Unplug. Disconnect. Nowadays, technology is considered the evil distractor-making anybody it touches into unproductive zombies.
But is it technology’s fault? Technology has been instrumental to achieve what seemed impossible in the past. It has saved lives and it has been a major source of livelihood for many.
Should we blame technology for being distracted? — IMHO, no.
What moves the ‘numbered’ balls in billiards? What drives these balls to go around the pool table? Is it the ‘cue ball’ or the billiard stick? Yes, many of us would assume that. But is that correct? No. It’s actually the player pushing the stick, to hit the cue ball, that moves the numbered balls.
You can consider the cue ball and the billiard stick technology. They’re the instruments that project the intent of the player to move the balls around the pool table. Without these instruments, it would be a weird game of billiards. Without the player, these instruments are useless.
Technology is not the enemy-it’s our undisciplined mindset that improvements. Remember, technology is an amplifier. If you have bad behavior, technology will just magnify that bad behavior exponentially.
Okay, fine. Without your smartphone or apps like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, you wouldn’t have to worry about being distracted. But are you addressing the root cause of being distracted? Won’t you just fall back to that behavior once you get an opportunity to use those distractions again?
Used intentionally, your smartphone and its apps can make your life so much easier. Need to find the closets gas station? Boom. Need to satisfy a late-night Thai food craving? Boom. Need to connect with loved ones and friends halfway around the world? Boom. Need to consume knowledge or news from sources you trust and value? Boom.
Nir Eyal, lecturer and author of bestselling books “Hooked” and “Indistractable,” talks about his four steps on how to disarm internal triggers of distractions . According to Eyal, distractions are triggered by discomfort. The discomfort of not knowing something-you Google it. The discomfort of being bored-you flip through Instagram.
We will not talk about all four steps. I’d like to focus more on steps #1 and #4:
Step 1: “Look for the discomfort that precedes the distractions”
Something is causing you to reach down on that phone, open that extra tab on your browser, or tap on your favorite app. You’ll need to identify these discomforts and be ready to act once you realize you’re about to be triggered by these discomforts.
Personally, I know I start to feel the discomfort right before I’m about to tackle something difficult and important. If you’re about to do something fun and easy-nothing’s going to stop you from doing it. But if it’s a challenging task that requires full focus and mental exertion, your tendency is to find these mental detours and side street to wonder off aimlessly.
Familiarize yourself with those discomforts so you can anticipate the triggers to these detours. Once you know that it’s about to happen, you’ll need to find a way to pull yourself back to the task at hand.
Though I still have so much to learn on this craft, I’d like to share how I try to keep my focus and avoid distractions in finishing a task. In my home office, I work with three monitors. The main iMac screen, and then two other 24-inch monitors. If I want to be focus on a task and avoid getting sidetracked by other things, I make sure that I only have one app open in front of me. If I’m writing, I only have the word processing application on my screen. Then, I close all other applications and I make sure to turn off all notifications. On top of that, I would power off the two extra monitors. Then, I would maximize the application (e.g. MS Word) that I’m using so all I see is that application on the screen.
These things help me avoid looking at other things on the background. To help me focus on a task, I create mental milestones before I would take a break. If you’re still new to this practice, it’s good to set a very manageable milestone.
For example, if you’re writing a book or a blog post, you can set a goal to write 1,000 words before taking a break. Be sure to set a goal that is not too easy, and not too difficult. You want a goal that will stretch your capabilities a bit, but not too hard that you would easily give up and fail.
Creating these milestones to take breaks will help you satisfy that discomfort. You would also want to set a timer on how long you would take that break. If you don’t set a time limit on your break, you may not go back to the task you’re trying to accomplish.
Gradually, you would start to increase the threshold of your milestones. As you get used to controlling the urge to satisfy the discomfort, you’ll need to keep stretching that skill. In my example, I would stop at 1,000 words, then take a five-minute break. After a week of doing that, I would increase it to 1,500 words, then 2,000, then 2,500.
Step 4: “Beware of Liminal Moments”
Eyal describes liminal moments as “transitions from one thing to another throughout our days.” These are moments that you mindlessly do something as you transition from one activity to the next.
Imagine walking into an elevator. As you stand inside the elevator waiting for others to enter or as you wait to reach your floor, you take out your phone, aimlessly looking through your emails or scrolling through Instagram or Facebook.
Another example of liminal moments is when you purposefully open a webpage on your browser, but during that couple of seconds of loading time, you would open another tab to open another arbitrary webpage just because you already got bored waiting for the first page to load. You may have also pulled out your phone at a stop light, just to scroll through posts on Facebook. Those are liminal moments.
Eyal suggests that we “surf the urge” to avoid these moments. Though these moments are not bad in isolation, they are gateways to larger distractions that would totally sidetrack the things you need to accomplish. Surfing the urge is a technique when you “notice the sensations and riding them like a wave.”
The key to surfing the urge is to not totally deny the urge, but also not giving in to it at that moment. Eyal suggests a 10-minute rule. Tell yourself: “Okay, Don. I know you want to pick-up that phone and look at Instagram. But let’s do that 10 minutes from now.” This coping technique helps you identify the urge and buildup a tolerance to it.
In conclusion, getting rid of technology is not the answer to distractions. You’ll have to find ways to control your impulsive urge to use technology when you get bored, feel discomfort, or when you hit those liminal moments. Controlling the urge helps us to be more disciplined and intentional with our actions. Once we’ve become better at that, we don’t have to lose the benefits of technology in our lives. Again, don’t break-up with technology-it’s you, not them.
Can you describe liminal moments in your day? What do you do during those moments? Identify the practical benefits of technology in your life. What techniques do you use to help overcome the impulsive urges that distract you?
Originally published at https://donvarela.com on August 21, 2020.