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.

 

The Need to be Right

I have struggled with the need to be right for my entire life. Fortunately, over the years I have made great progress when it comes to letting things go, not asserting my position on everything and everybody, and ultimately opening my heart and mind to the concept that all ideas are partial. It has been a long road, and it is still something I am consciously working on; learning that there is a time and a place to assert or defend my position. My husband is probably laughing right now, reading that I have made “great progress,” but he really has no idea just how bad it used to be. I’m a work in progress!

Just prior to sitting down to write, I wasted over an hour of my precious time that could have been more productively spent. I read, and re-read an article that was posted in a Facebook group that I am a member of. I also read through hundreds of comments, 99% of which were strongly asserting the “wrong-ness” of, not only the ideas in the article, but also the author and her character were being called into question. The leader of this Facebook group was livid as a result of this article and claims the opinions presented in the piece are reductionist, uniformed, and dangerous. Most of the members of the group were hopping on the “condemn this dangerous, uneducated, quack of woman” train. While I could see their opinions and position, I thought the intensity of the condemnation was way off base and I got defensive—even though I do not know the author of the article, nor do I completely agree with her position.

Simply because I had a slightly different interpretation of this woman’s opinions, I felt it necessary to spend an hour constructing my argument to post in the group and defend a woman whom I don’t even know. Upon acknowledging this realization, I decided to ask: WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING?!? WHY am I doing this? What are my intentions? Do I really have the time to put more energy and effort into asserting my position in a group where nobody will agree with what I have to say? Is this a productive use of my time? Why do I even feel the need to assert my position and tell them that I disagree with them to some extent? Why do I feel the need to defend the position of someone whom I don’t even know?!? Is this a battle I really need to engage with?

What I ultimately did here was to step back from my need to defend, my need to be right, and instead lean into inquiry.

Along with all of the questions just stated, part of this inquiry also included asking the question: Why do all of these women feel the need to condemn the author of the hotly contested article? I tried to lean into understanding their strong opinions. I wondered, can they know without a doubt that her position is uniformed and dangerous? Can I know without a doubt that her position is NOT uninformed and dangerous? Can all of us partially be right? Can all of us partially be wrong?

Ultimately, it brought me back to the statement that always provides me with perspective: all ideas are partial.

Perhaps there is some “right-ness” to be found in both perspectives. Once I acknowledged this, I didn’t feel the need to continue crafting a rebuttal. I decided to let it go. Byron Katie’s wise words came to mind. She says, “Defense is the first act of war…I didn’t realize that I was the one making war by defending myself. And I was the one who could end it. It doesn’t take two people to end war; it only takes one.” Now, I’m not asserting that you never defend yourself or your position, rather, that you step back and take a look at your intentions. Also, check in with yourself and ask how often you feel the need to do this, to be right, to defend?  Does it bring peace to your life or chaos? Is it connecting you with people, or is it creating division in your relationships?

Why do so many of us feel the need to be right?

An article in Psychology Today says that, “Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right or wrong.” Could it be that this is where our need to defend begins—in the school system? In our experiences growing up, we are often rewarded for being right and being wrong is considered undesirable. If we hold this belief that right is good and wrong is bad, does being right therefore affirm and inflate our sense of self-worth? Is trying to be right the way our ego tries to protect our self-esteem?

The Tao Te Ching states that “He who tries to shine dims his own light.” Is the need to be right tied to our desire to shine through asserting our opinions and defending why we are right? When you are trying to claim your value in this regard, to assert yourself (or your opinions) as better-than, you are not aligned with love, but rather, with ego. When you are ego identified you are blocking the light that is your true nature.

Through sustained inquiry, we can open our hearts and our minds, we can step out of ego and align ourselves with love—that which connects us to ourselves and to others.

Furthermore, we are a competitive society and we associate being wrong with failure and very few of us want to fail despite research that says failure is actually necessary for growth. We don’t learn anything from being right, we learn from being wrong. We learn by making mistakes, stumbling, failing, and getting back up.

Being right simply massages the ego—it doesn’t actually inspire a genuine learning experience. It doesn’t help us to come to understand another’s perspective.

Perhaps the need to be right is ultimately based in fear. Fear of losing credibility, fear of not being valued, fear of being seen as unintelligent, and fear of losing control. When we go on the defensive we are often trying to control how we are perceived. When our sense of self and our beliefs are threatened, we often lean into control. We try to control the situation by asserting our rightness, and we try to control others perceptions of us. Mainly, we want to feel that other people think we have something to offer, that we should be listened to, and that we are good. We also may try to find our power through our assertions of why we are right and the other is wrong.

The need to be right is sometimes a way we express our anger. As I said, there is a time and a place to assert and defend, but how we assert and defend is key. If we are not addressing our anger, we will often fly out onto the defensive and lose ourselves, which can undermine our credibility. There can also be anger attached to the other person or party who does not see that we are, in fact, probably right.

Could our anger also be tied to our need for approval and our fear of being wrong? What does that mean about us if we are wrong? Could all of this be tied to our survival instincts, our desire to belong, to love and be loved?

There is much to think about and unpack when it comes to inquiring into our need to be right.

However, it is important that we unpack this issue, because the need to be right is no small matter. While I see it mostly playing out in the small things in my day to day life, particularly in my marriage, at the end of the day, the small things make up the big things. If we are continually battling and defending in our relationships when it comes to minor details, how is this playing out on the macro level? The need to be right in religion, politics, and hot button issues such as abortion has led to nothing but division, hatred, war, and death.

If we can loosen our grip on the need to be right with the small things, we are opening our hearts and our minds to discussing and considering the big things from a more compassionate, open-minded, and peaceful positon—from a place rooted in love instead of fear. We must lean into inquiry. We must check in with our intentions.

Again, this is not to say that we don’t question others views when we believe they are morally wrong—when we believe their views are oppressing and infringing upon another. However, if we can question their views and see that they are probably coming from a place of fear, perhaps we can soften, we can release some of our anger and lean into compassion. When I find myself getting worked up about another’s “wrong-ness” I try to lean into inquiry and ask myself:

What would love look like in this situation?

Can I open my mind to their point of view and try to better understanding where they are coming from?

Can I see any validity in their point of view?

Even if I 100% believe that they are wrong, is it necessary at this moment to defend myself and my position? Or can I let it go?

What are the benefits of defending, and what are the benefits if I just let this go?

Would love look like allowing someone to be right and have their opinion even though I don’t agree?

Or would love look like hearing their side but standing firm in and stating my beliefs?

As I’ve stated twice already in this post, ALL IDEAS ARE PARTIAL. In a world where 97% of the universe is unknowable, how can we possibly walk through our day thinking we know so much? That we are right. That our husband or wife shouldn’t have done this or said that. That all these women up in arms about the article I was mentioning, should or shouldn’t be up in arms? How can I possibly know what is right in this situation? We often don’t realize how many times we state things as fact. In just the past two days of inquiring once again into my need to be right, I was relying on what I believed to be fact. Once I inquired, I realized, that all I had in these situations were opinions, they were not actually facts.

More Questions for Inquiry

Spend just one day noticing when you feel the need to be right. Is your defensiveness based in fact or in opinion? Can you be 100% sure that you are right? Can you in any way see that the other person may be right as well, or perhaps that neither of you right and that there are many other ways to look at the situation in question? Could it be true that both of you are right?

Can you use this situation as a way to lean into self-connection? Can you see that you are enough just as you are without defending yourself or your position, or asserting your need to be right?

Do you believe that you are valuable even if you are wrong? Instead of making assertions, can you ask the other person questions about their position to learn more about where they are coming from (even if you don’t agree)? As you step away from self-centeredness and consider the needs and perspectives of others, you develop intimacy and connection.

Can you practice allowing another to be right, even if you are still stuck in the idea that they are in fact, dead wrong? What would happen if you just allowed them to be right (or think they are right) in this situation? What feelings come up for you as you do this?

At the end of the day, I believe the ultimate question to ask ourselves when it comes to this form of inquiry is: What would love look like here?

Would love look like being open to another’s point of view, perspective, opinion, or position?

Would love look like allowing someone to be right just because, even if you don’t agree with them?

Can you let them be right for the sake of peace?

Or would love look like hearing their side but still standing firm in your belief?

I have asked many questions throughout this post, because this is an act of inquiry. Inquiring into our own positions, opinions, motivations, and intentions. When we step back and create some space, when we lean into non-judgmental inquiry, that is where we find peace, connection, and ultimately, freedom.