Distraction is addictive: Here are 5 ways to kick the habit


I’ve been watching re-runs of Big Bang Theory. It’s amazing how I manage to find time for TV even though I don’t have time for all the work that’s piling up. Let alone time to go to the gym!

Big Bang Theory is hilarious, and I do enjoy watching it, but I’ve started binge watching it at all times of the day, and late at night when sleep eludes me.

Distraction really is addictive! All the research says it’s rewiring my brain, so the more distracted I am, the more I need a fix from my distraction of choice. Judson Brewer has written an excellent book on the addiction process, The Craving Mind, which explains exactly what’s going on in your brain when you’re addicted to distraction.

“Distraction really is addictive! All the research says it’s rewiring my brain, so the more distracted I am, the more I need a fix of my distraction of choice.”

I imagine my addiction to distraction is like a river. The river is constantly flowing, and if I choose to jump in, I am easily carried away by the current. Running the rapids can be fun, but it’s also dangerous. I need a life jacket just to stay afloat, and it’s difficult to get out because the pull of the current is so strong. But I can’t stay in this river forever – the only way to get dry is to get out!

When distraction really takes hold of me, like this, I have to pause and ask myself – what’s really going on?

I have to acknowledge that I’m feeling overloaded and overwhelmed – in both my work and my personal life. At work, I find myself jumping from one task to another – never really able to focus. But when I dig deeper to find out what is so painful that it’s driving me to distraction, I find myself thinking about my Mum. 

For more than five years, I’ve cared for my mother while watching her rapid decline with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, and I feel great sadness when I see how helpless my Mum has become, and intense fear that it will happen to me. When you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, it’s like staring into one possible future, one that I don’t want for myself or any of the people I love.

Reflecting in this way, it’s easy to forgive myself for staying up late watching re-runs of The Big Bang Theory. And it’s safe to admit that this state of constant distraction is beginning to be a problem that needs my attention.

Distraction is a way to get away from your experience when it’s too painful to bear or when there’s just no enjoyment. The Big Bang Theory is a quick and easy fix for an otherwise bleak day. Up to a point, distraction is a valid coping strategy—until it becomes a problem.

You probably know what it feels like to indulge your distraction so much that you just keep going, without thinking, and forget that you actually have the capacity to make conscious choices. It’s really not very different from falling into a drunken stupor.

Are you ready to kick the habit? Here are five ways to stop being distracted and to start living more wholeheartedly today.

Ask What’s Really Going On

Start by reflecting on what’s really going on. When you get to the bottom of it, you will be able to forgive yourself for seeking out distraction. It’s pretty normal to want to avoid pain. Your reflection will lead you to admit your distraction has become a problem and to decide to take back control. 

Make Conscious Choices

At any moment, you can choose whether to be distracted or not. Making a conscious choice to stop indulging in your distraction takes self-awareness. I am inviting you to choose to stay with your experience – even when it is painful – instead of habitually moving towards your distraction. This takes practice, just like coming back to the breath when your mind has wandered away.

The basic mindfulness instruction – to do just one thing at a time – is also very helpful. Multi-tasking is actually not possible; it’s not how the brain actually works. So enjoy being fully present in whatever it is you’re doing – one thing at a time.

Find Some Enjoyment

If you’re being kind to yourself, you’ll understand that it’s difficult to be in a painful experience all the time. It’s natural – indeed, it’s helpful – to seek out enjoyable experiences. Enjoyment helps wire the brain for resilience and counteracts the brain’s natural negativity bias. So find healthy ways to have more enjoyment in your life. You might even find some happiness and some joy.

Of course, you’ll need to stay conscious of the choices you make when seeking enjoyment. I’m planning to enjoy walking my dogs at the local bush park instead of switching on the TV.

Turn Off The Things That Distract You

Make the choice to turn off the things that distract you – at least for a period of time. It doesn’t usually work to impose restrictions like “no more Big Bang Theory”, but you could try putting a boundary in place. Brené Brown describes boundaries as being clear about what’s not okay. For me, this would mean saying “it’s not okay to binge watch TV.” I can make a healthier choice that will be better for my sleep and my wellbeing. I can choose to read a novel or phone my Mum.

If the internet is your distraction of choice, put strategies in place to reduce the amount of time you spend online. An annual internet-free holiday or going camping where there’s no TV is very helpful. This gives your brain a chance to calm right down and rejuvenate – free from your usual distractions.

Give Meditation A Go

Meditation is my final suggestion. While I always say meditation is optional, I really encourage you to give it a go. Try a simple mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes every morning. It’s not a big commitment in your day, and with regular practice you will become more aware and learn how to bring your mind back from whatever it is that distracts you. 

Simply follow your breath. Every time you notice your mind is elsewhere, that is a moment of awareness in which you can choose to come back to the breath. You can find out more about my approach to meditation in my article on mindfulness.

Before you object and say you’re always too distracted to meditate, that is precisely the point of the practice. Meditation will develop your capacity to be conscious and make conscious choices, including the choice to kick the distraction habit. 

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Transforming Resilience Program helps participants make deep and lasting changes by learning what resilience really is and how to put it into practice. To find out more, contact Maria.

References:

Brewer, J., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2017). The craving mind: From cigarettes to smartphones to love–why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.

© Maria Brett, 2021