Do you ever wonder why it's so difficult to put down your phone?
The conventional answer is that you're addicted. You're hooked on distraction both because of their clever design of these apps and devices as well as the drug-like hit of dopamine you get each time you pick up the phone.
But emerging science reveals an alternative explanation. Could it be that we're drawn to our devices, not just because we're addicted, but because we trying to avoid the voice in our head?
To see why this "thought avoidance hypothesis" might make sense, consider the recent research of University of Virginia social psychologist Timothy Wilson. His team placed subjects in an austere room and removed all sources of distraction: phones, pens, paper, etc. The subjects then spent the next 15 minutes just sitting there, alone with their thoughts. Not surprisingly, Wilson's team found that the majority of subjects rated this experience either as either boring or unenjoyable.
They then added a twist. They ran the same experiment but also left a device on the table that allowed subjects to shock themselves.
The results? 27 percent of women and 67 percent of men found the experience of being alone with their thoughts so intolerable that they decided to shock themselves. One man reportedly shocked himself 190 times.
The disturbing upshot of this study is that, for many of us, we would rather harm ourselves than be alone with our own mind.
In my seven-year-old daughter's classroom, there's a poster on the wall that reads, "your mind can be your best friend." It's true for second graders, and it's true for us. Here's how to do it.
1. Notice the urge to distract yourself.
You come home. It's been a marathon day at work. You're tired, stressed, and scattered. If you're like me, your first instinct is to turn on the TV, put on a podcast, or find some other distraction. The first step in reversing our ordinary aversion to our thoughts is to notice this habitual urge.
2. See your thoughts as thoughts.
Now for the fun part. If there is one life-changing insight that comes out of the mindfulness tradition, it is this: the nature of mind changes when we see our thoughts as thoughts. 99 percent of the time we fail to do this. Our thoughts are like waking dreams. We're so wrapped up in them that we don't even know we're lost in thought.
All you have to do to interrupt this ordinary habit of mind is notice your thoughts and place a small metal label them: "thinking." When your mind says, "I want to check the news for the 27th time today," label it as "thinking." When your mind says, "I wonder how many likes have accumulated on my witty Facebook post," label it as "thinking." This subtle practice changes the game because you are now aware of what is happening in your mind.
3. Bring your attention to the present moment.
Seeing your thoughts as thoughts allows you to access something rare and yet utterly transformative: this moment. You can use the breath to take you there: redirecting your attention to the subtle sensations of each inhale and exhale. You can use sounds: noticing the hum of your refrigerator or the sound of rain drops falling outside. The science on this last move is clear: the more aware we become of the present moment, the less stress, anxiety, and irritation we experience, the more we feel centered, focused, and at ease.
Full disclosure: this practice isn't going to get rid of thoughts. You'll still think about that email you forgot to send, the argument you had yesterday, or the show you want to binge-watch on Netflix later. But using these tools, your thoughts will start to come and go more freely, with less pull, punch, and emotional residue. And that's a shift that has the potential to change thinking from torture to something you might even look forward to being with from time to time.