“Distractions make life seem way shorter than it is.”
~ Mokokoma Mokhonoana
What’s the next thing?
How can I entertain myself? Where’s the next mindless stream of drivel I can distract myself with? What do I need to turn off my brain?
In this world of ever-present distractions, it can be challenging to live in the present moment—to exist and to be who we really are (see Exist).
The world seems designed to ensure that we always have sufficient distraction to never have to be alone with ourselves. Why is that? Have modern people become so lazy that they can’t bear the thought of reflection? Have we become so distracted that we’re not able to spend time with our own thoughts?
When distractions aren’t intentional
We engage in some distractions intentionally. We have movie night. We engage in social media. We play games on our phone. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these activities, especially if we’re active participants when we take part in them (see Participate). But we also engage in activities mindlessly or unintentionally. Activities like checking social media or email compulsively—almost automatically—are not healthy.
On the surface, it’s not that big a deal. You’re just taking a moment or two for a mental break from what you’re working on. Problems start to arise when we begin engaging in compulsive distractions every time we reach a mental breaking point. When we perhaps should be reflecting on what we’ve just done, or thinking ahead to what’s coming next, we turn our brains off and put up a barrier to the mental processes that might have provided a new insight or new ideas.
We also might engage in these distractions when we are faced with a challenge or quandary. Rather than sit back, consider the problem and develop solutions, we mentally checkout, we read our e-mail or play a few rounds of a game on our phones. We’re training our brains to slow down or switch channels rather than developing productive mental processes.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with taking mental breaks during the day—in fact, they’re necessary to keep your focus in the long run. But what we want to avoid is compulsive distractions that occur frequently or during times when we need to be productive.
Consequences of distraction
Being unintentionally distracted from focused attention is harmful for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that we’re missing out on something that might be interesting, insightful, or productive. But there are other, more long-term consequences.
- Falling out of practice of being mindful. We can literally forget how to be alone with ourselves to reflect, pay attention to our senses, or be in touch with the signals from our bodies (see Signals). We might engage in some of these activities between our distracted moments, but unless we give them the time they deserve, we’ll never be good at them.
- Developing bad habits. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from what we’re doing, the less likely we are to be mindful when we need or want to be. Rather than be reflective and mindful as a habit, we turn to those compulsive distractions. What we do regularly is what we’ll most likely do whenever we have a spare moment.
- Failing to develop positive habits. If we fill our spare time with mindless activities, or activities just meant to kill time, we have less time for activities that are rewarding in meaningful ways. These might include creative pursuits, like music or art, meditation or enhancing our spiritual lives, or just simple reflection—getting to know who we are and where we’re going (see Reflect).
Don’t fill your life with the mundane. Take control of what you do and what you think. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.