The pandemic has had a significant impact on many people’s lives, physically and mentally. What I got from it was becoming a ‘super productive multi-tasker'. Sounds good, right?
Wait for it.
During the lockdown, I started to:
I used to be proud of doing deep work and achieving a flow state. However, since 2020, I have suffered from dementia-like symptoms: hardly remember anything I watched and learnt; I can’t even sit down quietly for 10 minutes and focus on one task. I became very irritated and impatient and realised I was in trouble if I didn't do something to make a change.
When I watched The Social Dilemma last year, I blamed social media as many people did. I deleted all social media apps on my phone and permanently deactivated Facebook, Instagram and Zhihu (Chinese Quora). However, I found other ways to distract myself from doing tasks, such as pick up a random book on the shelf to read or wander around with a strange, anxious feeling trying to do something else. I even went to see a doctor check if I have ADHD for not being able to focus.
It turns out I’m perfectly healthy and quitting social media isn’t the fundamental solution to solve my distraction problems. Based on the First Principle Thinking, I have to trace back to the root cause and change my behaviour accordingly.
Luckily enough, I listened to The Knowledge Project podcast and found Nir Eyal appeared as a guest to promote his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. After reading this bestseller, I finally understand my problem is more profound than technology, and distraction has internal and external triggers to urge me to escape the pain.
Here are three takeaways I found helpful to deal with the distraction from this book:
1. Calculate everyday time spending
No matter how rich or how famous you are, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Elon Musk doesn’t have more time in his day. Balaji Srinivasan doesn’t have more than 24 hours. The only difference is how we use our time wisely. As the saying goes, no measurement, no management. Therefore, I wrote down how I spend my 24 hours and a daily routine at this stage of life to track my time spending.
+ 24 hours in a day
— 7 hours of sleeping = 17 hours left
— 1 hour of showering, cleaning up, dressing up = 16 hours left
— 2 hours of doing emails and maintaining website/newsletter/podcast = 14 hours left
— 1 hour of groceries or errands = 13 hours left
— 2 hours of gym or going for a walk = 11 hours left
— 2 hours of staying in touch with friends/family = 9 hours left
— 1.5 hours of eating = 7.5 hours left
— 4 hours of deep work and writing = 3.5 hours left
— 1 hour meditation or daydreaming = 2.5 hours left
— 2 hours reading/watching movies = 0.5 hours left
— 0.5 hours reserved for emergency = 0 hours left
Daily routine (UK version):
- Wake up in the morning with 10-20 minutes of meditation
- Go to the gym or go for a walk
- Either do my deep work in the morning or the afternoon depends on my energy level
- At least one hour of reading per day
- Handwrite a diary before bed to reflect on me or simply just record the day
- Eat the same thing when eating by myself to reduce brain energy drain
- Watch football games or shows/movies, or meet friends for a walk during the weekend
Once I know how I spend my time, I can schedule a time to play games, scroll social media, or watch movies. The time I plan to waste is not wasted time. Only in this way can I reduce the inner-conflict level that leads to my self-sabotage and anxiety. It’s much better than talking to therapy in my case (yep, I went for treatment but didn’t get a good one).
My mother kept a diary for me when I was a child, and I have written over twenty journals since I was old enough to write. Journaling is a process of being honest with oneself by writing down my deep feelings and observing my surroundings.
Nir Eyal mentioned that neurologically speaking, all human behaviour is spurred by the desire to escape discomfort. It’s necessary to know your true feelings about specific scenarios to understand what you are running from.
In this case, I re-read my journals and found out I was scared by this unknown virus during the lockdown. What’s worse, since I just moved to a new country right before the pandemic and haven’t formed a supporting community, I felt isolated and lonely. That’s why I kept chatting with old friends online to seek comfort instead of facing my real feelings.
I treat the journal as my trustworthy and loyal friend where I could express everything. I don’t usually speak out in public or to friends. By consciously pouring out the thoughts and feelings in my head, I bring back to light what is buried deep in my heart. In addition to that, keeping a diary before bed has made me more disciplined and forged the habit of writing on paper instead of scrolling social media feeds that would disrupt my sleep.
A diary is a form of freezing my memories in time. Although I thought I was fine during the lockdown, apparently, I wasn’t as tough as I thought I would be. We might not trust our memories about certain things. But by re-reading diaries, you’ll be able to know what exactly happened and what’s your actual reaction.
Nir Eyal didn’t put many words on meditation in his book, but he stated the benefit of meditation to think through our emotions.
In 2017, I got a chance to learn Transcendental Meditation and started to practise it every day. The most noticeable change from meditating is that I have become more aware of my ‘thoughts’ and many things I thought I had forgotten. Besides, the previously hidden and suppressed emotions have come out. It can be horrifying at the beginning of a few months of meditation because you have to confront those ugly things you avoided before.
Sigmund Freud once said, “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” Just as Nir Eyal noted in his book: look for the emotion preceding distraction. We need to know the diversities of our feelings and what kind of pains we are trying to escape.
I have to admit that I stopped practising meditation during the pandemic because I lost the courage to face these deeply buried thoughts and feelings. I was again escaping my emotion to avoid pain. Nir’s book reminds me that I have to resolve them one by one to beat them at the fundamental level. Meditation is a great tool to think through your emotions.
Like most things, meditation is a long-term process, and just as the body needs to keep exercising to build muscle, the brain needs to keep meditating to develop awareness. Once you can be aware of yourself, you’ll better understand who you really are and what you really want. And once this fundamental problem has been solved, other secondary issues that arise from a lack of clarity about ‘who you are’ will cease to exist.
In summary, I thank Nir Eyal’s book for help me understand what I escape from, which results in my distraction. There are other practical tactics that Nir Eyal mentioned in his books:
I hope you’ll have the courage to face emotions and know root causes of your distraction and make changes right now :)