Shifu Yan Lei kicking - image courtesy of www.shifuyanlei.co.uk

Kicks, clicks and digital distraction

Deep in the shrouded mountains of Henan province, China, the monks of the Shaolin Temple have perfected their martial arts over centuries. Little did they know that they would be helping me deal with the constant distraction of the modern digital age. Until now.

“Kick, kick, kick” – the fearsome man was screaming at us. We were already exhausted after an hour of hard training and now we were kicking heavy bags. It was a dark, freezing night; but, there he was in a t-shirt, shorts and no socks – impervious to the cold. I would like to introduce you to Shifu Yan Lei of the Shaolin Temple. He taught me to fight and to pay attention to every kick.

“Don’t think about anything else – focus on every kick.”

As I sit here, years later, I can’t help but think that type of mindfulness is needed as much in front of a screen as in a fight.

Click, click, click

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve struggled with this. When in front of a screen I’ve found myself being distracted easily. One task is forgotten as another catches my attention. The web offers so much distraction, it is hard to stayed focused. Especially when you’re tired.

But the words of Shifu Yan Lei have been echoing in my mind: try to focus on every click / kick.

Here is what I’ve learnt:

Then, a thought would come into my head about something and immediately I’d look it up online. That was fine. But, that immediate gratification led to a habit that went unnoticed for a while. Then that habit started to dominate my attention, fragmenting it. After a while my head started to hurt.

Pause

Now, when a similar thought about clicking on something comes into my mind I pause. That split second gives me a choice. To click or not. At that point, I make a choice: how best should I spend my time and attention?

I write down the thought. After a while, I have a little list of things I want to click. 

List

Then, when I want to, I look up all those interesting things. I look forward to it. I get more enjoyment from this mindful clicking than I did from the habitual distraction. I found this simple approach has taken a lot of strain off my mind. I find I am more content and able to concentrate for long periods of time. Even when I’m tired.

Digital mindfulness

It is hard, but pausing before clicking gives you a choice. It gives you a chance to decide how to spend your time and attention.

And it is much less exhausting than kicking heavy bags under the watchful eye of Shifu Yan Lei.

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A sunset courtesy of Wiki Commons

The Digital Mindfulness Manifesto

Since the turn of the millennium, I have spent most of my working days staring at the web through a screen. That is not unusual. You too probably spend a lot of time staring at screens. In order to survive and thrive in this culture of constant distraction, we must rebel against digital devices. We must turn off. This is the Anti-digital Manifesto – a guide to being successful, happy and healthy in the digital age.

In the past week, it has happened twice. During my conversations with colleagues here in Concern Worldwide I was called the anti-Head of Digital by two people. What the hell does that mean? It means people are surprised when they discover that I don’t have a personal Facebook page. They’re a little shocked that I try to avoid the web on days off. That I don’t check all social media sites constantly – only one account a day. Today is my day for LinkedIn. And so on. Until I explain the method to my madness.

In his renowned book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr described how:

By moving from the depths of thought to the shallows of distraction, the web, it seems, is actually fostering ignorance.

Have you noticed how the web has changed your behaviour? Concentration for long periods becomes harder. Flick, flick, flick. Flashing, beeping, vibrating devices dominate our attention. Tap, tap, tap. Instinctively we reach for our phone during quiet moments. Click, click, click.

Let’s be clear, the web is a wonderful tool. It is how we choose to use it that is damaging us.

So, if you are like me, working with the web all the time, here are some ways to help you work more creatively, strategically and contently:

Fresh air

The smokers used to make me jealous. They looked serene as they puffed their cigarettes outside. Then I realised, it wasn’t the cigarettes I wanted, it was the chance to stand outside in the fresh air. So, here in Concern, our digital team tries to step away from their screens regularly during the day. A few minutes outside in the fresh air clears the mind, refreshes our senses and makes us better when we return to our screens. We also try to have as many meetings as we can outside on benches in the car park.

Movement

Who would have thought that after millions of years of evolution, we would end up sitting down for most of the day? Sitting down is killing us. So, stand up and walk around as much as you can during the day. People have different ways of doing this in Concern. Some take calls as they walk, people have stand-up desks, while others have stand-up meetings. Get up and move around in whatever ways suits you. Remember: “walking is man’s best medicine,” according to Hippocrates.

Single tasking

What is the most important thing you should be working on at the moment? Do it and nothing else. Turn off your social media and email notifications. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, turn off your emails altogether and focus on getting the most important stuff done. Now, everyone’s circumstances are different, so you might not be able to ignore everyone all day. But, work with your team, set expectations of when you will be available and give yourself the luxury of doing a single task for a while.

Breathe

Our nervous system, brain activity and much more are linked to our breathing. If you’re breathing quickly and shallowly, you’re going to feel nervous and stressed. On the other hand, if your breathing is smooth, deep and slow, then you will feel calm and focused. Watch how you breathe as you work today. Take a few moments to breathe deeply. Do this throughout the day.

This is about working better with the web, using it to help you and your organisation. The options are clear:

  • We continue to slip into the shallows of distraction
  • Or, we practise some digital mindfulness

I know what I am choosing.