Mindfulness in the Age of Distraction

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 6.52.49 PMIt is nearly impossible to “be mindful” when bombarded with massive amounts of information from electronic distractions. As a psychologist, I strongly believe the human mind is incapable of processing all the information that we bring into our lives each day via social media, electronic communication, television, movies, news, video games, and computer work. Left unchecked, we quickly become overstressed and overstimulated, and may find ourselves drawn to caffeine and stimulants to help us focus, alcohol and marijuana to help us relax, and antidepressants and tranquilizers to cope. In an attempt to “zone out” or relax we may be drawn to more electronic distractions like television, movies, and video games, which only serves to overstimulate us further.

As a result, we are constantly in a state of doing and rarely in a state of being (i.e. sitting or walking quietly, or calmly doing nothing). Unless we are willing to place serious limits on our electronic devices we will be doomed to live in a world and in a body we barely know and our lives will take place in one kind of box or another with only brief glimpses of what is truly important. 

As we disconnect more and more from the physical world and from ourselves, we will suffer. Drawn to substances and losing ourselves in our electronic devices is not the solution to functioning more effectively in our modern digital age.

So what is the solution? Mindfulness is a buzz word many of us are becoming familiar with in mainstream media. The practice of mindfulness is an ancient eastern spiritual tradition dating back 2,500 years ago. Many neuroscientists and researchers believe this ancient practice can help us live and thrive more effectively in our modern society driven by massive amounts of information and electronic distractions.

This article will address, (1) strategies for managing electronic distractions, (2) techniques for practicing mindfulness, and (3) guidelines for taking hold of our minds.

Before we can talk about what mindfulness is and how to practice it, we need to learn how to set limits with our electronic devices in order to create the space and time we need to practice mindfulness.

8 Ways to Manage Electronic Distractions

  1. Limit your electronic time to blocks. If you are a fan of social media, online news, or whatever you enjoy watching, reading or doing online limit your time to 1/2 hour in the morning and 1/2 hour in the evening.
  2. Declare email bankruptcy! If email is overwhelming you, wipe out all of your unread emails in your inbox, and start over with a clean slate. Before you do this, identify critical people you need to contact and send them an email explaining that you are declaring email bankruptcy. For step-by-step instructions on how to declare email bankruptcy without getting fired, check out this article: How to Declare Email Bankruptcy.
  3. Consider an automatic email reply. State when you plan to check and return emails. Clear this with your boss first, and express why it is important for you to stay focused at work and how multi-tasking reduces your productivity and focus. One study showed that employees checked their email 36 times per hour! That level of multi-taking makes it almost impossible to complete your work and also lowers your IQ.
  4. Take a Digital Sabbath. Pick a day during the week (probably a Saturday or Sunday) and make a decision that you will turn off your phone and computer, not watch television, movies or play video games, and that you will avoid all electronics for 24 hours. If you find you feel agitated while doing this, you are probably addicted to this constant flow of information, and should be patient as you allow yourself to detox.
  5. Go on a Low Information Diet for 1-week. For one week, no texting (talk on the phone instead) no social media, no news, no television or movies, and no video games. Emailing and texting is only allowed for essential reasons. Screen time on your computer is also limited to essential tasks and you are only given 1-hour each evening to read fiction with a physical book not a kindle or nook. There is a wonderful chapter on how to go on a “Low Information Diet” in Timothy Ferriss’ book, “The 4 hour Work Week.”
  6. Deactivate Facebook for 1-week. If you are not a fan of Facebook, deactivate it for one week or at least remove the Facebook app from your phone! You can go back on but notice how much better you feel and how much more time you have!
  7. Remove Email from your Smart Phone for 1-week. Just take it off your phone for 1-week and check your email at your computer. Then pay attention to how much better you feel!
  8. Block Distracting Websites. If you are unable to control yourself, there are a variety of programs that you can install on your computer to block yourself from time consuming and energy draining sites like facebook, instagram, twitter, snapchat, news, sports, amazon, or any other site that distracts you.

Go F***ing Work for chrome (probably my personal favorite)

Get Cold Turkey

Web Blocker for windows

Self Control App for mac

How to Block Any Website without Software

Below is a nice map to help you navigate the distractions created by our electronic world.

Okay, now that you have created some space to practice mindfulness, what do you need to do?

Before we begin, let’s define what mindfulness is. The Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” 

When we are constantly distracted, there is absolutely no way we can calmly acknowledge or even know what we are feeling, thinking or what our bodily sensations mean. This unconsciousness about our internal functioning creates the angst and discontent that most of us feel in modern life. In turn we use caffeine, alcohol, prescription medications, engage in impulsive or addictive activities, and absorb ourselves in even more screen time, which makes it difficult for us to truly connect with each other or ground ourselves.

Most people have no idea what they are thinking, feeling, or why their bodies feel the way they do. For example, does your stomach hurt because you are worried or because you are hungry? Do you want that glass of wine, because you feel stressed or overwhelmed? Why can’t you relax without a beer or glass of wine? Why do you need caffeine to wake up or to be productive? Do you feel irritated at your partner or children because there is a real issue or because you feel stressed about work? Do you know what thoughts have been going through your mind today? Do your thoughts affect your body? Does your body affect your thoughts? Are you actually sick or do you feel sick because you are stressed?

As a psychologist I am sometimes surprised how many people tell me they are afraid to sit quietly with their own mind. People have told me they are scared of sitting with the voice in their head and their own bodies. They would prefer to distract themselves from their internal state.

Taking time to understand and manage our internal state is critical to effectively coping with the age of distraction. The ancient practice of mindfulness provides the tools to help.

So how do we begin the practice of mindfulness in our modern digital age? Below are 7 simple techniques to help you begin the practice.

7 Techniques for Practicing Mindfulness

1. Mindfulness Software for Electronic Devices

  • The first thing I suggest is to install mindfulness software on your computer, smart phone, or apple watch. You can also use a conventional watch as well. Ideally you should have the mindfulness bell go off every 15 minutes while working at your computer and take 3 conscious breaths. You do not have to do anything special for this breathing exercise except to breathe deeply three times in through your nose and out of your nose. If every 15 minutes sounds unrealistic, try every 30 minutes. Most of us do not realize that buddhist monks who work at their computers install a mindfulness bell and take 3 conscious breathes every 15 minutes.

2. Headspace’s FREE Take 10 Program

  • Many of my clients will follow a free 10-minute mindfulness meditation created by the amazing Andy who has demystified mindfulness meditation. My clients have had great success with Andy’s Headspace Meditation app. You might start by arriving to work 15 minutes early and listening to the 10-min Headspace mindfulness meditation in your car. If you do not want to arrive early to work or cannot, practice it before bedtime. If bedtime does not work, take that 10 minute break that you never take at work and go to your car or a quiet room and practice the 10-min Headspace meditation.

3. Mindful Walking

  • Personally, I am a huge fan of mindful walking. You can do it anywhere, at work, at home, on a hike, anywhere. Basically, you silently count your steps. I will usually count to 30 and go back to 1, if I am on a long walk. If I am walking around my house or office, I count my steps for however long is needed to reach my destination. I might also practice breathing instead of counting while walking. According to buddhist monks who developed this technique, counting is NOT thinking it is a way to suspend thinking and sometimes you need to walk rather than sit to meditate.

4. Breathing Exercises

  • Counting your Breath. My personal favorite is counting your breath.Remember, counting is not thinking, it is a way to suspend thinking. Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair, lie down, or take a walk. As you inhale, we aware that “I am inhaling, ONE.” When you exhale, be aware that “I am exhaling, ONE.” Remember to breathe from the stomach. When beginning the second inhalation, be aware that “I am inhaling, TWO.” And, slowly exhaling, be aware that “I am exhaling, TWO.” Continue up through 10. After you have reached 10, return to ONE. Whenever you lose count, return to ONE.

5. Body Scan Meditation 

  • One simple body scan meditation that you can easily do is to “scan” your hands and feet. Sit or lay down. Close your eyes and see if you can sense the energy, heat or any sensation in your hands and feet. You might start with trying to sense your feet, which can be a bit easier, and then try to sense your hands. If this is too difficult for you, try to follow the guided Body Scan Meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn two or three times per week. The full body scan is 45 minutes but you can stop it after 15 minutes or move forward to the middle or last half of the meditation.

6. The Half-Smiling Exercise

If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I thought half-smiling was a useful mindfulness practice, I would have told you, “No.” Mainly because I thought it was silly. But once you get past the silliness of it, half-smiling is a powerful mindfulness technique that has been used by buddhist monks for over 2,500 years! I regularly half-smile now while folding laundry or doing other mundane tasks, and it almost immediately transforms the boredom or irritation. Below is instruction for half-smiling developed by psychologist, Marsha Linehan.

  • How to Half-Smile: Accept reality with your body. Relax (by letting go or by just tensing and then letting go) your face, neck and shoulder muscles and half-smile with your lips. A tense smile is a grin (and might tell the brain you are hiding or masking). A half-smile is slightly up-turned lips with a relaxed face. Try to adopt a serene facial expression. Remember, you body communicates to your mind.
  • Half-Smile while at your Computer: Put a sign on your computer or desktop that reminds you to half-smile. Take a minute or two to take hold of your breath. Inhale and exhale three breaths gently while maintaining a half-smile.
  • Half-Smiling while Irritated: When you realize, “I’m irritated,” half-smile at once. Inhale and exhale quietly, maintaining a half-smile for three breaths.

7. One Mindfully in the Moment

One mindfully is another ancient buddhist technique. Neuroscience research supports the effectiveness of this ancient practice to calm the mind and improve present moment awareness. It is easy to practice “one mindfully.” Below are three simple strategies developed by psychologist, Marsha Linehan.

  • DO ONE THING AT A TIME. When you are eating, eat. When you are walking, walk. When you are working, work. When you are in a group, or a conversation, focus your attention on the very moment you are in with the other person.
  • If other actions, thoughts, or strong feelings distract you, LET GO OF DISTRACTIONS and go back to what you are doing—again, and again, and again.
  • CONCENTRATE YOUR MIND. If you find you are doing two things at once, go back to doing one thing at a time.

Putting Mindfulness to Work

If we practice mindfulness techniques, what will we achieve? What are the goals of mindfulness? Mindfulness does not begin and end with meditation techniques. Most articles do not explain how to put mindfulness to work or how mindfulness can help us take hold of our minds.

The age of distraction can drag us far away from the ability to be mindful and to be at peace. Which is why we must set limits with our electronic distractions to make time to practice mindfulness.

When we practice mindfulness techniques (breathing exercises, body scans, half-smiling, mindful walking, and sitting meditations) we develop the skill to become the “observer” of our mind. As the observer, we no longer take the story of our life so seriously. We learn to be in the world but not of the world. To discover who we truly are. To find our “being” outside of “form.” Our form identity (our story, our thoughts, our feelings, our physical body, our roles, the material things we own) is not who we are. There is a deeper being that encompasses us. When we connect with our deeper selves by disrupting the stream of thoughts, changing negative emotions, and connecting with our internal state, the world and what happens in it has very little power over us. Even when our body declines, we can smile and know this is not who we are.

We develop wisdom (the ability to blend emotion with reason when making decisions), and no longer make decisions based on our emotions or intellect. We become more conscious rather than unconscious. We experience more peace, calm, clarity and stability. We feel at peace during challenges in our life or during stressful situations. We no longer ride the roller coaster of life, even though things can still make us sad, happy, angry, irritated, or ashamed. We have space now between our thoughts or feelings, and our reactions to people and situations. Therefore, we make better decisions.

Below you will find my favorite guide for putting mindfulness to work called, “Taking Hold of the Mind.” But before we start let me share a quote to inspire you:

“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you.” -Eckhart Tolle

A Guide for Taking Hold of the Mind

We must consistency find time to practice mindfulness techniques to begin taking hold of our minds and to learn how to regulate this “superb instrument.

Below are three important goals to work toward as you practice mindfulness.

1. Become the “OBSERVER,” the “WITNESS” of your Mind 

Step back and observe your mind without taking every thought or feeling seriously. You can practice this by being curious and interested in what you think and feel. You can also notice your feelings or thoughts without trying to make them stronger, weaker, or go away.

2. Describe what you Observe 

Use words to describe your experience. Talk to someone or write out your thoughts and feelings. Make sure to focus on the facts rather than your story about what you are observing. Don’t paint a colorful picture with words, or magnify a situation with words.

3. Take a Non-Judgmental Stance

Just focus on the facts. Focus on the “what,” not the “good” or “bad,” the “terrible,” the “should” or “should not.” Non-judgment is a powerful way to take hold of the mind and always leads to more effective solutions.

As you take hold of your mind, you experience more peace, calm, clarity and stability. Practicing mindfulness techniques is the only way to develop the skills to take hold of the mind.

Summary

This article addressed strategies for managing electronic distraction, techniques for practicing mindfulness, and ideas for taking hold of the mind. As a psychologist, I regularly provide coaching and support to clients who want to reap the incredible benefits that only mindfulness can help them achieve. In order to thrive in the age of distraction, we must create the space and time to practice mindfulness.

About the Author

Dr. Christine E. Dickson is a cognitive psychologist in private practice who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. She is the owner of Tri-Valley Psychotherapy where she offers consultations and therapy both virtually and face-to face. Christine is a regular guest on local TV where she provides self-help advice to nearly 200,000 viewers. Her work is also featured in Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia. To learn more about her workshops, coaching, and counseling services, please visit her website.

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