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What I Learned from the Distraction Cleanse

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

In August, I created a challenge for myself to systematically reduce the distractions in my life. I set a goal to give up shopping for 10 days, then to give up TV for 10 days, then to give up social media for 10 days.

The shopping one was pretty easy, and honestly kind of a relief. Whenever I saw an ad or got a sales email, I let it pass right by, knowing I wasn't going to take advantage of it. Eventually that translated into the knowledge that I didn't need any of the things I was thinking about buying; that was the "consumerized" part of my brain talking. So I decided to enact a new rule for myself post-challenge: any time I want to buy something (a book, pair of shoes, clothing, etc.), I'll wait 10 days. If I still think it's worth the money in 10 days, I'll purchase. If not, great—I just saved myself some cash!

The second challenge was to give up TV. This one I failed miserably at nearly every single day. When I'm having a rough day, TV is my go-to for shutting my brain off. But if I'm having a rough day, it's way more productive for me to work through whatever is getting me down rather than just ignore it. My therapist gave me an awesome analogy the other day, likening your mental / emotional state to your phone: If your device was down to 5% battery, would you turn it off or plug it in? When we're feeling depleted, would it better suit us to shut ourselves off? Or do something that truly recharges us?

Since I had so much trouble giving up TV, I decided to wrap it into my last 10 days along with social media. This time I was far more successful. And you guys: It. Was. Awesome.

Being off social media and away from TV inadvertently decreased my urge to shop, which was a benefit I hadn't even considered. That showed me how tied together these three habits have become for me. Often when I'm watching TV, I'll scroll through social media. That leads to seeing lives portrayed as perfect and advertisements showing the same, both of which make me feel like my life isn't good enough and trigger my desire to want. Whether or not I actually make a purchase, focusing on material things makes me feel like I don't have enough money, which makes me feel bad about myself...for which I seek a distraction. And the cycle continues. Gross, right?

By breaking this cycle, I was more focused on my own life rather than anyone else's or the life I "should" be having. I was so much more productive! I realized that when I want a break from work, I'll switch from my work tabs over to Netflix. Without that option, I'd sit there for a moment idly tapping my keyboard, then decide to work on something else. I'd still get a break from whatever project I'd previously been focusing on, but the average amount of time I spent working each day went up almost an hour from the previous week (yes I did sit down and do the math). Without the option of watching TV before bed, I read, which is both better for my creativity and an easier transition from being awake to falling asleep.

Emotionally, I felt better about myself and had more clarity in my goals. I wasn't distracted by all the choices I didn't make and instead was able to focus on my progress and continue working towards it. I felt less anxious and more grounded.

A friend recently told me about an app that allows you to block yourself from social media or other distracting sites, and it turns out there are a bunch of them. They allow you to specify which websites or apps you want to stay away from and set hours of the day when they're off-limits. Many of them have their own fail-safes, so you can restart your device or even delete the app, but it still won't let you onto the website until after the hours you've set. I downloaded one of the apps called Freedom and set myself up to block distractions from 9am to 4pm Monday through Friday. So far I like it!

It may seem crazy that we need to go to these lengths to stop watching TV or spend less time scrolling through Instagram, but we're up against some of the brightest minds in advertising and user experience—people whose full-time jobs consist of keeping us addicted. It would be like playing one-on-one with Lebron James. I don't know about you all, but I wouldn't stand a chance.

If you're ever looking for a simple exercise to boost your confidence and productivity, I'd highly recommend this challenge. (I'm actually doing it again right now, but a more condensed version.) My one disclaimer: I said it's simple, not easy. But awareness is the first step to change, right?

Photo by Callie Morgan on Unsplash

Why do we do this?! How does it improve our lives?


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