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Are Distractions Eating Your Life? A Checklist to Help Reclaim Your Mental Real Estate

3min read
Self

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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4min read
Self

My Career or My Lover? Why I No Longer Choose and Neither Should You

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." -Willa Cather

A logical fallacy called bifurcation (yes, it sounds like a disease) is used to make people believe that they can only choose between two extreme choices: love me or leave me, put up or shut up, etc. In relation to my career and my love life, I was once stricken by this crazy malady.


I spent over a decade in and out of love relationships that undermined my career and drained my creative energy along with my finances. The key problem was that I was convinced that I had two options: be a kickass, and powerful professional who scares off any prospective mate or surrender to that deep and profound love such that my ambitions blow away in the wind. For years, my psyche ping-ponged between these two choices like that was the only game in town. But why?

Turns out we women are often programmed into thinking that we can't have love (at least that good, juicy heated kind) and any sort of real career. This is not actually that surprising given the troubled history that America has with women in the workplace. Post WWII, women were supposed to quit their jobs and scurry back home and leave the careers for the returning men. And if you think we've come a long way from making women feel they don't belong in the workplace, consider Alisha Coleman. In 2016, she was fired because her period leaked onto a chair!

But try to keep a good woman down, and well, you can't (Alisha sued her former employer). Given enough information we will always find a way to overcome our situation. As we teach in my practice, Lotus Lantern Healing Arts, we are all our own gurus. The light in the lotus just offers a way to illuminate your path.

So what was I missing so many years ago when I kept struggling between two suboptimal choices? The answer is the understanding that if I wanted to have it all, I had to start living right now as if I could. For me to be with someone who supported me having a fantastic career, I had to believe that that was actually one of my choices and start living that way.

Of course that is easier said than done (like most life lessons). So once I made that realization, here are the three key changes I made (and no they didn't happen all at once):

First, I stopped apologizing. Why the hell do women always feel the need to apologize for everything! (Sorry for swearing! Jk.) In particular, why do we have to feel bad about time away from the homefront? Remember Don Draper stopping off at the bar before heading home? I took a Madman lesson from him and stopped apologizing for my free time and let go of my usual rush to get back. Instead I focused on enjoying the transition, which was often needed to release the stress of work. Whether I was slow-driving listening to my jams and singing at the top of my lungs or stopping off for a pedicure, a little ritual went a long way to making me feel like a real human when I walked through the door.

Second, I let go of perfection in order to be present. I stopped stressing over a work deadline and instead rescheduled it to tend to my love life or postponed a romantic dinner because a juicy work opportunity appeared. In this way, I did not force an unnatural choice or one I did not want but really paid attention to what felt right. Instead of feeling subpar in each realm, I end up getting the most out of my time in both places.

Third (and perhaps most significantly) I began to welcome and expect encouragement from the most significant person in my life. I made it clear to my partner that I wanted insight and not criticism. And since I knew I needed understanding and not saving, I said, "Please help me look at my career woes from a different angle instead of offering me advice." Ultimately, I only accepted partners that truly supported my dreams and didn't let me play small.

Today, some of the most exquisite pleasure I feel comes simply from my partner witnessing me. Having a cohort who really appreciates my struggles, helps me integrate work and life, and enjoys the wins together can be mind-blowing. Likewise, when the shit hits the fan (again, not sorry!), it's really important to have a partner that can hold space for you and help you remember those wins.

It's a constant battle. Our culture still perpetuates the myth by pitting love and career against each other (ever see Fatal Attraction?). Men don't always get this message, but then we don't need to wait for them to get it. All we have to do it start living right now in the way we truly deserve and bring others along with us. When my friends see me and my partner together separately killing it in the career department and fiercely loving each other they say, "Your relationship gives me hope."