How to Stay Mindful in the Age of Constant Digital Distractions

Worth Living Ambassador Lesya Li

Lesya Li is a notorious insomniac, avid book reader, psychology nerd and #techforgood cheerleader; She runs– a digitally native story magazine and worldwide human-centric community that’s all about storytelling, personal development, well-being, mindfulness; supporting #mentalhealth – #oktosay initiatives.

How to Stay Mindful in the Age of Constant Digital Distractions

The last 10+ years of my professional life I spent working in the world of Digital. Soon enough, none of us will be able to recall life before the digital world and the Internet took us by storm without asking permission. What does this mean, you ask? Perhaps, for those gazillions who come next, of course, this will not say anything outstandingly obvious. Taken as a whole picture, think of online tech, it will have become a sort of foundational myth – a tale that most of the people are hardly conscious of, something already habitual, natural and, for that matter, unnoticed. And yet something ground breaking will be missing from their lives. Something tremendous indeed – an unshakable mindset that some of their ancestors perhaps took for granted – and again this will be hardly noticed as it disappears slowly yet decisively. The age of being unplugged, the age of absence of the entire online world that is.

Those, plenty of us still, who lived with and without hyper-connectivity of the online world have the rarest opportunity! All of us, you and I, we are still able to recognize the mild or drastic difference between pre and the post-digital world. How many of you idly reaching for your phones at the train station? Or have you noted how in mid-conversation a friend deep dives into the total recall of pre-Google era? My argument is that amid all the messy changes in this ever-changing world that we experience every day, one of the most fascinating is the end of solitude and being left alone, unplugged. The silence of creative daydreaming is now filled with hassle and bustle and continuous noise in our lives; the burning thirst for solitudes is now perpetually extinguished. I don’t believe there’s genuine “free time” when you are carrying a smartphone in your hand. The chance to be left alone with your thoughts became one of the rarest commodities in today’s world.

Knock-Knock-Knocking on Locked Screen Doors…

Imagine a scene of you taking your breakfast cereal in the morning with your family or on your own. You’ve barely opened your eyes yet; you are still in this haze. Imagine the moment before you’d even taken the first sip of coffee. Pure bliss and stillness of the moment before the hassle and bustle of a busy day ahead to hit a repeat button. Coffee time. Bliss, sheer joy – and then, before you know it, imagine a good couple of hundred people standing in front of your house, knocking on your windows, trying desperately to earn, no, to steal your attention! Annoying? Infuriating? Meh? Knock-knock-knocking on the locked screens of your phones and tablets. Knock-knock! Look at me! PAY ATTENTION! ATTENTION! This is urgent (Nah, it isn’t). And then it goes on and on endlessly trying to persuade you to buy this, take action on that. Does it feel good to you?

Does it feel good when your first impulse is to check for the updates before even saying “good morning” to the person next to you in bed?  Welcome to the attention disrupted world.

I’m amongst those people called ‘digital tourists’ – not “digital natives” to be precise, but there are still plenty of us who remember what the world was like before digital took us all by storm. I remember what it’s like to go hiking and to climb in the mountains not worrying about getting a perfect wifi connection or people thinking I went missing or died just because I didn’t instantly reply… or responded in a couple of days! I remember what it’s like to go for a walk without a device in my hand, to be left alone with my thoughts to catch my breath – and just let myself be.

These days, simple things like that are getting trickier to experience. However, we do have a rare historical moment, a unique opportunity to experience the world in between two modes of being. Now please raise hands those of you who have lived both with and without the vastness of hyper-connectivity the Digital world provides, how many of you could still notice the difference between before and after the digital storm? Even though it feels like there’s no escape from Digital and being continuously connected and knowing the world isn’t going to roll backward, there’s still this MOMENT where we get to catch ourselves saying: Wait… hang on a second.

We are all connected, but how many of us get to establish and experience REAL human connection these days?

I get intensively annoyed when all of my five inboxes are bombarded by the endless stream of utter nonsense! Cold emailing that is. Trust me, I am all about making meaningful connections, but oh my god, when my attention is stolen from that, I go ape crazy and then… well, sad.
Let me share something embarrassing too. I remember a shameful moment in my professional career not that long ago, of which am not proud; when I had hundreds of tabs open on my screen and then a colleague approached me to ask a question, then the other one came along, and then the other one popped in too. A simple thing like that felt overwhelming. I couldn’t focus on a task at hand, nor could I help anyone, no matter how desperately I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong; I am always trying to be as helpful as I can be. At THAT moment, with hundreds of things to do and a few hundreds of tabs being persistently open and notifications and colleagues ALL SEEKING MY ATTENTION and help, I felt utterly depleted from my energy, low on batteries. It was over the top, it was too much, so I did something horrible.

What did I do? It was quite embarrassing. I looked at each colleague approaching me with questions, vital and petty ones as if they were just “another tab open” on my screen of attention. And then I started at them blankly saying “Swoosh” and then “Swoosh” again literally pushing on an imaginary ‘remote control’ trying to mute all the noise. Mute… Mute! Mute!! It was a terrible thing to do. I know. But it was essential for my awareness and sanity. So I decided to go and recharge. To be quiet for 10 days. No phones, no tablets, no media, no noise… just…. quiet.

Desperately, I ran for a yoga retreat without saying a word to anyone outside of my professional circle. I went and did Vipassana, something I did a few years ago for the first time and found this as one of the most challenging and most rewarding things to do. What I got in return were the tools for grounding yourself in this ever-buzzing world, no matter distractions, staying present.

The tools that helped to regain control
1) Allow quiet time to decompress emotionally.
Just like I did, get yourself in the habit of taking calming mini-breaks throughout the busy buzzing day. Breathe in some fresh air. Stretch more. Take a short walk around the office or go outside. These interludes will reduce the excessive stimulation of going non-stop. It will help you to stay grounded at the moment, to find peace and distress.
2) Practice guerilla meditation.
To dial down your emotional overload, act fast and meditate for a few minutes. This centers your energy, so you don’t take it on from those surrounding you at the fleeting moment.
3) Define and honor your empathic needs.

Try to safeguard your sensitivities. If someone asks way too much of you, politely tell them “no.” It’s not necessary to explain why. As the saying goes, “No is a complete sentence.”  If your comfort level is two hours max for socializing – even if you love being surrounded by amazing people – take your car or have an alternate transportation plan, so you’re not stuck. If crowds are way over the top and you feel overwhelmed, eat a high-protein meal beforehand (this helps to ground you) and sit in the far corner of, say, a theater or party, not dead center. If you overeat to numb negative emotions, practice the guerilla meditation mentioned before you’re lured to the refrigerator, a potential vortex of endless temptation. As an emergency measure, keep a cushion next to the fridge so you can be poised to meditate instead of binge eating.

Think about carving out private space at home. Then you won’t be stricken by the feeling of too much togetherness when all you need is to be left alone with your thoughts and recharge. Learn to distinguish the silence while you are surrounded by the machines steady and persistent buzz.

Stay Absent When You Want and Keep Making Meaningful Connections When You Want

The other day I went for a ‘walk and talked’ with one of the top storytellers on havingtime, and we talked a lot about ’staying connected’ in a human way, despite the digital, in a real, tangible world in the 21st century we all live in. How it’s important more than ever to put down all devices aside and BE PRESENT at the moment, be there for each other while we still can. Listening attentively without trying to interrupt, being present.

There’s a trick I’ve learned from a friend of mine. He told me that whenever he feels the urge to add his 5 cents to a conversation, he takes a sip of water or any other beverage, and then, well, listens…

Tech is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. I am never anti-tech (because I know of the wonders it brings), yet I am pro-people and establishing meaningful connections here and now, in real time, while I still can.

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