It’s as if going a single second without something to occupy our minds would be intolerable. There’s a compulsion to fill the space with something to read, watch, listen to, eat, etc.
This is an ancient human problem. Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal nailed it back in the 17th century: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” But there’s no denying that the internet, and especially our phones, have made the problem worse.
We procrastinate on Instagram when our schoolwork gets a tiny bit boring. We check Snapchat stories while ignoring the friends we’re with. We leave Netflix on in the background while we try to fall asleep.
When we cram every moment with distractions, we miss out on the simple pleasures of life. “I feel bad when I’m too busy taking photos to truly be in awe of what I’m looking at,” says Seamus, a junior in Boston, Massachusetts.
There’s also a desperate quality to the way we binge on distractions. We’re so scared of a content-free moment that we maintain a frenzy of activity to stave it off. It’s agitating and exhausting, but we’re so used to living this way that we barely notice.
I used to feel enormous resistance to going to bed and would fill my time with pointless activity just to put it off. I’d spend hours scrolling through social media or watching YouTube videos just to postpone the moment when I’d have to put all my distractions away, close my eyes, and be alone with myself.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. In a 2016 Student Health 101 survey of high school students, two-thirds said that they stayed up later than they meant to “on a pretty regular basis” because they were using technology. More than half felt tired at school most or all of the time. Harvard sociologist Dr. Steven Gortmaker has spoken frankly about the physical effects of screen time. He told the Harvard Gazette that research has shown that young people “who watch more television have higher rates of obesity” and that those “with access to small screens [e.g., smartphones] had less sleep.”
It’s not just sleep and physical health, either. Studies have found that using social media is associated with lower mood and depression, and a 2013 study found a potential link between social media use and poor academic performance.
Excessive screen time can even alter the structure of your brain and may cause symptoms such as withdrawal and neglect of important relationships. The research on that issue deals with cases of intense digital addiction, but psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley wrote in a Psychology Today post of the “risk that screen time is creating subtle damage even in [young people] with ‘regular’ exposure.”
I’m not suggesting that we should all toss our phones and go back to smoke signals. Screen time can be fun and useful when we don’t overdo it, and tech can be a vital tool. Some folks, such as hearing-impaired or visually impaired people, use mobile apps to help them communicate and get around. We don’t need to ditch our devices. We just need to loosen our addiction to them.
So how do we do that?
As a meditation teacher, I often teach the practice of simple non-distraction: Being quietly where we are without reaching for some diversion or entertainment to fill the quiet. No complex technique—just noticing when the urge arises to do something, consume something, or fixate on something, and politely saying, “No, thank you.”
Here are five ways to practice simple non-distraction:
1. The next time you have “empty time”—waiting in line, on the bus, etc.—try not to pull out your phone, e-reader, tablet, or any other distraction for five minutes.
Instead, you might rest your attention gently on the sensation of breathing, observe the people around you, or do nothing in particular. See what it feels like to go just five minutes with nothing to fill the moment. While you’re playing with this, the temptation to do something might bubble up. That’s okay. You can treat that as just one more interesting thing to observe.
2. When you need to walk somewhere, experiment with leaving your headphones in your pocket.
Decide not to listen to music. Resist the urge to search for Pokémon. Enjoy the simplicity of walking without distractions. One fun way is to pick one of your senses and use your attention to “zoom in” on what you’re experiencing through that sense. For example, you can zoom in on your sense of touch, feeling the cool wind on your face and hands, the rustle of fabric against your skin, or the sensations in your feet as you walk. You might focus on the shifting pattern of sounds around you or take in the details of the visual landscape. You can even make a game of it. For example, when I’m walking somewhere, I sometimes like to pick a color and try to spot as many objects of that color as I can.
3. Let’s be real: You probably use your phone on the toilet.
I’m not judging, but there are compelling reasons not to do this:
- Risk of dropping phone in toilet
- It’s gross (see point A)
- Opportunity to practice non-distraction
Consider declaring your bathroom a phone-free zone.
4. Make your morning device-free.
Try staying away from your devices until after you’ve washed up and eaten breakfast. You’ll start your morning in a mindful place and set a solid precedent for your day. Pro tip: Put your phone on airplane mode the night before (your alarm will still work). That way, if you need to briefly use your phone, you won’t get hit with a zillion notifications.
5. Speaking of notifications, do you really need an alert every time you get a like or comment?
It’s hard enough to keep our noses out of our phones without them actively interrupting to say, “Hey, look at me.” I’ve found it helpful to consider what notifications I could do without and then turn those off. I still get notifications for texts, Twitter replies, and Snaps, but I turned off my email, Facebook, and Instagram notifications. It works for me.
By practicing non-distraction, we discover that a content-free moment is something to savor, not something to fear. When we drop the exhausting effort to fill every moment, we don’t tumble into some hideous void. Instead, we might find simple contentment waiting under all the noise.
Dunckley, V. L. (2014, February 27). Gray matters: Too much screen time damages the brain. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
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