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Can Tech Break the Distraction Addiction?  

monks with cell phones

Using technology to become more mindful seems like a contradiction, but new apps try to cure our distraction addiction.

You’re waiting in line at the grocery store with time to kill or at the bar waiting for a friend. Instinctually, you reach for your smartphone to catch up on cat photos in your Facebook feed or any given new outrage on Twitter.

Or worse, you reach for your tablet during a lull in conversation at the dinner table. It’s a great way to pass time, right?

Perhaps the constant temptation to escape your present situation translates to your work life. Projects take longer and start later as we procrastinate our time away on distraction, even though American workers spend longer hours on the job.

We’re expected to multitask and juggle an ever-increasing workload, regardless of our collective sensory overload. In many ways, we’re living the techno-dystopian vision predicted in Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock.”

But some people believe it’s time to fight back.

Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang adopts a number of strategies from Buddhist practice to develop a series of steps to help those who can’t break the distraction addiction in his excellently titled, 2013 book “The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul.”

Distraction Addiction

In it, Pang unpacks the idea of “contemplative computing,” or the behavior of returning to the pioneering intent of technology — to help us become more productive in less time — by using it in a focused and creative manner, rather than the more distracted and demanding way we use it today.

Go ahead. Answer your latest push notification.

"Regain Your Focus" artwork

Outside of providing a roadmap toward more focused behavior, Pang cites a number of readily available apps that help establish mindfulness, or awareness of the present. Something as simple as Freedom, an app that blocks your Internet connection for a scheduled period of time, has produced profound results.

Full-screen text editors like Ommwriter swallow your whole computer screen to allow you to, as the company states, “re-connect with your old friends Concentration and Creativity, and discover the bliss of single-tasking.”

Going one step further, Google’s Wisdom 2.0 conference recently demonstrated Muse, head-mounted tech the company describes as a sort of fitness band for the mind. According to the Toronto-based startup InteraXon, the EEG-sensing headband “detects your brain signals during a focused-attention exercise the same way a heart rate monitor detects your heart rate during physical exercise … [giving] you valuable feedback that you can use to train your brain to improve your focus, attention and composure.” The gadget received mixed reviews at the conference, but undoubtedly further research may yield more robust approaches to breaking the distraction cycle.

Others have taken a more novel and, shall we say, analog approach. Currently on Kickstarter, the NoPhone recently raised two-fold their $5,000 goal for a heavy plastic block that looks like an iPhone-shaped version of the obelisk from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s shatterproof, waterproof, has no need for software updates and simulates the tactile feel of an iPhone, working much like e-cigarettes which have assisted in quitting smoking.

The addiction is that serious.

“The brain is wiring looking at the phone the same way it wires an addiction,” said Lindsay Van Driel, who is the head of mindfulness initiatives at Intel. “You subconsciously turn and look at your phone, not looking for a particular update, and you get a little dopamine hit — a little reward— the exact same way it works with an addiction.“

Van Driel has developed a nine-week workshop to cultivate mindfulness, or what she calls “presenteeism.” It’s based on the neuroscience of meditation, specifically that it takes an average of eight weeks for the brain to develop a neural pathway to rewire habitual behaviors.

woman meditating

“The distractions of the modern work environment have changed the way our brains are wired. The brain will wire how it fires. If you continue to not stay focused on anything for a period of time, that’s how it’ll wire,” she said.

Van Driel’s course, available to Intel employees, includes an introduction to mediation, body scanning exercises (an internal awareness activity not too removed from certain yoga practices), free writing and group activities.

Just as meditation is a learned skill, the workshop aims to untangle the knot of distraction through awareness. Van Driel notes that after the course, people become more aware.

“They notice when they leave the present and bring themselves back into moment,” she said. “We are cultivating a basic skill of self-awareness — the same skill as meditation, but at work when the eyes are open.”

group session

Regardless of the medium, organizations and individuals are beginning to understand the importance of incorporating mindfulness into their daily lives as a way to combat distraction. Eliminating distraction and creating presence through mindfulness allows us to get more for less — more productivity and more realized ideas, with less of the obnoxious screen gazing.

So, go ahead, check your Twitter feed. Or maybe not. What would happen if you didn’t?

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