[amazon-product align=”right” alink=”0000FF” bordercolor=”000000″ height=”240″ region=”us” tracking_id=”varsblah-20″]B0049B32AQ[/amazon-product]Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits and author of The Power of Less, offers practical advice in Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction. All parts of this review are available in the Archive.
It’s the start of another day. You sit down at your desk and get to work. Except you can’t. Every few minutes, you’re distracted by another popup notifying you of an incoming email. So you decide to take a break online. Except you can’t. There are just too many choices. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, blogs, shopping, movies, and games. Even getting outside doesn’t make it stop considering smartphones, in addition to the already annoying interruptions from calls and texts, can now do all that and more.
Don’t get me wrong; I love technology and can’t imagine life without all the amazing things it does. Besides, sometimes zoning out gives our minds the space to rest and subconsciously solve our problems in creative ways. But as Arthur Miller said: “Man must shape his tools lest they shape him.” Given that people have literally died from spending too much time with technology, it’s clear we have a problem. What can we do?
- Go without any technology for a whole day. For one day a week (or half a day to start), completely disconnect. That means no internet, no phone, and no TV. Absolutely nothing. The mere thought of something this drastic (I heard those gasps) probably makes a lot of us uncomfortable. But nobody said it would be easy. The goal is to confront the emotions and ride out the urges. Set up an automatic reply for emails (perhaps direct them to a page of FAQs) so people know you’re not available and make a note of the messages or calls you’ll get to later. Whatever happens, DO NOT buckle and do them now! Find healthy habits instead. Read actual books, work on things that matter, or get outside and deal with people in the real world.
- Cancel all your subscriptions. Seriously?! Um, yes. Once you see the value of disconnecting, why not make it more permanent? Cancel every single subscription to every single newsletter and RSS feed. Since much of it was built up unconsciously, you probably won’t remember it’s gone. That was the case with me recently when my old email account wasn’t properly synced to my new server. I missed several newsletters and didn’t even notice! Of course, there were a few things I did miss, which is why I was fine to resubscribe. But the new rule is to unsubscribe from something old whenever I subscribe to something new. The last thing I want is to spend four days making my way through 300 emails and well over 1,000 RSS updates as was the case when I got back from two and half weeks in South America earlier this year!
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment: Is this necessary?”– Marcus Aurelius
The only way to focus on what’s important is to consciously clear away all distractions. We need to limit the stream of information to only the most essential items and let the rest go. We also need to consciously limit the amount of time we spend in the stream by setting and sticking to a predetermined schedule. The book lists a number of ‘blocking’ software options for Windows, Mac, Firefox, and Chrome but admits these are temporary solutions at best. Given that letting go can be difficult, we’re likely to come up against some strong resistance. We need to face the uncomfortable emotions head on:
- Accept that you can’t possibly handle it all. Every 60 seconds, 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. It is physically impossible for anyone to keep up! So why bother? This need to know all things all the time has become a totally unnecessary norm. Besides, when something important enough happens, you’ll know. The first I heard about the earthquake in Japan was from a colleague at work, not by being glued to my screen constantly hitting refresh. This is why cancelling your subscriptions is so helpful. You finally start to understand that your fears are unfounded. People don’t quiz you on current events and laugh at you for answering wrong. And even if you’re branded an ignorant fool, who cares? At least you have time for things that matter while it’s clear other people don’t.
- Understand that you don’t need to respond to everything right now (or even at all). We’ve all had days revolve around the inbox. We feel that not responding to emails, IMs, or texts the moment they come in will make us seem lazy or rude. And so our lives become unconsciously driven by the needs of others when they should be consciously driven by our own. This is why spending a day without technology can be so helpful. You finally start to understand that these fears are unfounded too. The world won’t end just because you were temporarily away. People might even respect you for setting boundaries. And if they don’t, at least you will.
“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
Most importantly, spend time getting in touch with why you do what you do. All our behaviours are driven by powerful needs, which is why understanding our triggers is so important. For example, I’ve noticed that whenever I get stuck on a challenging task, I’m tempted to check my email and RSS updates (or go online to find the words to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, as I suddenly ‘needed’ to do while writing this post) so I can feel successful by doing something easier. Knowing that means I can now consciously confront those feelings whenever they arise instead of quickly running away.
What about you? Do you play Farmville because you’re bored of living a life with no passion? Do you frantically check for new messages because the sense of instant gratification and validation fills a void caused by low self-esteem? You need to find healthy ways to build up your sense of worth and find better activities to occupy your time. We’re not meant to live feeling so trapped. Life is for so much more.
If you enjoyed this post, please remember to Like, Tweet, and Share it using the links at the top or bottom of the page. And remember to subscribe to free alerts or follow me on Twitter to be notified when the next instalment is released. For more reading, download a free copy of No More Stress.