As I blowing our the candles on my birthday cake, one of my friends surprised me with a question: what was the most important thing I had learned this year?
The idea of distractions had been rolling around in my head.
Why am I thinking about distractions?
I felt that I was spending too much time checking, reading, and watching the news that it filled up the time when I wasn’t working or with my friends. My particular poisons were podcasts, Youtube, and online news.
Two podcasts really nailed this feeling. I was not alone. This feeling was manufactured.
- Note to Self did a week-long bootcamp called Infomagical, where the goal was to be more deliberate about the information that we consume. Each day of the week had a challenge to try out techniques for combating this distraction.
- On the Ezra Klein Show, Andrew Sullivan talked about his 10 day meditation after quitting blogging ( 10:00, 14:50). Most poignant was when he said that there’s “an entire economy built on [this distraction]” and asks: what are we distracting ourselves from?
Infomagical recognizes the feeling of being overwhelmed. More content is generated than ever and we drown in the tsunami unless we’re able to actively choose what we read and watch. This series really hit on some of the feelings that I experienced: being overwhelmed with news, clicking on link after another, reading everything on the front page, reading but not talking about the news, and allowing the avalanche of news to consume my time and attention.
Andrew Sullivan knows that this content is generated on purpose. Media outlets fight for our attention so that they can sell this attention to advertisers to either support their journalism or to just make money. It’s not just news, it’s Youtube, HBO, podcasts, Instagram. My favorite example of this comes from The Next Web. When you finish reading an article, you’re greeted with the message “Shh. Here’s some distraction” implying that they produce distractions but also feed it to you over your objections.
I’m not saying that all distractions are bad or that all distraction is sinister. Quartz and Vox tell me about things that I care about. CrashCourse reminds me that reading literature has something to offer about the human experience. Giving up my Sunday night to HBO connects me to other people. Listening to the Ezra Klein Show made me think about the ethics of our food. Most of these things entertain me. It’s when we’re not able to control the flow of information into our brains (addicted) that this becomes worrisome.
Why is it a problem if we’re distracted and entertained?
Because when you fill up all your time with distractions, they’re probably masking other problems. It becomes easier to find distraction than to face the problems that you’re trying to avoid.
- How should I make a living?
- What does it mean to love someone?
- Why should I have children?
- Should I relearn my native language?
- How do I maintain my family’s culture?
- Which friendships do I value and which of those am I neglecting?
- What should I be doing about the homeless people in our cities?
- How do I make society more fair?
- Should I be eating animals?
- Why don’t we treat our veterans the way that they deserve?
- Are we building Cylons who will destroy us?
- How do I make my life matter?
This piece is what I wished I had said at my birthday party. What I ended up saying was something like this: “I’ve been thinking a lot about distractions a lot recently. A lot of life is distractions, but when you remove all those distractions you get to the real questions that you’ve been avoiding. That’s the stuff that really moves you forward in your life. So I’m trying to be more mindful about how much time I spend on the internet”.
What can we do about it?
Infomagical offers some suggestions. Their challenges are meant to help you take control of your information intake.
I came across Bullet Journal recently too. I often find myself in the situation when there is nothing on my mind, like when I’ve just woken up, and my first instinct is to check my phone. The phone’s ability to grab you before you have found your focus is the biggest challenge of focus. When my task management system is on the internet, it’s easy to avoid doing that task by popping open another tab and wander off into the internet. Having an offline task manager means that you’re thinking about what you have to do before you have a chance to take you off on a journey.
Now, get off the internet and talk to someone about this.
(Space left intentionally blank for you to think before clicking on to the next thing.)
More about this idea
While writing this, I thought about some further reading and watching related to this idea. I left them until the end so that it would be less distracting.