Recently, the BBC asked me to provide a few tips for how to distraction-train our minds to manage distraction. Notice the phrasing. It’s not about how to eliminate distractions from your phone or your computer, but rather it’s about us. To regain control over our attention, our time, and our life, you need to first regain your brain. In this animated video, I provide some practical advice for how we can finally take matters into our own hands to fight distractions instead of waiting for the tech companies to fix the problem for us.
The following is a transcript of the video:
Do you ever find yourself trying to concentrate and you can’t seem to focus? Why are we so distracted these days? And is technology the root cause of the problem, or is there something deeper going on?
My name is Nir Eyal, and I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing about the deeper psychology of distraction.
When I found myself struggling with distraction, I decided to do what many people advise and got rid of the distracting technology.
I got myself a flip-phone without any apps. All it did was phone calls and text messages. Then I got a got processor from the 1990s without any sort of internet connection.
I’d start reading a book from my bookshelf. I’d tidy up my desk. I’d take out the trash even–just to avoid the thing that I didn’t want to do.
I had only focused on the external triggers–the pings and dings that were leading me toward distraction.
What I hadn’t focused on and what turns out to be a much more common source of distraction, are the internal triggers–the uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape.
When we’re lonely, we check Facebook.
When we’re uncertain, we google.
When we’re bored, we check the news, stock prices, sports scores–anything to not feel those uncomfortable sensations that we’re not ready to experience.
Here are a few techniques I discovered in my research that could help us stay on track.
1. Plan your day (but not with a to-do list)
First what you want to do is to make sure you plan your day.
Two-thirds of people don’t keep any sort of calendar–any kind of schedule in their day. Well, the fact of the matter is if you don’t plan your day, somebody is going to plan it for you.
Many of us believe in this myth of the to-do list. I used to think that just by writing things down they’d get done. But of course, I’d go from day to day to day recycling the bottom half of my to-do list because I wasn’t making time to do those tasks.
So the best place to start is not with the output of what you want to get done every day, but with the input of how much time you have to devote to every task.
2. Use social media and email at set times
So distraction has many consequences.
One of them is that we find that when someone is interrupted during a task, it can take up to twenty minutes for them to refocus on what they were doing. Many times we don’t even realize how much worse our output is when we…
So check email in one solid block.
If you enjoy using social media, that’s great, but make time for it in your day so it’s not something you’re only using every time you feel bored or lonely.
3. Surf the urge
Researchers have found that surfing the urge is an effective way to master our internal triggers.
In a smoking cessation study, researchers found that when they taught smokers how to notice the sensation and be mindful of what they were experiencing, they become much more likely to stop smoking.
By surfing the urge and noticing what it is that we’re experiencing and allowing that sensation to crest then subside–kind of like how a surfer might surf a wave–we allow that emotion, that uncomfortable internal trigger, to crest and then pass.
4. Beware of “liminal moments”.
The next thing that we want to do is be careful of liminal moments. Liminal moments are these periods of time when we are transitioning from one task to the other.
So, for example, if you start checking your email on the way back from a meeting and you’re finally at your desk and you keep checking your email instead of getting to the task at hand, well not that liminal moment has turned into a distraction.
So be careful of those times when you’re transitioning from one task to the next.
5. Remember you’re not powerless.
A study of alcoholics found that the number one determinant of whether someone will stay sober after a rehabilitation program was not their level of physical dependency–it wasn’t what was happening in their body. In fact, it was what was happening in their minds.
The people who were most likely to stay sober were those who believed they had the power to stop.
So when we think that technology is hijacking our brains or it’s addicting everyone, we are making it more likely that we won’t be able to put technology distractions in their place.
So don’t believe this lie that there’s nothing we can do.
Clearly there’s so much we can do to help make sure that we get the best out of these products without letting them get the best of us.
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