3min readBusiness 18 November 2019
We check our phones out of habit, on average every six minutes. Standing in line at the grocery store?
Pull out your phone.
In an elevator? Pull out your phone. Using the restroom? You know what to do.
There are 260 million smartphones in use in America today – one for every adult, leading us to be more distracted than ever before. Americans check their phones an average of 80 times a day while on vacation, with some checking their screen more than 300 times each day, according to a recent study.
In addition to making us more distracted and prone to accidents, this also contributes to rising levels of stress as our attention is constantly pulled in different directions, leaving us unable to be present in the moment.
Each time we are distracted, it sets us back from what we are trying to accomplish. Each time you are interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for your brain to get back on task, according to a study from UC Irvine titled "The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress." That study is more than a decade old and was published shortly after Apple launched the first iPhone.
A quarter of a billion smartphones later, how's that working out for us? Not long ago I was in the restroom and a woman in an adjoining stall was talking on her speakerphone. I guess this gives a new meaning to the phrase "sit-down meeting."
Not all distractions are bad, as the authors of the UC study pointed out. Interruptions can be beneficial if they are related to the task at hand. But they can set you back when you are working on one task and interrupted by something completely unrelated.
We all find ways to cope with this, and many distractions are self-imposed. You may find it refreshing, for instance, to step away from a project to check the news or your email or that funny text a friend sent you. Or maybe you were among fans of HBO's hit series "Game of Thrones" who chatted with friends about the show as the finale approached. One study estimated office chatter about the series could cost employers $3.3 billion in lost productivity. Yet that's just a fraction of the estimated $997 billion yearly cost to the US economy attributed to lost productivity due to digital distractions
"Noisy, interruption-prone offices make employees unmotivated, stressed, and frustrated," says the 2018 Workplace Distraction Report from online learning platform Udemy. It says employers could boost morale and profits by training employees to stay productive despite distractions.
I don't want to come off as self-righteous. I confess I check my phone constantly and half the time I don't even realize I'm doing it. And that's the problem – when we unconsciously allow anything to interrupt our mental processes and potentially shift our mood, we are giving away our mental real estate.
Think about going on social media and seeing your friends' carefree vacation photos when you are working.
The next thing you know, you are telling yourself you are "stuck" at work and giving in to the proverbial FOMO.
The second you do that, you relinquish control of your mood. And that can affect your entire day if you let it.
This is especially the case when you don't have the mental capacity to process it, put it in perspective, and choose how you want to interpret it. You wouldn't just let someone move into your house without paying for it. So why are you giving away your mental space without being deliberate about who is taking it and what you are letting in?
I'm not suggesting you ditch your phone or get off all social media, but rather to take control. A sense of control reduces fear, anxiety, and stress. We don't have to be ruled by the little screens or the constant urge to check them. Here is a checklist to determine if you need to reclaim mental real estate:
1. Do you check your phone the minute you get out of bed? You just gave someone else permission to be in charge of your brain. Shawn Achor, author of "The Happiness Advantage," notes that the first and last 30 minutes of the day are the times when you are most vulnerable to having your attention hijacked. By relinquishing control first thing in the morning, you spend the rest of the day trying to recover. Try spending the first 30 minutes of your day meditating, reading something uplifting, listening to a podcast, or doing something that elevates your mood. For the last 30 minutes, focus on relaxation, ditch the screen, and set intentions for the next day.
2. Do you find yourself habitually checking social media? Whether it's standing in line at a grocery store or riding an elevator, our need to check status, likes, comments, and be "in the know" is seeping mental energy Social media can be great if it helps you connect with others and build relationships, but not when it starts impacting your mood or causes you to constantly compare yourself with others. Doing that is just waging mental war with yourself. The next time you find yourself heading for a social media fix, ask yourself if it is serving you.
3. Do you feel your attention being constantly drawn away from where you want to direct it? The only thing you can really control is where you attune your attention. When you are stressed, you are attuned to that. You can numb it by going on Facebook for an hour, but what have you accomplished? Practice being intentional and consciously choosing where you want to focus your attention.
Giving away mental real estate also happens when we ruminate about things we can't control or wish we had done differently. It's basically anytime you let someone or something live rent-free in your head, or dictate your mood or behavior. This is why meditation and mindfulness are so powerful. You are training your brain to direct attention where you want it, rather than where it goes by default.
Identifying the distractions in your life and thinking about them in a new way can help you reclaim your mental real estate. After all, just because you can buy beer all day long does not mean you should be drinking it all day! It's the same with all those things that compete for your attention. Own your mind and you will be able to reclaim your attention.
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Help! My Friend Is a No Show
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.
Dear Sadsies,I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.
I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!
- The Armchair Psychologist