Years ago, a Buddhist monk introduced me to the mental image of someone sending a postcard to a friend with the text: ‘I am having a wonderful time, I wish I were here.’
After years of working with clients, this is one of the most common things I hear. Many have the feeling, that they are not fully present in their life, often distracted by social media, phone calls, and an ad flashing across the screen.
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, came up with five steps to avoid distraction. Let’s look at what distractions are really about, from a psychological perspective.
5 Reasons why we seek distraction
- Creative work is often lonely, hence checking email or social media to see if someone is thinking of us gives us relief. Checking social media causes us to release, among others, oxytocin in the brain. Paul Zak, professor at the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, at Clermont Graduate University, showed through several studies how we release the same kind of hormone that we produce during sex or when we express our love to someone. So no wonder social media is such a pleasant distraction.
- Creative work can often be heavy and frustrating, so, distractions give us a temporary mental break. It’s easier to focus on the latest fashion trend on YouTube in, say, Paris than to finish the 7,000 words articles we are working on.
- Controlled attention is challenging. Focused attention on one subject is more difficult than stimulus-driven attention (something that happens suddenly, for example); the way our brain functions means it needs regular breaks to be able to create that sort of focused attention.
- Making slow progress on a particular task can make feel us very uneasy. For example, the voice of the inner critic can tell us that we are not fast enough with our 7,000 words article. That voice feels unpleasant, so having a quick look at a scantly clothed model on Instagram can give us a quick kick, away from those sensations.
- Distractions can be highly addictive. As we saw in the first point, we release certain hormones during online interactions. If we are playing a game with someone, somewhere on the planet, we get a huge kick.
How to live with more presence and fewer distractions
- Plan your day. How much time do we have to devote to each task on a daily basis? Have you ever created a ‘to-do’ list, only to find yourself carrying forward, every day, many of the tasks on your never-ending list? Work in reverse. Ask yourself how much time you will devote to a single, specific task during that day and stick to it. Just like a good wine is not made overnight, a good project might need several days or weeks of your attention.
- Use social media at set times. A study by the University of California at Irvine found that it takes on average over 20 minutes to ‘recover’ from distractions. Most of us, nowadays, use email and social media, both privately and for work. So, create daily niches of time for both. Allocate realistic amounts of time for your email and your social media in both your private sphere and your work life.
- Surf the urge: Notice what it is that we experience. We let the experience ‘take us over’; we feel all the sensations, and we visualise what is going on right now. Often we will have uneasy feelings. We will see that after a while our brain starts to drift off and focus on the next best thing. We ride the surf of our thoughts, follow them and then when it subsides, we are ready to let go of them. One of Abraham Lincoln’s favourite sentences was: ‘This too shall pass.’
- Watch out for those liminal moments. Liminal means: ‘between or belonging to two different places, stages, etc.’. So, when we are between tasks, we need to watch what is happening. For example, we are on the way with our child to see one of her friends. We are waiting for her in the car, while she is still putting her shoes on. We start checking our feed on Facebook and we get sucked into it quite deeply. Our child arrives at the car and we are so enthralled that we don’t realize she just got here and we keep reading our feed. So, the wait turned into a distraction.
- We are not powerless: It’s a good, old cliche, however, the power of the mind is immense. In a study to find out what percentage of participating, alcohol-addicted men were most likely to relapse, it was found that: ‘beliefs about craving and the severity of physical dependence may play an important role in relapse of male alcoholic patients. These factors could have a direct clinical application for predicting relapse to drinking in male alcohol-dependent patients’. In plain language, if you believe you are able to do a certain thing, the likelihood you will is extremely high. A really powerful statement to this, in my view, is Dr Joe Dispenza’s ability to overcome extremely severe back injury after an accident; in his words: ‘For two hours twice a day I went within and I began creating a picture of my intended result: a healthy healed spine. Over the course of ten weeks, I experienced a wonderful and veritable healing. At eleven weeks, I was back in my office seeing patients again without surgery or a body brace (both of which were recommended by the physicians at the time of my injury). When we are confronted with lifetime trauma and crisis, we must change our minds to truly address that situation’. So, coming back to our ability to ‘put technology in its place’, if we believe we can use it in the allocated time, then that will be so for us. If, on the other hand, we don’t believe that we can, then technology will run our lives.
By staying focused, we can create a reasonable sense of direction in our lives. Yes, we will have punctures while driving to work, we will experience illness when we least can afford it in terms of time, and we will find that recessions do happen. However, our ability to stay focused will help us deal with any of these situations as they arise, as the saying goes, in the here and now.
Jerry Zondervan is a self-relationship counsellor.
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