Addicted to distraction


It’s quite clear that nowadays we can’t go about our business without being distracted. Sometimes getting distracted can take addictive proportions. Knowing that our time is our most valuable resource, it’s clear that distractions need to be minimized. Luckily there are ways to handle our distractive environments!

You won’t miss it when it’s gone!

For about half a year my girlfriend and I traveled through France. For several months we lived the simple life: living in a tent, cooking outside and enjoying all that France had to offer. We had nothing to do really, just strolling around in colorful villages and beautiful nature.

After a few months we decided to stay in Plum Village for a week, a Buddhist monastery founded by legendary zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. In Plum Village we were shown that we knew nothing about really simple living: every activity was done slowly, in mindfulness and often in silence.

The really interesting part came the day we left Plum Village. Not having booked anything, we decided to stop at the first place with WiFi. You wouldn’t believe it, but it had to be a McDonalds restaurant which came up first along the way!

Now imagine going from the most peaceful place on earth, to a McDonalds: from a serene forest with chirping birds, to flashing televisions, intense lights, the scent of deeply fried food and booming music.

We couldn’t have gotten a better comparison between a natural environment and an artificial environment. The latter instantly overstimulates all of your body’s senses, which also probably is a trademark of McDonalds restaurants.

From this...
... to this!

Back to modern society

Unknowingly, you are exposed to dozens of stressors throughout the day. Although you may not perceive this as stress consciously, your nervous system and brain are constantly reacting to this.

From notifications on a smartphone, to ringing phones and busy city streets: many of our modern inventions create stimuli that evolution has not prepared us for. One of the ways this shows is the unprecedented amount of people burning out and suffering from stress-related illnesses. There’s just too much going on in many people’s lives.

Although I had reflected on this regularly before my big trip, the real shift for me didn’t occur until I stepped out of our rollercoaster society. Only when I spent considerable time plugged out, off the grid and preferably in nature, I grasped the ever growing gap between our biological nature and our modern culture.

Addicted to distraction

It’s not accidental that our society shows such a busy-ness. In the digital realms, this is ever present in the forms of notifications, popups, ‘infinity scrolling’ and so on. The organizing principle behind all this is quite simply, money.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other (social) media need your attention. If you’re not there at their platforms, there is no money to make through the endless advertisements or sponsored content they are eager to show you.

The real problem is the enmeshment of using these platforms and being marketed at. These companies understand us so well, that they know how to exploit your cognitive heuristics, emotions and personality. All in service of providing you a nice and fun user experience, but also to make a little money. Spending more time with them online, equals more ads to be shown to you and thus more money in the bank.

Of course, this is not limited to social media: most people living in the city also have to deal with all the advertisements on the street, crowded shopping centres  and so on. However, the real life city streets are more easily avoidable than social media, which have become completely integrated with daily life for most people. This is what makes social media so effective in feeding our addiction to (their) distractions:

Netflix really knows how to get your distraction going! It's really hard to watch just one episode at a time with their 'Post Play' feature.

Okay, I kind of knew that already, but what can I do about it?

Well the real question is: do you want to do something about it? Many of us feel that hanging around highly stimulating ‘places’ like social media equals relaxation.

What we do not realize however, is that using social media has become deeply coupled with the brain’s reward system. Not being able to stop scrolling Instagram or quit Facebook for tonight, has everything to do with actual addiction going on in your brain. It’s not that we are really relaxing: it’s just that we’re getting our social media fix for the day! We crave our distractions because they were engineered to make us feel good. But eventually the costs may start to outweigh the rather shallow ‘goodness’ we derive from our distractions: impaired concentration, less self-esteem, anxiety, depression, reduced sleep quality and so on.

So what can you do about it? If you feel you’re motivated to take back control over your time and attention, take a look of some of the following methods that I use to minimize my distractions:

Winning back your attention: ‘brute force’

I call the following solutions ‘brute force’ in the sense that they do not really require skill: they’re just simple steps you can take to break through triggers for distraction.

  • Turn of ALL notifications. All of them! This will work miracles for your attention.
  • Block your habitual procrastination and/or distraction websites. Use and add-on like StayFocusd in Chrome (works annoyingly well I can say!).
  • Remove distracting physical objects from your space. For example papers, magazines or a remote control for your TV. Want to be radical? Throw out your TV! You can probably watch your favorite programs online anyway.
  • Reduce your time in (busy) shopping streets and malls. Maybe try to consume a bit less, which will save you time, energy ánd money!
  • Do your groceries in a focused way. Ignore advertisements, sales and promotions. Also try to create a habitual routine when doing groceries. Just browsing really robs you of valuable attention and decision making power!

Optimizing yourself: beating distractions the skillful way

For a more profound effect, you can start to optimize yourself for attention and focus. This is more permanent and satisfying in my opinion, but also requires a little more dedication.

  • Strengthen your attention with awareness training. What follows are some really basic instruction to start your training right away!
    1. Sit comfortably, on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion. Spine erect but not rigid.
    2. Take a few moments to orient on your environment by looking around, which helps you go inward calmly.
    3. Close your eyes and focus your attention softly on your breath.
    4. Only observe. Do not change anything about the breath. Just focus on the area where you feel the breath most distinctly.
    5. When you notice you got distracted, simply return your attention to the breath in a calm and soft manner. Getting distracted is what the brain does, no judgments needed!
    6. Besides your breath and thoughts, you will perceive body sensations, images, sounds and other mental activity. Just notice these and return to the breath.
    7. Keep repeating these instructions for a few minutes a day (I tell myself I only have to do this 3 minutes a day, works great for motivation)
    8. Over time build up to 10, 20 maybe even 30 minutes a day. It’s worth it! However initially focus on building a habit rather than setting a record.
  • Systematically observe moments you got distracted. Return to the moment where you first got triggered to stop your current activity and get distracted. This will bring awareness to similar distractions in the future. Also you can perform a ‘root analysis’: keep asking yourself why you got distracted (e.g. ‘Why did I go to Facebook? Because task X is overwhelming. Okay, why is X overwhelming?’ etc.)
  • Make sure you regularly rest and recover your concentration. Find an environment or space that helps you with this, for example being out in nature. Other places that help me are museums, libraries and bookstores. Think about places where you feel calm, relaxed and clear in your head.

These are my tips for you to start taking back control over your attention. Some of them might require a little investment, but I can guarantee you it’s well worth your time and energy!


Let me know in the comments if you have your own tips and tricks to break through the addiction to distraction!

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