Digital distractions plague all of us to varying extents, preventing us—myself included—from doing the things we want to do. This is a guide for anyone who wants to devote time to practice . . . but ends up fooling around online or playing iPhone trivia games (is that just me?) instead.
Recognize When it Happens
One of the insidious things about the distraction habit is that we often don’t even realize it’s happening. It sneaks up on us, like old age, and before we know it we’re addicted and powerless.
But we’re not really. The power we have is our awareness, and you can develop it right now. Start paying attention to what sites you visit, how often you’re looking at your phone, how long you’re spending in front of a screen all day.
When I wanted to quit smoking, for instance, I developed an awareness of my smoking urges. I carried around a pencil and a small scrap of paper, and put a tally mark on it each time I had the urge to smoke. I could still smoke, but I’d have to put a tally mark first.
This built my awareness muscle, and it allowed me to insert a small space between the urge and my subsequent action. Into that space, however small, I could eventually fit a choice. That was where the power came in.
See What’s Going On
Once you’re aware of the distractions and urges, you can start to examine their causes. After hours of following temptations online the other day (I was learning about two new interests, programming and cycling), I stopped and asked myself, “What’s this all about?”
It was about fear—the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to screw it all up. But it actually doesn’t matter even if I do screw it up. My value as a person isn’t tied to my successes or failures.
On the flip side of fear, my distractions are also often about fantasies: I really hope that I’ll be a great programmer or start doing century bike rides or Ironman triathlons. In reality, I don’t have time to do any of that. So I have to let the fantasies go, because they can’t come true unless I’m willing to devote my entire life to one of them for a year or two.
So you’re building awareness and you’ve examined your causes. If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes to walk around your office or house—or better yet, get outside—and contemplate these things for a few minutes. This article can wait.
Now there are further, concrete steps you can take to rid yourself of digital distractions and focus on what you want or need to do. Consider taking one or more of these actions:
- Close as many browser tabs as you can. Bookmark some if you like, or save them with a “read later” service like Instapaper or Pocket. Let the others go.
- Block your favorite distractions for a few hours. Games, social media, news sites. You don’t really need to go to them that often.
- Write down the times you’re going to check email and other messages. Want to process email for 20 minutes at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m.? Write that down. Stick to it.
- Get away. Go outside for a walk. Ride your bike. Go for a run. Take the kids to the park.
Find a place with no WiFi, or turn off your router.
- Delete social media accounts and any distracting apps on your phone—whatever you tend to turn to when you want a bump of distraction.
Of course, there are other things you can do. Go on a retreat. Practice mindfulness in bits throughout the day. Take a day off from looking at any screens. The possibilities are endless.
Consider What’s Important
We try to do everything, but then we’re not really focusing on anything. We’re not going to make any of our little fantasies come true if we pursue all of them at the same time. Decide: What is the one thing you want to pursue right now? Can you focus on that for at least a month? If not, maybe it’s not that important to you.
In the big picture, what’s truly most important to you? Pick three to four of the most important things in your life. How much of your time is devoted to these things? Can you cut out other things to focus on them? Can you give your most important things your full attention?
In my life, my writing, my family, my health, and my learning are my four most important things. And no, I don’t always devote my full attention to them. I often need to step back and remind myself what’s important.
Fall In Love All Over Again
In Pico Iyer’s book The Art of Stillness, he says that “sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.” This is absolutely true, and it makes clear why distractions can be so harmful: they’re turning us away from the miracle of life all around us.
Sit still for a few minutes and pay attention to what’s around you. Notice the quality of the light. Appreciate any people who might be nearby. Notice the quality of your thoughts, the sensations of various parts of your body, the loveliness of your breath as it comes in and out.
Fall in love with life all over again. And then devote yourself to it completely.
HOW TO FORM THE MEDITATION HABIT
Meditation is perhaps the most important habit to maintain if you want to change other habits. It’s a pretty simple habit to form, but the doing is everything:
Commit to just two minutes a day. If you want the habit to stick, start simply. All you’re committing to is two minutes each day. You can go up to five minutes if you’re feeling good about it, and increase it over time—slowly.
Pick a time and trigger. Not an exact time of day, but a general time, like right after you wake up or during your lunch hour. The trigger should be something you already do regularly, like drink your first cup of coffee, brush your teeth, have lunch, or arrive home from work.
Find a quiet spot. Sometimes early morning at home is best, before others in your house are awake and making noise. Or it could be a spot in a park or on the beach or some other soothing setting. It really doesn’t matter where as long as you can sit without being bothered for a few minutes.
Sit comfortably. Don’t fuss too much about how you sit, what you wear, what you sit on, and so on. I like to sit on a pillow on the floor with my back leaning against a wall, because I’m very inflexible. Others use a meditation cushion or bench, but my opinion is that any cushion or pillow will do, and some people can sit on a bare floor comfortably. Don’t go out and buy things you don’t already have.
Focus on your breath. As you breathe in, follow your breath in through your nostrils, then into your throat, then into your lungs and belly. As you breathe out, follow your breath out back into the world. If it helps, count: one breath in, two breath out, three breath in, four breath out. When you get to ten, start over. If you lose track, start over. If you find your mind wandering (and you will), bring it gently back to your breath. Repeat this process for the few minutes of your meditation.
That’s it. Practice for two minutes, every day, after the same trigger each day, and after a month you’ll have a daily meditation habit.
Originally published on Zen Habits, a blog by Leo Babauta.