That we are living in an age of near constant digital distraction is now old news. By this point, you have no doubt read about the studies linking the devices in your pocket to diminished happiness, focus, productivity and cognitive performance.
You have also likely heard that the urge to pick up our devices is similar to other forms of behavioral addiction. Like gambling or shopping addiction, it releases a small shot of dopamine in various regions of the brain and keeps us coming back for more, even when we know it’s not in our best interest to do so.
So the question is no longer “Are we distracted?” but “How can we overcome our addiction to distraction so we can focus on the things that actually matter?”
As a mindfulness expert and well-being entrepreneur, I’ve experimented with all sorts of apps and technical solutions. And yet, I’ve found that the most powerful solutions don’t involve downloading new apps. They involve changing habits.
Here are the four most powerful inner shifts you can use to radically enhance focus, clarity, and productivity.
You might recall the ancient Greek myth of Odysseus. As his ship approached the Sirens, he knew that the seductive call of their voices would overwhelm his rational capacities -- that their intoxicating call would lead him to abandon his best interests and jump off the boat to his death. So before encountering the Sirens, he had his crew tie him to the mast.
Our smartphones are modern-day Sirens. They’re intoxicating and utterly addictive. And that means that we simply can’t be trusted to make good, rational decisions in their presence. Like Odysseus, we’re best off creating limits around how we use these devices before we’re in their presence.
Here are some strategies to consider:
How often does this happen to you? You’re in the midst of a busy day filled with back-to-back meetings, emails and pressing deadlines. Then, out of the blue, you have a short, unexpected gap in your day. And then, without even thinking about it, you pull out your phone and dive into email, Facebook, news or some other distraction.
This urge is even more damaging when we’re at home. It’s what causes us to respond to our child’s request to play by saying, “Just a minute,” as we stare blankly at our device. It’s what causes us to interrupt a conversation with a friend, a meal or an important event with occasional surreptitious glances down at our phone.
What we now know from the science and practice of mindfulness is that the best response to this urge is to simply become aware. When you feel like you just have to check that score, stock price or text, become aware of the experience of craving. Notice what it feels like. Notice the thoughts that arise.
Then make an actual choice as to whether or not you will indulge the urge. Even if you do end up on Facebook or Instagram, this micro-moment of awareness changes everything. It breaks you out of autopilot. It gives you back the ability to choose how best to spend your time.
In the early 1990s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe the state of full absorption in the task at hand. Flow is the polar opposite of distraction. It’s that state we all encounter from time to time where our sense of self and time dissolves, where we get more done in a matter of hours than we might ordinarily accomplish in several days. The research shows that you don’t have to be LeBron James or Serena Williams to experience this state. It’s available to everyone -- no matter your occupation.
But there’s a catch. Flow requires space from interruption and distraction. So here are a few tips to create spaces in your day for full engagement:
In modern times, we’ve turned doing into the ultimate virtue. We brag about how busy we are. We carefully craft our days to eliminate gaps and spaces.
This has led to the death of idle moments -- of simply being. The science, however, shows that our bodies and minds weren’t designed for this “always on” state. We are happier, more focused and more productive when we take the occasional moment to pause, breathe, gaze at the view and do nothing.
So see what happens when you build in a few times each day for doing nothing. Let yourself experience a few moments where you temporarily release yourself from the expectation of doing. It could be a walk, taking in the view, or reflecting on your day before you fall asleep. These moments bring you back to the present. They give you glimpses of gratitude. They remind you of the importance of savoring and enjoying this fragile life that could go away at any moment.
Implementing these four strategies isn’t easy. It requires resisting our ordinary habits of digital distraction. But the reward is massive. In a world where distraction has become a cultural norm, your ability to skillfully navigate these forces and manage attention will give you the ultimate competitive edge.
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