According to a 2010 Harvard study, we humans spend almost half our time letting our minds wander (46.9% to be exact). Whether we’re thinking about the past, the future, or an entirely fabricated alternate reality, we are not thinking about what we are currently doing. Researchers also found that “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness” in that a “wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
I personally find this to be true. Hell, even in the ten minutes that I’ve had my computer open to write this post, I’ve felt distracted for at least eight of those and subsequently feel both anxious and frustrated.
Mindfulness has been a buzzword for the past few years, so it’s likely you’ve heard of it. Though I’m sure there are varying definitions of the term, to me, mindfulness means being present–in the now, not focused on past or future. Or basically the exact opposite of the mind-wandering described above.
In my extremely unqualified opinion, it makes sense that we’re hardwired to have wandering minds. In some ways, it’s likely helped us survive. We need to think about past mistakes so we don’t make them again just as much as we need to identify future potential pitfalls so we don’t fall into them. With so much to think about, it’s no wonder some of those anxieties and preoccupations seep into our present consciousness. And while mind-wandering occurs regardless of activity, it also seems like a great coping mechanism for life’s more difficult times; if you’re not focused on what you currently face, it probably seems less real, enabling you to endure more easily.
I also fully believe that today’s technology contributes to our mind-wandering. It certainly contributes to our shortening attention spans. Having the entire world at our fingertips at all times is simultaneously a wonder and a burden. It allows us to capture some of life’s most precious moments, call for help in an emergency, and connect with friends around the globe. At the same time, however, it can feel suffocating, like we must be available and responsive at all times of day and night.
I’m reluctant to admit that my phone spends more time with me than anything, including any person. It’s hard to argue against having it on hand entirely, but as time goes on and I find myself turning to check my phone in less than five-minute intervals, I’m forced to concede that my behavior has become obsessive and unhealthy. I never used to be quite so connected. At work, my phone would sit on my desk all day, but I’d only check it randomly (having the computer at my disposal instead, which is arguably not any better). However, once Baby Bear was born and I was breastfeeding an uncommunicative and sleeping infant for hours on end, my phone became my lifeline to the outside world. I turned to it to help me connect to other mothers, catch up with friends and family, browse social media, read, or choose my next Netflix binge (Jane the Virgin, for the win). Well, with enough time and practice, my brain rewired itself to form a new neural pathway and I was left with a bad habit.
Try as I might, I have not been able to break it. After just mentioning the title of this post to my mom and husband, I received an incredulous stare and a snide “Wow, you’d fail that challenge.”
This is the opposite of the reputation I want! Please don’t let me be that person! We all know the one who checks her phone all the time, ignoring life going on right in front her. I resent that person for not wanting to engage and feel hurt that she values her phone more than she values my company. But, to my absolute horror, I have become this person too.
I cherish my friends and don’t want them to think I don’t care about what they have to say. I love my family and don’t want them to feel like they are unimportant to me. I cannot even describe the depth of my feelings for my baby and fear that he will grow up feeling that I don’t care. It wrings my heart to think that I’ve missed some of his cute and beseeching expressions as I’ve blankly stared at my little rectangular screen.
I justify it by saying that I’m reading (I’m often using my Kindle app), or that I want it nearby in case of an emergency or to take pictures, but in reality I think it just makes me feel anxious to be without it. I’ve grown addicted to my phone. I couldn’t care less about Facebook or Instagram, but I check them both probably 15 times a day. I swipe my phone to look at the time and couldn’t even tell you what it is just seconds later. I worry every day that this addiction makes Baby Bear feel that he is less valuable to me than some inconsequential device.
And all this time I’m spending on my phone? It means I’m not focused on the present. I’m not focused on the moment–what I’m doing, what Baby Bear is doing, or what’s happening around me. For example, I finished a book on my phone this weekend while on a walk through a beautiful park with the babe. It was a gorgeous, end-of-summer day; the birds were chirping, the sun felt warm against my skin, and I took it for granted by focusing on something as unimportant as a subpar romance novel.
I recognize that I won’t get that time back, but I have decided to be proactive about changing the behavior to come back to the present.
When I find myself focused on my phone, or just generally overwhelmed with anxiety and thereby not focused on the present (since anxiety really lives in the future), here’s how I plan to reel it back in.
Step 1: Focus on my breathing
Simply put, I will stop what I am doing and take a few deep breaths, treating them like a simple reset button.
Step 2: Ground myself
I will put my feet on the floor and feel the ground beneath my heels and toes. Literally grounding myself will allow me to start focusing on my current surroundings.
Step 3: Take in all five senses
I will become consciously aware of what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. If my anxiety is high enough, I will do the five-to-one countdown; that is, I will list five things I see, four things I hear, etc. Including detailed descriptions of the things around me will help me stay even more focused on the present.
Step 4: Repeat a simple mantra
If needed, I will slowly repeat a simple and relaxing phrase, like “I am calm and relaxed.” An abbreviated version of autogenic training, this technique has been proven to help practitioners start to feel what they repeat. If I’m still feeling anxious after steps one, two, and three, this will continue to help me relax and focus on the present.
No Phone Zone
The above exercises will help me feel re-centered and more in tune to what is going on around me, but I don’t want to stop there. Without beating myself up too much about it if I “fail,” I’d like to start enacting a no phone zone policy during certain times of the day when I am most ashamed of my phone addiction. My hope is that starting small will be the first step to a successful phone addiction recovery.
Embarrassingly, I have started to read on my phone during meals. I typically read the news over breakfast and a book at lunch. Luckily Papa Bear calls me out if I do this at dinner, but I hate feeling like I have to hide my phone from a child. No more!
Afternoons with Baby Bear
As referenced above, I’m not proud that I look at my phone as much as I do when I’m alone with the baby. It’s not like I’m not watching or interacting with him at all, but I still hate to look down and see him looking for my reaction. From now on, I will leave my phone in the other room when we’re playing at home.
Like any journey, I’m sure there will be bumps along the way. Stepping back from my phone will not happen overnight, especially because it is an incredibly useful tool much of the time. However, my hope is that by sharing this here and being more mindful, I will eventually come to depend on it, and other anxiety coping mechanisms, less. In turn, I hope that my wandering mind will be more easily focused and I will feel more positive and engaged overall.
I ask that you help me on this path and (gently) remind me when I stray. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from being more aware of what is in front of us. Take the challenge with me!