Distraction is the opposite (or absence) of traction, an action, or a force pulling us into doing a certain task. Have you noticed how today, when someone mentions distractions, we no longer think about 300-page books, 3-hour movies, or the lovely weather outside that makes us go out for a spontaneous walk? It’s the shiny high-tech devices at our fingertips. And while the type of our distractions changes with the zeitgeist, one thing doesn’t change much: us.
Is it really your phone that monopolizes your attention or is it the emotional burden you haven’t healed from?
What Is Distracting Us: Apps & Displays or Our Mind?
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, shares an excellent example of this dilemma: he would be sitting at his desk working, but suddenly, he’d start checking his email for no particular reason.
He would justify the act as a work-related task. But is it any different from opening your Instagram or Tik Tok and losing a precious hour of your time to social media? All what justification––or, simply put, excuses we tell ourselves and others––do is calm our negative self-talk, shame, and guilt, so we can keep repeating the same behavior over and over again.
Does this sound familiar?
Are We Addicted to Technology?
There’s certain evidence that distractions embodied in technology possess certain qualities similar to those of addictive substances. One recent study suggests that mobile phones can help us calm down when we’re stressed out, and we reach for them in the same way we would reach for our favorite blanket or toy when we were little.
There’s alarming research analyzing Internet addiction, whose diagnosis refers solely to non-work, technology-related activities such as video games, social media, never-ending virtual communication, over-consuming entertaining content, and so on. These addictive behaviors are followed by typical social and psychological symptoms such as conflicts, depression, diminishing the value of human communication and connection, withdrawal from real life, or professional and academic consequences.
But, in most cases, spending time shopping online or scrolling down our Instagram feed instead of focusing on work-related projects leads only to our own frustration and, perhaps, a missed deadline. It doesn’t lead to the extreme consequences we often associate with addiction, such as hospitalization, for example.
And here is where it becomes interesting. When we start to associate and think about our Internet habits in terms of addiction, it becomes victimizing, Nir Eyal points out. It arouses feelings of guilt, discomfort, and shame. “Stop scrolling on your phone!” sounds very similar to “Don’t eat another cookie, you’ve had enough!”, or “Do you really need another drink?”. The author has another important point to reflect on: there’s no room for moral hierarchy here.
“Anyone with a smartphone is familiar with the feeling of having somehow, as if by accident, lost a precious hour to their device. But thinking ill of that behavior only induces guilt and makes the problem worse. It creates a moral hierarchy that some actions are good, and some are bad. We have to realize that anything we want to do with our time is fine as long as we do it on our schedule.” –– Nir Eyal
But what happens when it does affect our workday schedule and responsibilities? Why do we find ourselves procrastinating by checking text messages and social media so often instead of completing important tasks? Is there something unresolved inside us that’s hard to reach or process and it only calms down every time we tap into virtual reality?
External and Internal Triggers
Stimuli that come from the inside or the outside can either inspire traction and help us enter the flow state, or they can cause distraction and loss of mindful focus.
When you decide to check social media because you got a notification, where do you locate the trigger to action? You’re not entirely wrong if you say that the trigger is external, as the sound or sign of notification is what drove your attention away. However, the real reason why the phone distracted you is much deeper than simple physical stimulation. We, as well as Eyal, argue that there are certain hard-to-process emotions behind our distractability:
Whenever we feel lonely, we turn to social media.
If we’re bored, we search for entertainment on Netflix and YouTube.
If we want to keep up-to-date, we check sports scores, news websites, or Facebook wall updates from a friend’s friend.
If we are uncertain about something, we ask Google.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities, Eyal explains, but we should discuss the possibility that we’re turning to them in order to escape unpleasant emotions.
Before we blame the external trigger for distracting us, we should check with ourselves first: What am I trying to escape?
What is the internal trigger or impulse that I’m failing to deal with?
Is there a healthier way of processing these emotions rather than seeking comfort in distracting myself with something fun?
Becoming Indistractible: Strategies for Preventing Distractions
While the digital world is full of advice and healthy tips on how to manage external triggers––like using website blockers, putting your phone on airplane mode, and so on––, little has been written on how to deal with the internal triggers that lead us to reach out for external “distractors”.
According to Eyal, there are four basic steps to take:
1. Mastering the Internal Trigger
Learn how to postpone the temptation of distractions. Instead of “NO!”-ing your need, try owning it by saying “Not yet”.
In addition to this, we find that taking a moment to deal with difficult emotions is extremely important for our well-being.
- Name the emotion: Am I bored, lonely, angry, frustrated?
- Acknowledge the emotion: It’s okay that I feel this way.
- Find what is causing you to feel that way.
- Discover what would be the right way to deal with the emotion in this particular moment.
2. Schedule for Traction
The simplest way to put it: make plans for everything. Plan your distraction ahead by scheduling time you can spend on social media, playing video games, or checking Reddit. If you plan these activities in advance and book time in your daily schedule, then it’s no longer a distraction, but a free-time activity.
If you use the Productivity Planner, consider refreshing your productivity strategy by adding news reading time/movie time/phone time/video game time into your to-do list and regular schedule. Once you start blocking and managing your time on paper, you will get a greater awareness on how and where you spend your time.
3. Deal with the External Triggers
Find a way to deal with those sometimes unavoidable external triggers, especially if you’ve already identified and managed your internal ones. Turn off notifications on all apps when working, turn on website blockers, apply zero-inbox strategies, listen to music that helps you enter the flow state, and do your best to organize your working environment so it’s productivity-appealing, clean, and functional.
If you utilize the Focus Time technique for work, you may want to drop the phone timer––which is the main resource of distractions––and replace it with an hourglass, designed particularly to help you make time for what’s important and engage in interruption-free activities.
4. Make Precommitments
Precommitments and intentions serve the purpose of keeping yourself accountable. Creating meticulously designed plans for achieving your goals, tracking your progress and healthy habits on a daily basis, or coworking with someone in order to keep each other on track are all excellent ways of maintaining your accountability and preventing yourself from falling victim to your own impulses.
Why do we distract ourselves? Is it out of sheer boredom, fear of failure, or the feeling of loneliness? Whatever it is, we need to change the narrative around distractions from something that’s centered around shaming and guilt to something that provides us with the framework to cope with it and gently get ourselves back into the workflow.