive.