Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.

Oct 12 2011

{Day 12} Single-Tasking, Pt 3

Ferry Flyer by SLF

Up to this point in the series, I’ve asked you to simply pay attention to the present moment.

Today I’d like to invite you to try a technique called Pomodoro.

As I mentioned in the last post, once we get into a habit of task surfing, it becomes more difficult to shift our brains into focus.

Attention is not an on/off switch. It’s more like a muscle and to keep it focused on one thing requires exercise. It also gets tired of concentrating and needs regular breaks.

The Pomodoro Practice:

  1. Choose one task on your to-do list, or choose one activity.
  2. Unless it is reading and answering email, close your email.  Close all your windows on your computer that you don’t need for the task. Turn off the TV and commercial or talk radio (though music that will help you do the task is okay). Let the phone go to voicemail. Disable any computer or phone notifications that will interrupt–these begin the shift of attention away from one task to another. Basically, turn off or disable any technology which would alert you to other tasks.
  3. Set your phone, watch, or stove timer for 25 minutes.
  4. Do the activity for 25 minutes without shifting to any other task.
  5. At the end of the 25 minutes, stand up and stretch. Then decide if you will continue on that task for another 25 minutes, or shift to something else. Whatever you decide, do another 25 minute session on a task or activity.

Of course, certain jobs and responsibilities make removing all interruptions difficult, if not impossible.

If the present moment offers you an invitation to attend to something or someone else, then decide if you will shift attention.

If you do shift, go fully into paying attention to the new situation, rather than trying to split attention. (As an example, try not to work on the computer and have a conversation at the same time.)

Stop one task in order to fully pay attention to the next.

The key is to finding the balance between focusing and letting the present moment simply be what it is, with its unpredictability.

31 Days

Oct 11 2011

{Day 11} Single-Tasking vs Task Surfing, Pt 2


“Undertake all your affairs with a calm mind and try to dispatch them in order one after the other. If you make an effort to do them all at once or without order, your spirits will be so overcharged and depressed that they will likely sink under the burden without effecting anything.” –Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 17th century

Francis de Sales was an astute observer of human nature and a well-respected spiritual director in the 17th century. He believed that well-being lies in practicing focused attention on one task at a time, what is now being called single-tasking.  It is only recently that neuroscience has provided solid support for his observations.

The fun and wonder of having real-time arrival for my buses and GPS mapping in the palm of my hand, constant and instantaneous communication all over the world, a social network with hundreds of connections, and an awesome amount of information at my fingertips, comes the hard reality:

Without intentionally setting some boundaries, we can practice ourselves into distraction.

If you have not read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I highly recommend it, especially to those charged with educating young people. Drawing together the most recent studies on the brain, John Medina, a faculty member at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, offers clear arguments for why multi-tasking is simply bad for the brain.

The reality: our brains fake multi-tasking.

What looks like multi-tasking, or what I call task surfing, is simply rapid shifts between tasks that ultimately burdens our short-term memory. It’s not unlike having multiple windows open on a computer. As with a computer, our short-term memory can only hold so much, and over time, multi-tasking can begin to degrade our short-term memory capacity. Our brains simply burn out.

This is difficult news in a society that values people who (seem to be able to)  do many things at once.

Here’s how the brain handles a task:

  1. My brain shifts attention to the task at hand, say, to write this blog post.
  2. With the initial shift of attention, my brain runs a search for neurons capable of working on the blog post, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This takes several tenths of a second to complete. Right now my neurons are happily humming along as I think and type and ponder some more.
  3. But, oh, I haven’t checked my email in a while. So I decide to shift my attention. My brain disengages from writing on the blog, drops it into short-term memory, and clicks over to email.
  4. My brain begins a search for email-reading neurons, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This shift takes time to complete. The blog-post writing neurons shut down.

Every time we shift our attention, this process must be completed step by step. Every time.

This is why driving and talking on a cell phone, or even reaching for a something, is so dangerous. The brain cannot perform two high level cognitive functions simultaneously–there has to be a shift of attention.

A person on a cell phone while driving has a reaction time similar to someone driving while intoxicated.

Medina argues that multi-tasking also leads to a task taking 50% longer and often with 50% more mistakes.

Now, I would like to distinguish between that heightened awareness and flow that happens when we are focused on an activity. In this case, there may be lots of information being processed at once, such as when I’m out taking photos–my senses are expanded wide to catch the next shot. While there would be some shifting of attention, the overall focus is on the activity of taking photos, rather than repeated interruptions to focus on something completely different.


Task surfing makes me feel like I’m accomplishing a lot, but in truth,  I don’t accomplish all that much, and the day becomes a blur, lost in the foggy in-between of attention shifting.

Constant task surfing drains energy. It affects memory, especially retention of information gained during a surfing period. And, even more, there isn’t much lasting delight in doing the tasks.

Task surfing may give a surge of short-term pleasure as the brain experiences new information, psychological validation, or relief from boredom, but it doesn’t give the heart long enough to engage and feel lasting enjoyment.

To top it off, I have found that my overall ability to focus greatly diminishes when I’ve fed my brain a steady diet of rapid distractions. It actually becomes more difficult to focus when I want to.

Sometimes repeated shifting from task to task is necessary, such as when caring for young children, or fulfilling other responsibilities which demand splitting attention among many activities. The key is becoming aware of when we are shifting because it is necessary, and when we are task surfing.

Practice: Pay attention today to when you shift your attention from task to task, why your shift it, and how you feel.

31 Days

This is part of an on-going October series on Contemplative Living. Due to a blog meltdown, I am slowly catching up on posts from the past two days. If you would like to read it from the beginning, the first day is here.

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