Addicted to Distraction: How our Smartphones Add Value or Limit our Lives

I am The Queen of Distraction! There. I said it. It’s not a self-proclaimed title that I am particularly fond of, but it is the truth, and for me the truth always feels liberating. In this moment, I accept my current reality (some days are easier than others when it comes to acceptance!) and as Carl Rogers says, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

What I am working to change is the fact that I continually distract myself from anything and everything: my work, time spent with my family, I distract myself from uncomfortable feelings, I even distract myself from distracting myself. HA! Basically, the list goes on and on. I’m being a little dramatic here, but you get my point.

In looking back, I can see that drinking played a vital role in my need to distract. It was a tool I regularly used to avoid the present moment, because the present moment was never enough. I was unable to sit with my feelings of discomfort. If I was bored, I would drink. If I was angry, I would drink. If I was sad, I would drink. If I wanted to have more fun, I would drink. It was a tool that enabled me to move away from whatever it was I didn’t want to feel.

Now that I’ve left drinking behind I can see that I am still doing this in sneakier, more insidious ways—mainly with technology.

I have recently been reevaluating my relationship with my precious little beloved iPhone. How many of you feel as though you are missing a limb when you leave home and realize that you accidentally forgot your phone? I know I certainly do! I also know there are probably many of you out there who feel me on this because I seeeee you on your phones all the time. Now, granted, that is just my judgmental-self sneaking in and being all judge-y, because really, I can’t know if your phone is a problem for you. Only you can know that. It may not be a problem for you at all. It may be a great distraction that is protecting you from something you just aren’t ready to deal with, and that’s totally okay. YOU get to decide what works for you and what doesn’t, regardless of what others think.

However, if you are anything like me, you might not even realize that it is a problem or that it is creating suffering in your life until you look closely at your relationship with it.

When I got real with myself and acknowledged that I actually crave my phone, I knew I had to go beyond the surface and dig a little deeper, to inquire into this experience of craving. Instead of reaching for my phone on autopilot, I decided to slow it and look at my intentions. I began to look at what reward I was seeking from checking my phone incessantly throughout the day.

I asked myself questions such as: why do I use my phone so much? Why do I feel the need to check Facebook, Instagram, and email so often? What am I hoping to get from my actions? What reward am I seeking? Is this behavior affecting other areas of my life? What emotion am I attempting to avoid feeling?

Your answers might be different than mine, but the only way to know what your answers are is to inquire deeply into your own usage of technology in this digital age. If you want to know why you do anything, get curious. Investigate your thoughts, your behavior, your experience.

When I look closely at my own usage I can see that I am trying to distract myself from boredom. It’s an old friend, or I guess it’s more like an enemy I should say, when I consider the fact that I am constantly running away from it. HA! For me, boredom ultimately comes down to the belief that the present moment is never enough. My mind likes to tell me that the present moment can always be better and that there is always something I can be doing to enhance my experience. I am a glutton.

More, more, more is the name of my game and through deep inquiry I can clearly see how much suffering this creates in my life. Albeit, it is suffering on a small scale, but suffering is suffering, nonetheless. In The Pali Canon Buddha says, “The Noble Truth of the Origin [cause] of Suffering is this: It is this craving.” If you find yourself craving something throughout the day, notice if this causes you to suffer in any way. When you avoid giving into the craving what emotion arises? How does that emotion feel—pleasurable or painful? When you act on the craving how does that feel? For how long is the craving satisfied? Take a close look.

What I have come to know and understand is that I can unwind the neural pathways that cause me to be chronically distracted, through deliberate practice that is geared towards increasing my focus on the task at hand—even if that just involves being focused on the present while enjoying a day at the beach! Shouldn’t be that hard, right? Well, the thing is, for many of us it is hard.

I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport who believes, as I do, that it’s important to notice how you are distracting yourself in the little ways, because that feeds into other areas of your life—which is exactly what I have found. He asserts that “Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction…it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.” In other words, if I distract myself every time I feel a sense of boredom, I am training my brain to live in a chronically distracted state which is not only painful, but also keeps me from being able to engage with life on a deep, meaningful level.

Author Winifred Gallagher says, “the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” A meaningful life is a life of depth, one where we are not constantly distracting ourselves while hanging with our friends or waiting in the grocery line. If we continually allow these distractions to keep ourselves from feeling our feelings, and from deeply being with and connecting with those around us, then we are on some level letting life pass us by.

We are fighting an uphill battle this day and age. The digital age has in so many ways trained our brains to never have to tolerate boredom, because we can always reach for something more interesting than the present moment when our smartphones are close by.

Now let’s re-frame this positively—instead of trying to stop distracting ourselves, let’s instead look at increasing our focus. Where in your life are you losing focus? When do you find yourself reaching for something instead of fully engaging in the task at hand—no matter how small that task is? This is where a mindfulness practice, called RAIN comes in handy.

I came across RAIN while reading The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer—a book I highly recommend! The steps are:

  1. RECOGNIZE: The first step to changing any behavior is to recognize the thought that then leads to the behavior. You can’t change that which you are unaware of. You also need to relax into this new found awareness and realize that you ultimately have no control over the thoughts that arise. If you did, you would never have a thought that causes you to suffer because you would simply change it and never allow it again!
  2. ACCEPT: Accept that you have no control over the thoughts that arise. Don’t take it personally when you find yourself craving. It’s not you, it’s simply a neurochemical process occurring in your brain. Don’t try to distract yourself from your thoughts, don’t try to force them to go away, but rather, acknowledge that this is your experience and while you can’t control your thoughts, you can control how you respond to them.
  3. INVESTIGATE: Bring a sense of inquiry and curiosity to your experience. Check in with your emotions and your body. When the craving arises, such as the thought “I want to check my phone” investigate it. I ask myself questions such as: when was the last time I checked my phone? Do I really need to check it right now? Why or why not? How often does this thought arise? How do I feel when I have this thought? What emotions arise? How does my body respond? What physical sensations am I feeling? What am I avoiding?
  4. NOTE: In your investigation, simply take note of what has arisen. When I have the thought that I want to distract myself I notice that I start to feel a sense of anxiety, and that anxiety increases when I refuse to engage in the distracting behavior. My body contracts. I feel a surge of energy that makes me feel as though I need to take some sort of action. All of this is simply feedback about my lived experience. When I acknowledge and accept this feedback I create agency and allow myself the ability to respond rather than react. I can choose to engage in the behavior and see how that feels, or I can choose to use RAIN, ride the wave of craving, anchor into my body, witness my experience, and notice when the craving passes. Because it always does. The mind is pretty much always either in the past or in the future, however, the body is always in the present. We can anchor our minds to the present moment by investigating and tuning into the experience of our body.

Another helpful tool to create lasting change is to break it down into bite-sized chunks. I could completely do away with my phone, but it is a useful tool and I like it. In many ways it gives me pleasure and helps me to quickly and easily communicate with others. So instead of quitting all together I’m working to increase the length of time that I go without it.

I want it to be a tool that adds to my life, not one that takes away from it. Going back to bite-sized chunks, let’s look at how I am working on this blog post. I set myself a goal of going 30 minutes without doing anything besides focusing on the task at hand. In the past 30 minutes the urge to check email arose on seven (!!) different occasions, I used RAIN to ride the wave of craving. In doing so, I am building my focus through deliberate practice and, rewiring my brain in the process.

If you’re trying to increase your focus to complete work, or to spend an hour of uninterrupted, distraction free time with your family or friends it is also helpful to bring in ritual. Ritual is a powerful tool for the mind and psyche that signifies a beginning and end to something. When the same ritual is used consistently it primes the brain for that activity. For writing, I have decided to light a candle when I begin my 30-minute chunk of time and blow it out when I am done. Then I take a short break and repeat. As my urge to distract loses momentum, I will be able to lengthen these chunks of time.

Change is HARD. We all know this. What we are going for here is deliberate practice, not perfection. Knowing that you will inevitably fail many times in your endeavor to create change, The Craving Mind offers us some helpful tips.

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. There is no point. You can’t control the thoughts that arise, you can’t control your genetics, your history, what you’ve been exposed to over the years—it’s all been said and done. Instead lean towards non-judgmental acceptance.
  2. Take it slow. Change is often only sustainable when we approach it in a way that works for us, in bite-sized chunks. If I were to say I’m going to write for six hours without checking email or looking at my phone, I am inevitably setting myself up for failure. Start slow.
  3. Don’t take it personally when you mess up again. It’s not personal. It’s just your brain at work. It’s a neural pathway that needs to be unwound and that is a slow and ongoing process.
  4. Focus on quality over quantity. It’s about deliberate practice. Not perfect practice. Five minutes of writing and riding the waves of craving to distract is much more beneficial in rewiring the brain long term than going big right out of the gate. Start small, practice deliberately, use RAIN, and gradually increase the times you set aside to intentionally increase your focus on the task at hand.

 

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