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An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit

Yesterday wasn’t a very focused day for me — I got work done, but I also researched a bunch of newish personal interests (mostly programming and cycling), played an iPhone trivia game with my kids, read a bunch of online articles, and did very little of the writing I’d planned.

Digital distractions have also pulled me from reading and meditation in the last week. I think they plague all of us to varying extents.

Realizing this, today I closed all the tabs I’d been researching and reading, bookmarked a few things to read later, shut down the trivia game on my phone, closed email, and took a break.

I meditated.

I showered, and contemplated what was important to me.

Then I got on my bike to get outside and get the blood circulating.

Then I found a place with no wifi, and sat down to write.

This is a guide for my fellow addicts. Those of you who have as much trouble as I do fighting off the temptations and distractions, this is for you. From one addict to another.

Recognizing when it happens

One of the insidious things about the distraction habit is that we often don’t even realize it’s happening. It sneaks up on us, like old age, and before we know it we’re addicted and powerless.

But actually we’re not powerless. The power we have is our awareness, and you can develop it right now. Pay attention to what sites you visit, how often you’re looking at your phone, how long you’re spending in front of a screen all day.

What I did when I wanted to develop an awareness of my smoking urges was carry around a pencil and small scrap of paper, and put a tally mark on it each time I had the urge to smoke. I could still smoke, but I’d have to put a tally mark first.

This built my awareness muscle, and it allowed me to insert a small space between the urge and my subsequent action. Into that space, however small, I could eventually make a choice. That was where the power came in.

See what’s going on

Once you’re aware of the distractions and urges, you can start to examine the causes.

After hours of following temptations online (learning all about cycling and programming, for example), I stopped and asked myself, “What’s this all about?”

It was about fear — the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to screw it all up. I now know that it doesn’t matter if I screw it up. My value as a person isn’t tied to my successes or failures. So I closed all the tabs, and decided to focus on one program, and one bike ride. I’ll learn as I do.

My distractions are also often about fantasies — I really hope that I’ll be a great programmer or start doing century bike rides or Ironman triathlons. Realistically, I don’t have time to do any of that. So I have to let the fantasies go, because they almost never come true. Unless you’re willing to devote your entire life to one of them for a year or two.

Distractions, of course, are often about the fear of missing out. We can’t possibly take part in every cool thing that everyone else is doing, but we also don’t want to miss out on any of it. So we look online for what’s going on, what other people are doing and saying, what’s hot. None of that actually matters. What matters is being content, doing things that make people’s lives better, learning, being compassionate, helping. So let’s let go of what we’re missing out on, and focus on the difference we want to make in the world.

Taking action

So you’re building an awareness, and you’ve examined your causes. If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes to walk around your office or house, or better yet get outside, and contemplate these things. This article can wait.

Now there are further steps you can take. Consider taking one or more of these:

  • Start closing as many browser tabs as you can. Bookmark some things, save others in your favorite “read later” service (such as Instapaper or Pocket), and let others go.
  • Block your favorite distractions for a few hours. Games, social media sites, news sites. You don’t really need to go to them that often.
  • Write down the times you’re going to check email and other messages. Want to process email for 20 minutes at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4p.m.? Write that down. Stick to it.
  • Get away. Go outside for a walk. Ride your bike. Go for a run. Take the kids to the park.
  • Meditate. Sit still for just a couple minutes, without any distractions, and put your attention on your breath. Return to the breath when you get distracted.
  • Read. A paper book. Close all screens and just give yourself some quiet reading time.
  • Find a place with no wifi. Or turn off your router. Write without distractions. Close all applications besides your writing program.
  • Delete social media accounts. I recently went back on Facebook to connect with my family during my dad’s hospitalization and death. But the privacy violations and useless things being posted there sent me running, and I deleted my account again.
  • Delete distractful apps on your phone. Games, social media, whatever you tend to turn to when you want a bump of distraction.
  • Eat without a device. Pay attention to your food. Notice the textures, flavors, colors, healthfulness that you’re putting into the temple of your body.

Of course, there are other things you can do. Go on a retreat. Practice mindfulness in bits throughout the day. Take a day off of screens. The possibilities are endless.

Considering what’s important

What’s truly important to you? Social media? News? What everyone else is doing all the time? Games?

I’d submit that we try to do everything, but then we’re not really focusing on anything. We’re not going to make any of our little fantasies come true if we pursue all of them.

What is the one thing you want to pursue right now? Can you focus on that for at least a month? If not, maybe it’s not that important to you.

What are the most important things in your life? Pick 3-4, or 5 at the most. How much of your time is devoted to these things? Can you cut out other things to focus on these? Can you give your 4 most important things your full attention?

In my life, my writing, my family, my health, and my learning are my four most important things. And no, I don’t always devote my full attention to them. I often need to step back and remind myself of what’s important.

Falling in love all over again

In his book, “The Art of Stillness,” Pico Ayer says that “sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

This is absolutely true. This is why distractions can be so harmful. They’re turning us away from the miracle of life all around us.

Sit still for a few minutes, and pay attention to what’s around you. Notice the quality of the light. Appreciate any people who might be nearby. Notice the quality of your thoughts, the sensations of various parts of your body, the loveliness of your breath as it comes in and out.

Fall in love with life all over again. And then devote yourself lovingly to it completely.

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