How to Un-Distract Yourself and Reclaim Your Attention

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As we turn gently into 2018, I’ve resolved to be ruthlessly honest with myself about screen addiction. It’s not just an urban legend – it’s a real thing we are all vulnerable to, that is, all of us who use the internet, computers, and smart phones. If you don’t use those things or use them sparingly, you have my admiration, and even a little bit of my envy.

For the rest of us, we need strategies to prevent distraction. At least, I do. I freely admit it! If chocolate chip cookies are in the house, I will eat them, which is why I try not to buy them (or make them) in the first place. I am human; therefore, like most humans, I have a certain weakness for sugar. Similarly, if my phone is in my hand, I will check my email.

Because I choose to have computerized devices in my life, I find I need to monitor my usage of them with some diligence in order to be productive, especially since I am self-employed and largely set my own schedule. Below are a few things that I’ve discovered work well in the ongoing quest to deliberately focus my time and attention with choices and goals that serve my own creative evolution, help me get my work done, and contribute positively to the lives of others.

1. To Do Lists

If I’m going to sit down in front of a computer, I absolutely need to have a list of specific things to do. This is the only thing that will prevent me from reading news articles, researching stray ideas that float through my mind, shopping, and scrolling the FB newsfeed all day long. I also like to remember that there are teams of thousands of engineers out there working tirelessly to create algorithms, behavior cues, and personalized content to distract me. What do I have to defend myself against them? I have my To Do List.

Every morning, I wake up, meditate, and make a list of what I will do that day. Some days the list has one or two things, some days thirty things. I eat breakfast, and BEFORE I go to my desk, I have the list in hand, so that I know what do to. It’s worth noting that I actually write the list by hand, with a real pen, in a real notebook, away from all devices.

This system is not perfect. Of course I often still read the news and check my email, but because I have the list and specific things to achieve, I waste much less time in this way. I manage to stay relatively focused and minimize distractions throughout my work session, whether I’m sitting down for an hour or an entire afternoon.

2. Proactive Enriching Activities

The second thing that I find necessary when living with devices is to have planned non-scrolling activities scheduled into my day, activities that I deliberately engage in to prevent distraction in the first place. For example, I’ve made a rule that I’m not allowed to sit at the computer after 8pm. Instead, this is my designated reading time (as in real books) on the couch. I treasure this time and find it both enjoyable and professionally useful.

Morning exercise is another scheduled activity that I use to ensure that 30 more minutes of my waking day are dedicated to my health and well-being, and therefore cannot be co-opted by FB scrolling or other types of fidgeting. Pre-planned activities might include exercise, household chores, in-person or online classes, or family time. Even online content (newspapers, curated blogs), as long as I'm deliberately choosing it, can fall into the category of Proactive Enriching Activities.

These activities may change month to month and year to year, but I try to keep building them into my days so that I'll simply have less opportunity to become distracted by social media or mindless screen habits.

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3. Social Time

Lastly, I spend time with other people - no phones allowed. I am a textbook introvert and sometimes have to push myself to socialize. However, I do sincerely believe that we need strong social bonds to sustain our general health and well-being as well as to ensure a safe and free society. Digital habits slowly but surely erode those bonds, even while deceptively claiming to support them.

It's taken me a while, but I have now cultivated a few friendships in the community where I live. Even if I'm in my introverted cocoon mode, I make an effort to meet these folks in person for coffee, dinner, or a drink on a regular basis. A meal shared with others is a meal I can't be held captive by my phone or laptop, one hand swiping while the other shovels untasted food into my mouth.

When I'm with people, I try to ask questions I don’t know the answers to, and I practice attentive listening, which I believe to be one of the most underrated business and life skills in our contemporary world. Others help me remember that, like them, I am a complex, brilliant, frightening, imperfect human being, and that we’re all in this life together.

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What are your favorite strategies for staying focused and avoiding screen and social media distractions? Leave your thoughts in the comments!