A Simple Practice to Help You Kick Your Addiction to Distraction and Reconnect with Life
I’ve been feeling the pull.
We’ve all been feeling it lately. The more uncomfortable you feel, the stronger the pull.
It’s coming from our smartphones, and it’s almost impossible to resist.
It’s the pull toward distraction, and it’s highly effective at relieving uncomfortable feelings.
It’s so effective, it should have it’s own pharma ad. I can see it now, a middle-aged woman with a silky voice walks toward the camera holding a smartphone:
Are you feeling bored? Restless? Anxious or slightly depressed? Ask your doctor about Distraction!
Distraction: Because in 2020, feeling your feelings is always optional.
Side effects may include: Worsening depression and anxiety, complete disconnection from yourself, your loved ones and life itself.
Lucky for us, we don’t need a prescription to distract ourselves.
Anytime we feel that slightly uncomfortable emotion, thought, or physical sensation, all we have to do is pick up our smartphone and connect our mind to a feed of information, news and photos.
All our worries and uncomfortable feelings hang suspended in limbo while we passively allow “the feed” to flow through our consciousness.
It’s creepy, really — but it’s become a significant part of everyday life. On average, Americans spent 144 minutes a day on social media in 2019 — that’s 2 hours and 24 minutes.
This is not to say everyone looks at social media only to avoid uncomfortable emotions — intentionally engaging in social media for fun and connection can be a wholesome way to relax.
But if you’re like me, you also feel a compulsion to pick up your smartphone anytime you feel bored, anxious, self-conscious or any other undesirable feeling, and it’s become an unhealthy habit that disconnects you from yourself, your loved ones and from the life unfolding around you.
Precious moments are being lost to “the feed.”
But we aren’t powerless over distraction — While corporations won’t stop making distracting devices anytime soon, we do get to choose how we respond to them.
And more importantly, we get to choose how we respond to those uncomfortable feelings that drive us toward distraction.
We first have to understand the negative costs that come with habitual distraction, and why we constantly feel pulled toward it.
Then, using a simple practice of mindfulness and inquiry, we can kick our addiction to distraction and reclaim our connection to ourselves and lives.
3 Powerful Costs of Habitual Distraction
We can’t begin to learn any practice until we truly understand why it’s needed.
We’ve already established that when we stop using our smartphones and social media for fun, pleasure and connection and start using it as a distraction from our feelings, it becomes an unhealthy habit.
It’s unhealthy because it disconnects you from 3 important areas of yourself and your life:
#1 Disconnection from Your Intuition
How will you know how to live in sync with your inner values and desires if you cut yourself off from your own thoughts and feelings? This is what happens when we plug our minds directly into a feed of information several times a day.
Disconnecting from your intuition halts personal growth and change before it can begin. The process of change begins with thoughts and feelings — the aching feeling of unrealized potential and the desire for personal fulfillment and meaning.
Oftentimes the thoughts we disconnect from have to do with the fact that we want more out of ourselves than what we are currently giving. Disconnection from intuition means cutting yourself off from needed change.
#2 Disconnection from Your Creativity
When you’re connected to “the feed,” you may be thinking, but those thoughts aren’t purely your own. You aren’t generating them organically — you’re being fed prompts — often emotionally charged, biased prompts that tell you what to think about and how you should feel.
This creates a whole host of problems of course — with the obvious effect of becoming tribal, closed-minded and volatile in our political views.
But an overlooked consequence is loss of creativity. We have become drained of original ideas.
All you have to do is look at Hollywood for the last few years and realize all they can manage to do is recycle everything from the 80’s and 90’s — the last decades when we were free from “the feed.”
Of course we’re all itching to see our favorites when times were good and pure, when there was so much potential in us, before we started settling for less than the life we want.
#3 Disconnection from Loved Ones
We tend to take most aspects of life for granted, so we feel like there’s plenty of time to veg out on our phones.
I am ashamed to admit how many times I’ve looked down at my phone when my son is practicing dance in the living room and wants me to watch him.
Heaven forbid, if something happened to him the next day, I would be devastated that I didn’t pay attention to him in those special moments.
The tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in early 2020, as well as the spread of the Coronavirus should be powerful reminders that tomorrow is never promised for any of us, and it’s important to be present with our loved ones while we can.
Kicking Your Addiction: The Simple 3-Step Process
The costs of habitual distraction are high. So how do we quit?
I want to be clear that quitting social media and smartphone usage entirely isn’t what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is a heightened awareness of the costs of habitual use.
The goal is to shine a light on an unconscious habit, so it no longer controls you or disconnects you from the important things in your life.
Step 1: Notice and Investigate
The first step is to simply notice each time you have the urge to distract yourself, and gently investigate internally, to uncover the root of the urge.
Each time you notice an urge, just pause and take a few deep breaths, allowing yourself to be present with all of your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations.
Addiction therapists call this purposeful mindfulness, “surfing the urge,” because it’s like riding a wave until it eventually breaks.
As you breathe and stay present, gently and non-judgmentally ask yourself:
What am I unwilling to feel right now?
To try and kick my own addiction to looking at Facebook on my phone, I spent about a week just noticing and investigating my urge to tap on the app and start scrolling endlessly.
One trigger was clear — anxiety. Anytime I felt fear or dread, wondered if i’d said or done something wrong, or became frustrated with how my life was going, I’d reach for the phone immediately.
I even felt an overwhelming urge when I was frustrated while driving in traffic, when it was impossible to even look at the phone!
The anxiety trigger was easy to spot. But I also noticed a craving to look at Facebook first thing in the morning when my alarm went off. Why then? My mind is usually clear and free from anxiety.
After surfing my urge, I uncovered the reason: The morning is a blank slate, full of opportunity. I was feeling the weight of responsibility for my choices in the morning, and I didn’t want to face my day.
Noticing and investigating your urges shines the light of awareness on what unique internal struggle is driving your habit of distraction. When you’re no longer unconscious to it, it begins to lose control over you.
Step 2: Let Go of Control
As I was surfing my urges, I noticed my desperate grasping for my phone during moments of stress was grounded in a need for control.
Human brains are natural control freaks, and feelings like anxiety, jealousy, frustration or sadness make us feel out of control.
Connecting to “the feed” gives us a feeling of stability. A ground of information to set our thoughts back in line.
After you’ve noticed and investigated your urge, while you continue taking slow and deliberate breaths, allow your mind to let go of control.
This is difficult and scary, so be gentle and kind to yourself. It may be helpful to use a reassuring phrase, out loud or in your mind: “It’s okay to let go of control. These feelings belong.”
The goal is to pay attention to the inner grasping for control, and to softly relax it. Picture a tightly closed fist gently opening. (Or you can physically do this with your fist to get the feeling).
Letting go is one of the “7 attitudes of mindfulness” according to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, meditation teacher and founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR). In his words:
“Letting go is a way of letting things be, without grasping or pushing away.”
The practice of internally letting go of controlling our thoughts and feelings can reduce the need to use distraction as a form of control.
Step 3: Decide
After you’ve noticed and “surfed the urge,” and allowed yourself to let go of control of your inner experience, it’s time to decide if you want to proceed with looking at your smartphone or other mode of distraction.
As I said earlier, looking at your smartphone and engaging in social media use can be fun and entertaining. So how do you know when it’s healthy or unhealthy?
The reasons you discovered earlier in the practice should be a factor — were you avoiding your feelings or just seeking pleasure and connection?
It’s important to note that sometimes, distracting yourself from uncomfortable feelings can be the compassionate thing to do. If you’re suffering and looking at social media really lifts your mood, then that’s okay.
This is where another important question can help you decide in each particular moment:
Is there a cost to distracting myself right now?
Will you be missing out on something important by engaging in the distraction?
Maybe you’re sitting in a beautiful park, the sky is a brilliant blue and the trees are blowing in the wind. Do you really want to look at Facebook or Twitter instead?
Maybe your spouse or child is sitting next to you on the couch. Have you paid attention to them yet today? Gave them a hug or had a conversation?
Maybe you’ve got work sitting on your desk that’s causing you anxiety. Will delaying it help your anxiety or make it worse?
Weigh the costs, and then decide to pick up the device, or leave it where it is.
Reconnecting to Yourself and Your Life
You’re feeling the pull again.
It’s been a long day of work and you had a tense conversation with your boss. You’re home now, ready to plop down on the couch and get lost in your Facebook news feed.
But this time is different: You notice the pull, instead of immediately giving in to it. You pause, take a few deep breaths and lean into your feelings.
You realize you’re unwilling to feel the awkward and anxious feelings that come with having an uncomfortable conversation. You also realize you care deeply about what your boss thinks of you, and that you always try your best at your job. You let go of control and allow these feelings to run their course.
You can hear your children giggling as they jump on the trampoline outside. The pure joy of their laughter beckons to you.
You decide to go outside, feeling the warmth of the sun and watching them play, leaving your phone (and “the feed”) in your work bag.
Smartphones and news feeds are part of the modern world and are here to stay, but they don’t have to disconnect you from your life.
When you notice and investigate your urges, you reconnect with the creativity that comes from the willingness to experience your own emotions and thoughts.
When you let go of controlling your inner world, you learn the lessons that only come from honoring uncomfortable feelings.
When you make a conscious decision to put down the phone, you make sure you never miss another precious moment with your loved ones.
Your prescription for distraction is no longer needed — you can just say no.
And say yes to life.