Ah, the holidays. It’s the most wonderful and my most shameful time of the year, a period of four-ish weeks where I binge on white wine spritzers and mini weenie dogs while battling sleep deprivation and descending slowly in credit card debt (all in unusually festive garb). Given the general overload of consumption and the head-spinning amount of activities that happen during this time period, it’s understandable that I – and many of you, I’m sure – crave a “detox” by the end of the month.
Yet this year something strange has happened. I’m in desperate need of a detox pre-holiday, and it’s not because I’ve been guzzling wine or over-indulging in pastry-wrapped weenies. It’s because I’ve been continually engaged in a subversive, lethal, and ruthlessly addicting vice: distraction.
“Addicted to Distraction,” an opinion piece by author and consulting executive Tony Schwartz, appeared in this past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review. It’s a fascinating read by a self-professed (and recovering) distraction addict. It also happens to be extremely pertinent to my life – one that’s admittedly saturated in distraction.
As I read it, sipping coffee, it dawned on me that, just like Schwartz, my need to stay continually engaged was – and is – preventing me from actually being engaged. For example, I could completely relate to Schwartz’s confession that he checked his email relentlessly throughout the day and “spent far too much time hungrily searching for tidbits of new information about the presidential campaign, with the election then still more than a year away.” When he admits that he was even “…guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as ‘Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive,’” I knowingly nodded my head. I had totally spent way too much time blinking back fatigue and reading about Kendall Jenner on my iPhone, in the dark.
As Schwartz points out, the culprit behind distraction addiction is, unsurprisingly, the Internet (and new technology). Never before has it been easier to “multitask” and never before has our access to information been so unbridled. The world is quite literally at our fingertips, so of course we’ll be tempted to explore it. Unfortunately, our endlessly vast ability to search, communicate, and explore can have dire consequences. As Schwartz explains, “The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’ Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.” Hence, compulsively refreshing email, obsessively checking Instagram, or Google searching every single thought that comes to mind.
As a result of such behavior, one will experience what Schwartz calls “cognitive overload.” When this happens, it becomes increasingly difficult to accomplish a single task efficiently. He had trouble reading a paragraph of his novel; I have had moments where I just literally stare at my computer blankly, unsure of what I was even doing five minutes ago. Indeed, countless tabs, texts, and emails have increasingly seemed to crush the life – and productivity – out of me.
But there is a happy ending to this story for Schwartz – and hopefully for me, too. First, he admitted he had a problem – (“Denial is any addict’s first defense”) – and so do I. I mean, I’m writing a freakin’ blog post about this! Second, he embarked on what can only be described as a digital detox, a month-long hiatus from the Internet that many of us – like myself – can’t necessarily afford to take. I can, however, implement some of the detox strategies he recommends into my day-to-day life, beginning NOW. Here they are:
Read regularly and often, as it is inherently an “attention-building practice.” I personally have always felt that an engrossing read is like meditation, plus I already love doing it. I’m committed to swapping my Kendall Jenner iPhone stories for a good book each night (I am currently reading Hamilton and it’s wonderful)
Accomplish one major thing, uninterrupted, to start each day and then be sure to take a break. I love the idea of striving to achieve one task per day instead of, say… seven. It feels less stressful and more manageable, plus when I focus on one task I actually tend to get more done. I also like the idea of earmarking time to be a designated break and not just seizing a momentary lull as an opportunity to Google celebrity gossip. Here’s to a lunch out!
Reduce the time spent “surfing” the Internet. I am vowing not to open a tab just to “do something,” particularly when I am at work. I’m hoping that I can translate my creative Internet surfing into equally creative daydreaming, which actually has proven cognitive benefits.
Take digital detoxes as often as possible. For me, this means evenings after 8 PM, first thing in the morning (I love my mornings), and for long stretches during the weekend. Of course, there need to be exceptions to this rule, but I am going to attempt to structure my technology use to be intentional, not ubiquitous.
So, today marks day number one of my digital detox. I’ll be checking back in next month to share my progress and invite you to share your story with me, too. Cheers to a diet that permits the occasional white wine spritzer and cocktail weenie – because, after all, it is the holidays.