During the reign of King Louis XIV, a French polymath penned one of my favourite quotes:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
– Blaise Pascal, 1670
350 years later and the situation is unchanged. Most of us are terrified to be left alone with our thoughts and this drives us to fill our days with distractions. Fortunately, that now involves smartphones rather than cavalry swords.
This anxiety is the cause of our procrastination at work. We’ve developed protective habits to shield us from feelings of frustration and confusion. Instead of dealing with these emotions, we eat sugary snacks and browse social media. It’s easier to scroll than to feel, after all.
Unfortunately, you can’t lead a peaceful life when you’re at war with your mind. Everyone seems stressed these days and I suspect it’s the relentless battle to avoid scary feelings. The net result is anxiety, chest pains, acid reflux, and so on. The modern plague.
The good news is there’s a solution to this. But before we get to that, let’s check if you’re afflicted.
Admitting The Problem
I discovered I was dodging emotions when I read The Pants of Perspective, a hilarious account of a runner traversing the length of New Zealand. Because the country is composed of sheep and epic landscapes, the author routinely went days without seeing another human being.
Reading those chapters triggered a wave of panic within me. The intense loneliness seemed terrifying. I realised I was scared of dealing with my emotions without the support of my family and other home comforts. It made me feel weak and I hated it.
That was the moment when I decided to toughen up.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, there were other clues I was struggling. I’ve composed a list of these below, to see if anything sounds familiar to you. I didn’t suffer from all of these, but they represent the typical symptoms of being ill-at-ease in your mind.
- You feel happier when there’s noise in the house. Like a TV playing in the background.
- You can’t imagine going for a run without music or a podcast.
- Falling asleep is impossible without TV or music.
- There’s always music or a podcast playing while you’re doing household chores.
- You read your phone on the toilet.
- You regularly spend more than 20 minutes a day on social media.
- You don’t have time to meditate.
If any of those rings a bell, you may have some work to do. The good news is you can grow stronger in this area. It takes practice and discomfort, but it’s worth doing.
What Does Success Feel Like?
Before diving into how to fix the problem, I’ll share a snapshot of what my life is like now.
Exercise takes place in silence, just me and the road. It sounds boring but it’s not. It’s relaxing having time to myself. I can think in peace. Epiphanies have increased ten-fold.
When I’m cooking or cleaning, it’s without distraction. When my kids bound into the kitchen, I’m happy to chat with them. Previously I would have felt frustrated because I was listening to my podcast and they were interrupting. It feels terrible to admit that, but it was true.
It’s easier to stay focused at work, even when my brain wants a break from thinking. There’s less snacking or random walks around my house when I’m frustrated.
Finally, background anxiety has dropped away to nothing. I still worry about the odd thing, here and there. But the pervasive, hard-to-place unease has gone.
Like most life changes, it’s best to take this slowly. Consistency trumps unsustainable progress. If you go cold turkey on emotion avoidance, you’ll most likely fail. Or you’ll succeed, but have a mental breakdown.
Instead, take a regular activity and start doing it without distractions. For me, it was running. I used to focus on a podcast instead of dealing with the physical feelings of exercise. I had mild health anxieties, so podcasts were a great escape from feeling my heart rate rising and my breath becoming shallower and faster.
During my first silent run, there was no escaping those feelings. But it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, the run had a meditative feel to it. I relaxed into the rhythm and soon had one of my first epiphanies.
After a week or two of this, it felt quite normal. I was beginning to relish the peace and quiet. So I took two more activities – driving and cooking – and removed the distractions. No music, no podcasts, no Netflix. I replaced the noise with mindful focus, which increased my enjoyment of the activities. It was getting easier.
If you want to get started, examine your habits and adopt a similar step-by-step approach. It will be a little challenging at first, but it quickly gets easier. Take it one activity at a time and only add another when it feels comfortable. Keep going until you have mastered every part of your day.
In Pascal’s world of 1670, there were vastly fewer distractions. Nothing vibrated in the pockets of the French aristocracy. The only tweets came from the trees. It was a quieter time.
Today we have so many ways to drown our feelings with dopamine. The thrill of a few retweets can easily mask deep anxiety about job security. Scrolling through Facebook is infinitely more pleasant than contemplating mortality.
You need to dial-down digital distractions to find your inner calm. As you learn to perform more activities in silence, start to wean yourself off your phone. Remove the social media apps and anything you can kill time with, including web browsers and shopping apps.
It will feel odd at first because you’ll still reach for your phone instinctively. But over time you’ll retrain those habits, with the added benefit of being more present with your family and friends.
If you don’t trust yourself not to cheat, try using the parental control features on your phone. Here are some instructions for doing that on iPhones and Android phones. Have a friend or spouse set the parental passphrase, so you can’t reinstall the apps you miss.
Do the same thing on your work computer. Use browser extensions, like this one for Chrome, to block the websites that distract you the most. This will help you to experience your emotions rather than running away from them.
Many of you will read this article and move straight to the next one. But if you want to take action, here are some next steps to try today:
- Choose your first activity to do without distraction. Pay careful attention to how it feels to be quiet.
- If you don’t already meditate, try a session. It takes ten minutes. Download Headspace for a free guided beginners’ session.
- Take the social media apps off your phone. See how it feels without an escape close to hand.
I’ll leave you with a final quote from old Pascal, to encourage you to explore this topic on your own:
“We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”
– Blaise Pascal