The Battle for Your Thoughts

Conquering digital distractions to do your best work

Conquering digital distractions to do your best work

At this point, we’re all addicts. The constant stream of dopamine hits we get from our phones is too much for us to resist.

The notifications buzz and ding, and we, like Pavlov’s dogs, willingly answer their call. A buzz over here and we look left. A ding over there and we look right.

In fact, if we’re really honest, we don’t even need the notifications. Our internal clocks are now calibrated to the point where we know when a new email will have arrived, a new text message must be awaiting our response, or a Twitter post surely deserves our attention.

So we check them. Relentlessly. Open work email, close work email. Open personal email, close personal email. Open Twitter, close Twitter. Open Facebook, close Facebook. Open LinkedIn, close Linkedin… and repeat.

In line at the grocery store? Start the cycle. A quiet moment to yourself in the kitchen? Start the cycle. In the… bathroom? Start the cycle. Of course, there is no conscious decision to start the cycle. Rather, our reaction to downtime is now on autopilot. We just do it. Is this scary? You bet it is.

The apps of choice vary from person to person and region to region. I like Twitter; you love WeChat. I focus on LinkedIn; you can’t put down Instagram. It doesn’t really matter. Our attention is gone.

We are no longer focusing on our own thoughts, but rather consuming someone else’s.

Are there silver linings? Sure. We are more informed about world events and business news than ever before. We may feel closer to friends, even those we haven’t seen in-person for months or years. And we’re entertained. And that counts for something. It really does.

But it’s terrifying how easy it is to go through life today without thinking one’s own thoughts. Without reflecting, or planning or coming up with an original idea that is truly ours. And how can we possibly be surprised by this when we haven’t left ourselves even five minutes to do so? Buzz! Look left. Ding! Look right.

This wasn’t a problem for generations past who battled the opposite affliction: boredom. And while sitting idly for hours on end presents its own form of misery, the lack of constant stimulus did leave those who preceded us with time to think, to consider, to feel… and to generate new ideas. It’s hard to imagine Einstein dreaming up the Theory of Relativity with his phone dinging in the background. The Wright Brothers would still be grounded if they tried to keep up with a hundred emails a day. And Great Expectations would surely have been a great disappointment if Dickens had his Twitter notifications turned on.

Today, we’re too busy for thinking. The idle time is filled. Even those moments that just a few years ago were spent mainly with our own thoughts — running, hiking, or even driving — are now filled with passive content consumption. We’re uncomfortable with even a moment of downtime.

The only — and I mean the only — place where we are free from all of this today? The shower. And where is the place people generally report having their best ideas? Yep, the shower. So why is it then that I have recently been dreaming up ways to listen to podcasts during this sacred time? Because I’m an addict like you.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can — and really need to — take back control of our brains. In fact, herein lies the opportunity. The rarest of rare commodities in today’s world is focus. Most people are not able to achieve it. The allure of this century’s Pavlovian bells is simply too powerful. And who can blame us? Technology and media companies have spent billions upon billions of dollars to engineer the most addictive stimuli imaginable.

But if you can resist it, then you become powerful.

In fact, focus today is akin to a super power. It is so unbelievably rare that if you can achieve it, you’re at a material advantage in any realm — athletic, professional, academic, you name it. If the rest of the world has been lulled into a slumber of simply consuming and reacting, what are the implications for you if you’re one of the few with the power to consider and create?

I wrote about “flow” states, as coined by Steven Kotler, in my recent book Say Good Morning, Like a Human. These are the times when we are so engrossed in whatever it is we are doing — writing an article, building a financial model, or even playing a sport — that we lose ourselves. Time passes without notice or seems to stop altogether. And our complete focus is given to the work we are doing. It’s no surprise that many authors, scientists, and even athletes describe their best performances or breakthroughs coming in such flow states.

The problem, of course, is that modern technology has made it more difficult to experience flow states. Flow cannot happen when text messages are dinging or email is buzzing. Every time we are disturbed our focus suffers and we lose the opportunity to build from one thought to another to another. What could have been exponential progress becomes disjointed confusion.

So what can we do?

We must start by recognizing the problem. We need to admit that we’re stuck in the cycle.

We then need to make a choice. Are we okay being consumers but not contributors? Are we okay simply reacting rather than truly thinking?

If the answer is ‘no’ and we want to think our own thoughts and create whatever it is we are here to create then we must make a conscious decision to do so.

Logistically, this means finding time to focus. It means an hour, or two, or three with no social media, no phones, no email. It means focusing on one thing at a time and only that thing. It may mean meditation. It may mean writing. It may mean coding. It may even just mean going for a walk and thinking without any distractions.

In some ways, this particular moment in history is even more challenging when it comes to finding quiet—as the global health crisis collides with a potential step-change in racial equality — making it almost impossible to feel like we can unplug. What might we miss? There’s always another email. There’s always a new tweet. Another text message. Most of us felt uncomfortable with our phones more than three feet from our bodies before this crisis. Now? Addiction is not too strong a word.

In other ways, for those fortunate enough to be able to work from home during this time, there ironically can be fewer distractions — at least professionally. Fewer meetings to attend. Less face time to worry about. Fewer people stopping by for a chat. In this way, despite the world seemingly blowing up around us, this could be an ideal time to step away, even for a few moments, to focus on the problem at hand: the article that needs to be written, the decision that needs to be made, the strategy that needs to be set. We can think more clearly when we can devote blocks of undisturbed time to doing so. Why are so many people reporting that they’ve never been more productive than they are right now, working from home? This is why. Focus.

These crises have reminded us that the digital world is only becoming a greater and greater part of our lives. There’s no going back. And in most cases, this is going to make our lives meaningfully better. We should be excited about this. But all of this connectivity comes with great risk. And that is the risk of losing ourselves to it — losing our ability to think our own thoughts as we comfortably consume someone else's.

If we choose the other side of it — if we choose original thought and creativity — then we’re going to be in for a hell of a fight. Because big dollars, addictive stimuli and human tendencies are incredibly difficult adversaries. But the fight is worth it. Because on the other side of it is the most rewarding work we’ll ever do.

I need to keep reminding myself of this and turn off the phone — once in awhile.