Distract your mind and it will frantically wander. Focus the mind and it will become still.
Imagine yourself using Facebook. (If you don’t use Facebook, imagine yourself using another social media platform; if you don’t use social media, imagine yourself browsing the internet.) You sign into your account and click on your profile to post a message to help gather signatures for an important petition. Just as you are doing that, you see the picture of a friend from last week’s gathering on your Newsfeed and click on her picture instead. Then, you see that someone you don’t know well but see sometimes has commented on your friend’s picture. Ooh! You are curious, “Who is she?” When you get to her page, you see an event posted about her new band’s music show. You click on the event. Wow! A friend of a cousin’s friend is attending! You click on his profile now… This is unending! Before you know it, it’s it’s time to jump into bed go to sleep.
Let’s look at the bare skeleton of what just happened-
- Sign in to Facebook with the goal of posting a message.
- (Body of the skeleton) Click around on different profiles and events all by whim
- Time is up – need to run! You didn’t even get to post your message!
So, out of all the time you spent online, at least 95% of it was spent doing something actually quite harmful: training the mind to jump from one topic to another by whim.
(You won’t believe how much time people spend on the internet jumping around from one whim to the next whim without any purpose. A person can easily spend 30 minutes or an hour just jumping from page to page until, looking at the clock, he or she realizes that’s time to rush to the next scheduled activity for the day. If we get 8 hours of sleep per night, an hour of internet use per day amounts to about 6% of our waking hours. Note: One hour is probably on the lower end of the spectrum of time spent online!!)
In activities like the story above, we are training the mind to set aside our important goals in the midst of distractions. We are unfortunately helping our mental focus scatter in all directions instead of directing the mind with single-minded attention and purpose to one activity at a time. Now, imagine this monkey-like mind in the classroom, at work, or under time-pressure (time-sensitive deadlines, exams, etc). Rather than bringing a practiced focus to the situation, we bring a practice of distraction.
When noise arises in our classroom, we get more curious about the how, when, and why of the noise and that curiosity sweeps us off of our feet. It leads to curiosity about all sorts of other random things related to the noise and completely unrelated to the goal of learning, working, and efforting in the present moment. In the midst of this type of cycle of the mind where distraction feeds distraction, I have observed students miss chunks of notes, zone out during group work time (losing time in crucial collaborative work), and fall behind in intense problem-solving activities (missing out on the critical thinking practice). Even as adults, we seem to struggle – instead of listening intently to a friend or colleague we live in the world of our minds, distracted by a long running mental to-do list, imagining the worst and best case scenarios of a presentation due Friday, or merely the text messages streaming across the screens of our phones. Under time pressure, emotions such as frustration and anxiety distract ALL of us from the intention of successfully completing an exam.
Action: So what can we do?
For the next few weeks, watch our activities online. Before starting any sort of phone, iPad, or laptop use, ask yourself your goals in using these tools. Is your goal to listen to a series of songs? Is your goal to read about the news for the day? Is your goal to check and respond to emails? Whatever it is, be very clear and specific! Once you are clearly aware of your goal(s), embark on your goal and notice the distractions that are present on the internet. Practice a single-minded attention to fulfilling your goals rather than jumping to click on and engage with the distractions that arise.
Note: In the next post (Part II), I will be sharing techniques that bring focus and stillness to the mind to unwind the distracted mind.