Why Am I Distracted?

The inability to focus is common to many forms of depression. But, even when we’re not depressed, more and more of us are finding ourselves distracted due to a 24/7 barrage of information strategically engineered to capture our attention.

distracted
Default Mode Locked to On

A common factor linked to every form of depression is constant activation of the default mode network. This is the area of the brain where the story of “self” is created. When the network is locked to the “on” position, it becomes challenging for us to process any information that doesn’t directly relate to us. That makes it difficult to connect with others, and it can get exhausting.

In an economy where the scarce resource that market forces are competing for is our time, the default mode for every device and app we use to manage that resource is “on” as well. And almost every ping from every message and every push notification is scientifically personalized to induce a dopamine hit in our brain and exaggerate our sense of self-importance.

Always in Touch

Will Schoder offers some problematic bullet points in his thoughtful video “The Attention Economy: How They Addict Us.” I would stop writing and ask you to watch it right now, but since it runs almost eleven minutes, I’ll share a couple bullet points instead.

• It takes us on average 23 minutes to resume focus after any interruption. Even worse, we do two different tasks before coming back to our original project.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know that it’s true for me. This is why I turn off all notifications on my computer.

But, there’s another statistic that Schoder presents that scares me more than any leaky duct dystopian sci-fi film I’ve ever seen.

• We check our phones an average of 221 times a day, or every 4.3 minutes.  

It’s enough to make me want to chuck the digital world and return to the days of analog.

Turning Down the Noise

In the days before digital sound, Dolby Laboratories specialized in noise reduction, which meant removing tape hiss in the recording studio and in consumer cassette decks. One of the specs audiophiles paid attention to was  signal-to-noise ratio. That meant the ratio of wanted signal (usually music) to unwanted noise (tape hiss). 

I remember that minimizing tape hiss made me happy, but I was surprised to learn from Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness, that boosting the signal    to noise ratio in your life is one of his key strategies for 

  • Achieving Success
  • Spreading Happiness
  • Sustaining Positive Change

Achor notes that our brain has only so much processing power in a given day, and, if we want to concentrate on signal (what’s important to us) we have to turn down the noise.

Turning Up Signal

A time and attention management system that I use from the computer programmer community is the Pomodoro Technique. Its inventor had a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) that he set to focus exclusively on a given task for 25 minutes at a time, which he interspersed with short breaks.

This allows the brain to focus, rest, and focus again.

Whatever task one focuses on during those 25 minutes is signal.

Instead of filling up the needed mental breaks by checking my devices, I answer email, social media, and text messages twice a day: at 11:00 a.m. (hopefully I’ve accomplished something by then) and at 4:00 p.m. to make sure I set the most important task for the following morning. I owe this productivity tip to Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Work Week.

But, in order to focus even for those precious twenty-five minutes, it’s important to keep my brain on a noise-reduced information diet during the rest of the day. 

Sean Achor offers the following criteria for identifying noise.

If it’s hypothetical, untimely, distracting, or unusable, it’s noise.

I remember these with the acronym HUDU as in “HUDU I think I’m fooling by wasting time on this?”

Hypothetical

Information is hypothetical “if it is based on what someone believes ‘could be’ instead of ‘what is.'” 

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog was the most accurate pollster during the 2014 election cycle. Because of my interest in politics, his podcast was part of my feed in 2016.

His final call: Hillary Clinton had a 78% chance of beating Donald Trump. 

I hope he Mr. Silver better in the 2018 election, but I had turned down the noise by eliminating his podcast from my feed.

Untimely

Information is untimely, says Achor, “If you are not going to use that information imminently, and it could change by the time you use it.”

The noisiest untimely information in my life was the e-book How I Sold 1 Million e-Books in Five Months by John Locke.

The book was published on June 15, 2011. I purchased it on June 20, 2011. But, I didn’t have a book, let alone a series of books featuring the same central character, ready to publish on that date. 

By the time I was ready to join the fray with a first novel (in a mystery series) in late 2014, Locke’s strategy of outselling traditionally published $9.99 Kindle books by offering his at $0.99 had revolutionized the industry. The promotional price point of $0.99 became so universal for first books in a series that the new competitive price point was FREE.

The million Kindle books that had grossed Locke $330,000 at $0.99 would gross me $0 and put me in the red for Amazon server costs at the low low price of FREE.

Distracting

Information is noise if “it distracts you from your goals.”

distracting posts
Actual post from one of my Facebook friends that reached my feed by virtue of its high “like” and “share” statistics.

I’ll admit that because of my untimely entry into book writing, I have far more Facebook friends than actual friends.

One morning (at 11:08 a.m.) I noticed that several of my author Facebook friends (including an actual author friend) had been mentioned by a book review periodical for writing the “Best Books of 2018.” I re-posted the news on my feed and wrote: Yay (insert name) for each Facebook friend in the comments.

When one of them clicked “Like” by the comment with her name, I thought, “That name seems familiar. Do I actually know this person?” Turns out I had met her at a book launch two years ago.

Long story short, I had completely forgotten why I had gone on Facebook in the first place: to post something related to this blog. D’oh! 

Unusable

Achor writes that information is unusable “If your behavior will not be altered by the information or if the information won’t spur behavior change.”

The area where I confront the most unusable information is news. 

On the morning I’m writing this (01/28/19) it’s humbling to think how little I can do to ease Federal employees’ fear of another government shutdown, increase the supply of scarce Sweet Heart candies, influence who chooses to run for president, care for victims of a dam collapse in Southern Brazil, or weigh in on Venezuela’s power struggle.

There’s a news story on naming anger to tame it, but that’s basic mindfulness, not news.

So, though I’ve trimmed my noisy news consumption over the past few years, I can afford to turn it down even more.

Ten Minute Exercise

The exercise I discussed in “A Curious Path to Improved Concentration” can be tweaked to help you notice which distractions are the noisiest for you.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Pay non-judgmental attention to the inhale and exhale of the breath. Follow each breath from beginning to end noting as much detail as possible.

4. With each breath, extend your non-judgmental attention to your entire body.

5. As attention strays from the breath, follow it with curiosity to its next object: a sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, or thought.

6. When a thought arises, note whether it’s Hypothetical, Untimely, Distracting, or Unusable.

7. Maintaining non-judgmental attention, remain curious to see whether there’s a sense of peace when the thought subsides.

8. Repeat the process with the next object or return to the breath until a new object arises.

When you start to get a sense for what kind of noise distracts you, experiment with cutting back on the source of that noise in your life.

Some suggestions are to leave the radio in your car off for ten minutes of your commute or set your smartphone to airplane mode for ten minutes.

Whatever you do, don’t try to eliminate all noise at once. Silence can be scary. Just dial it back ten minutes at a time.

One Belief at a Time

“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It is not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.” – Byron Katie

belief
Dysfunctional Beliefs

Beliefs help us navigate the gray areas of life when there is no right or wrong answer. When they put us in harmony with ourselves and others, they are functional. When they routinely create stress and suffering, they are dysfunctional

The authors of the original mindfulness manual offer guidelines on which thoughts fit which category. But, instead of asking us to accept these guidelines as truth, they ask us to test them like scientists and find out for ourselves.

Rationalizing Not Rational 

Unfortunately, once we hold a belief, we become lousy scientists. Our minds become spin doctors looking for every shred of evidence supporting our belief and disregarding everything that doesn’t.

Nobel Laureate: I’m a failure.

Journalist: What do you mean? You just won the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Laureate: I fooled them this time, but I’m still a failure.

We may not be rational, but we’re all expert rationalizers.

Have You Read? 

“Have you read Byron Katie?” a woman at Social Club asked me.

“No, what does he say?”

“She.” 

“Okay, what does she say?”

People ask me all the time if I’ve read _________. Countless entrepreneurs have repackaged the various wisdom traditions over the millennia and sold kernels of truth under their brand. (Full disclosure: my brand is moving from depression to well-being.)

When the name Byron Katie kept popping up in conversations, I decided to look at her sales pitch.

Byron Katie’s Pitch

It’s slick.

It’s portentously called The Work.

Her slogan is: 

Judge your neighbor. 

Write it down. 

Ask four questions.

Turn it around.

Her scientific method for testing beliefs is filling out one- and two-page worksheets printable from her website:

Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet 

and 

One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet

Sounds too simple, right?  

Judging Our Neighbors 

If The Work is this simple, I should be able to refute it by the end of this blog post. 

Katie suggests that since we have much more practice pronouncing judgment on others than on ourselves, we should start by judging our neighbors.

I’ll start by judging Byron Katie with the One-Belief-at-a-Time worksheet. 

One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet

The Work – A Written Meditation

Instructions: On the line below, write down a stressful concept about someone (alive or dead) whom you haven’t forgiven 100 percent. (For example, “He doesn’t care about me.”) Then question the concept in writing, using the following questions and turnarounds. (Use additional paper as needed.) When answering the questions, close your eyes, be still, and witness what appears to you. Inquiry stops working the moment you stop answering the questions.

I have a low opinion of charlatans, so I’ll use that belief.

Belief: Byron Katie is a false prophet for profit.

Ask Four Questions

1. Is It True?

I suspect that it’s true. It’s highly unlikely that she’s a genuine prophet. I’ll say yes. 

2. Can You Absolutely Know That It’s True? (Yes or no.) 

Well, I’m still filling out the sheet so I haven’t proved it yet. No.

3. How Do You React, What Happens When You Believe That Thought?

I feel sorry for the gullible people she fleeces.

a. Does that thought bring relief or stress into your life? 

I feel judgmental about the avarice of charismatic leaders and pity for their prey.

b. What images do you see, past and future, and what physical sensations arise as you think that thought and witness those images?

It bothers me how some charismatic leaders spend their money in misanthropic ways. Tony Robbins bought a massive beachfront mansion in Fiji to get away from people. 

I recently watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix about the Osho followers in Central Oregon. Osho wore a million dollar watch and had over 90 Rolls Royces. 

I feel a tightening in my chest area when I think about this kind of conspicuous consumption.

c. What emotions arise when you believe that thought? (Refer to the Emotions List, available on thework.com.)

I prefer to keep my emotional labels simple, like pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. High or low energy. But, I’ll play along and choose faultfinding from the judgmental category.

d. Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when you believe that thought? (Do you act out on any of the following: alcohol, drugs, credit cards, food, sex, television, computers?) 

My aggravation isn’t so strong that it provokes a coping mechanism. 

Whoa: I think I just found a weak link in the emotions list. Aggravation seems a more accurate label than faultfinding.

e. How do you treat the person in this situation when you believe the thought? How do you treat other people and yourself?

I have a level of disgust and disregard toward the person. My feeling for their prey leans toward condescension. As P.T. Barnum said, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

f. Who would you be without the thought? Who or what are you without the thought?

If Byron Katie’s worksheets actually help people investigate their beliefs, I would be thankful. I would add The Work to my toolkit. I would recommend her work to people who could benefit from it. If I had to choose an emotion from the emotion list, I would go with grateful under the loving category.

Turn the Thought Around

Possible Turnarounds. 

1. To the self. 

I am a false prophet for profit.

2. To the other. 

I am falsely judging Byron Katie.

3. To the opposite.

Byron Katie is not a false prophet for profit.

Three Specific Examples

Then find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true for you in this situation.

For each turnaround, go back and start with the original statement. 

Byron Katie is a false prophet for profit.

1. I am a false prophet for profit. 

In my advertising days, I got paid for some concepts that were less successful than I predicted they would be.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is currently acknowledged as the gold standard for helping people between major depressive episodes prevent relapses. While adding these tested mental well-being exercises should make healthier responses to stress more common, I haven’t tested this with clinical studies.

I would like to earn some money by turning these posts into a structured course so that I can continue to do them. I don’t see myself buying a fleet of Rolls Royces or a private island, but I can’t be sure that I won’t.

2. I am falsely judging Byron Katie. 

In filling out this worksheet, I haven’t encountered any claims that this is the key to wealth or success or eternal salvation, so it’s possible that Byron Katie isn’t positioning herself as a prophet.

The worksheets and a $0.99 app are available on her website, so it’s possible that she’s motivated by something other than profit.

I did a quick Google search on Byron Katie critics. Psychotherapists say that The Work is not a substitute for psychotherapy, but Katie doesn’t claim that it is. A site called Christian Answers is strongly opposed, but many Christians view mindfulness meditation as the work of the devil.

3. Byron Katie is not a false prophet for profit.    

The authors of the original mindfulness manual advocated cultivating awareness of dysfunctional beliefs and replacing them with their opposites. This is easier to do on paper than in our heads.

The approach is consistent with an idea that occurs in most wisdom traditions: we tend to criticize others for flaws that we are blind to in ourselves.

The authority figure who convinced me to look into Byron Katie is the eastern scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell. He was so impressed with how Byron Katie’s work fit in with the tenets of the wisdom traditions that he married her.

Ten Minute Exercise

I find that the principles behind the worksheets are consistent with traditional mindfulness techniques. The major innovation is writing thoughts down instead of watching them in the wilds of the mind.

But, please, don’t take my word for it. Do try this at home.   

It took me longer than ten minutes to fill out a worksheet, but you can download either the Judge-Your-Neighbor or One-Belief-at-a-Time worksheets and watch the video on how to fill them out.

For further evidence, I recommend the book Loving What Is by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell. Check your local library if you’re skeptical about the “profit” part.

Help to Make it Through the Night

On two successive Friday evenings I found myself lured toward depression by an inner voice that sounded very much like self compassion. My challenges on these two evenings helped me recognize the importance of spotting depression’s early warning signs and developing strategies to keep the beast at bay. 

night
Baby, It’s Cold Outside

I try to walk 10,000 steps a day. A week ago Friday, I logged half those steps on a lunchtime walk with my partner. She planned to walk to a yoga class in the evening, so I decided to go with her to get my remaining steps. 

About an hour before she left, the sky grew dark. It started to rain. The wind whipped up. She decided that she would drive to yoga instead. And my pseudo-compassionate inner voice told me that I should stay home. It was wet and blustery outside. Why not stay where it’s dry and cozy?

I’m Too Tired

On the second Friday, my partner had plans to join a friend to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker. I was happy that she was going, and happier that I wasn’t. 

When a friend called to ask if I wanted to go get happy hour fish ‘n chips at a nearby Irish pub, I said I would pass. I genuinely wasn’t in the mood for happy hour. 

The Dark Night of the Soul

In both cases it took me a while to realize that something was awry. I wasn’t behaving as I normally would. I’m good about getting my steps in. I’m up for a spontaneous happy hour. So, what was going on?

I’ve often heard depression described as the dark night of the soul. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two whisperings came on two of the longest Friday nights of the year.

My biological sleep timer releases melatonin at sunset to cue me that bedtime is approaching. I have no problem taking a walk at this hour most of the year. I have no problem accepting a happy hour invitation if there’s a trace of sunlight. On days when the sun never truly rises, and sets by 4:30 p.m., it’s a different story.

Fighting Back

If I didn’t know that exercise and spending time with others were the most effective ways to combat depression, I might have given in to that voice.

But, because I knew the inner voice was singing a siren’s song, I declined its advice.  

On the first Friday, I put on my rain gear and braved the night. The walk turned out to be lovely. It stopped raining, the wind died down, the air was fresh, and the holiday lights reflected on the damp pavement were lovely.

On the second Friday, I changed my mind and told my friend I’d go. We walked over to the local Irish pub. The happy hour fish ‘n chips and Guinness were delicious. My friend is one of the only people in my life willing to discuss politics. It was fun.

The Holiday Cure

It’s no coincidence that we in the Northern Hemisphere have packed so many holiday celebrations around the longest night of the year. We string up colorful lights to compensate for the darkness and the absence of autumn leaves. We practice generosity by exchanging gifts. We get together with family and friends. We overeat to pack on the fat to help keep us warm.

Unfortunately, since all of these antidotes to the winter doldrums are artificial, some of us don’t respond to them. Somehow, all the things we’re told we should do to be joyful only make us feel more alone. 

Lost in Translation 

For me, showing love for others by giving and receiving gifts got shelved during my years in retail advertising. I lived with Christmas six months a year. I witnessed little generosity, lots of stress and greed. I can still recall the ghost of one Christmas past when an art director friend, who, after working sixteen hour days for twenty-one days in a row dropped dead on her Monday morning bus ride. Ho ho ho.

Since this seemed to be the only love language my family spoke, I felt alone, and guilty for feeling alone. 

I didn’t know that there were four other love languages, according to Gary Chapman, that spoke to me. 

Ten Minute Exercise

If the traditional prescriptions for getting through these long winter nights don’t resonate, gift yourself ten minutes to consider whether one (or more) of these prescriptions does. 

1. Words of Affirmation

I wrote about my thank you experiment in my previous post. By continuing to give thanks to the people in my life, I’ve been receiving all the words of affirmation I could ask for.

2. Quality Time

I spoke to a woman at a Solsara Introduction Meetup who had ditched her office holiday party in favor of an evening of exercises in authentic, mindful communication. She was surprised how much difference sustained eye contact and attention to her breathing and internal emotions made in the quality of communication. 

Meetup.com offers lots of ways to connect with people who spend quality time participating in shared interests. 

3. Acts of Service

I volunteered to lead a discussion for my meditation group on the work of Byron Katie. I was surprised how open everyone was about sharing beliefs that caused them stress, and how eager they were to work through that stress together. 

Volunteering is a wonderful way to receive while giving.

4. Physical Touch

A 20-second hug is the fastest relief I’ve found for counteracting depression and anxiety. I got to watch the power of touch work its magic again the other day at a drop-in cuddle at Portland Social Connection.

This is something you definitely should try at home if you have a consensual partner. If you don’t, seek out group cuddles, a professional cuddler, or a Swedish massage.

Oh, and don’t forget to exercise.

Gift of Thank You!

What should you get your friends and co-workers this holiday season? How about something they’ll thank you for by returning or re-gifting it?

Thank You Scarf
Give a SCARF

Stop! Before you click away, let me clarify what I mean by SCARF. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, uses the acronym SCARF to describe six gifts that all humans want from each other: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

How do I know this is what your friends and co-workers want? When our ancestors earned their living by hunting and gathering in small tribes, these qualities led to more and better mating opportunities. Regardless of what your ancestors left us in their wills, they left us brains that view our SCARF as essential to survival.

Choking Hazard

Unfortunately, if we rely on others to give us a SCARF when we most need one, we may find ourselves out in the cold. And if we hold onto our own SCARF too tightly to keep others from snatching it, we may accidentally strangle ourselves.

Surprisingly, the best practice for assuring you’ll have a SCARF when you need one is to give them away year-round.

Thank You Messages

In helping people move from depression to well-being, I’m more motivated by pragmatism than altruism. 

So, for the past week or so I’ve been sending thank you emails and messages not because therapists recommend it, but because Google engineers do.

Many of the best engineers in the world start their workday by sending a quick thank you message to a colleague.

Status

When your friend or co-worker reads your appreciative message it gives their sense of status a boost.

People who receive such messages reply with a “thank you” or the occasional “you made my day” at much higher rates than the average message.

When they do, this gives your sense of status a boost. 

(Note: on the occasions when recipients don’t reply, you’re still ahead of the game. See Relatedness below.)

Certainty

As hunter gatherers, our bellies gave us crucial feedback on whether we’d had a successful day. 

Since the invention of the assembly line it’s been harder to pinpoint our role in the overall scheme of things. This leaves many of us uncertain about our value to the company, and to the friends we don’t see as much as we used to. 

Composing a thank you email reminds us that people have done things that we value. Letting them know can help give them certainty. Maybe much needed certainty if they read it before a morning full of seemingly pointless meetings.

Autonomy 

The best jobs offer us autonomy in how we accomplish our goals. But, if we don’t currently have a job that offers a lot of choice, we can still practice autonomy in who we thank.

After we thank the people who help us most often, we force ourselves to become creative and thank people for things that we may have taken for granted.  

Relatedness

If we have a job that doesn’t constantly put us in touch with other people, it’s easy to lose sight of our interconnectedness. Sending thank you messages helps us recognize that we have been the beneficiaries of great kindness and connection.

That connection or kindness may no longer be a part of our everyday lives, but bringing it to mind strengthens our sense of relatedness.

Studies show that recognizing the depth of our social connections is as important a predictor of longevity as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking. 

Fairness

The only problem that I’ve experienced so far in thanking people is that it requires so little effort that it doesn’t seem fair.

But, as I review how it benefits both parties when it comes to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness, I have to conclude that it is.

Two Minute Exercise

1. Take a piece of paper or a text document and on each line write down one aspect of SCARF.

Status

Certainty

Autonomy

Relatedness

Fairness 

2. Give yourself a score from 0-10 on how you currently rate yourself on each aspect.

3. For 21 days (or 21 work days) write a thank you message to someone from your past or present who has helped you. Be specific about how.

Examples: 

I used your Excel spreadsheet tip yesterday and it saved me twenty minutes. Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

Thank you so much for your honest feedback about my performance. I look forward to honing my skills.

Thank you so much for getting back to me yesterday about my question so quickly.

4. After 21 days, repeat step one. 

5. Compare the first SCARF sheet with the second.  

Bonus Points: Take 20 seconds to thank a friend or co-worker face to face. Make eye contact when you do it. The benefits you receive from face to face thanks have a multiplying effect.

Extra Bonus Points (in a little over a minute): 

Watch the video of Shawn Achor and Oprah on Thank You Messages (1:20)

And here’s Rick Hanson’s take on “Say Thanks