On Decreasing Attention-Demanding Distractions and Becoming More Self-Reflective

I have found in my own life that my non-working day is full of attention-demanding distractions. Plenty of them productive, but distractions nonetheless. Walking or on the bus? Podcast. In the gym? Music. Eating dinner? Netflix. Hell, from the very moment I wake up I’ve got something playing.

I remember laying down mid-day to rest my eyes for a bit one weekend and all of a sudden, certain events from the day came streaming in. I was finally processing all the information I had been exposed to: certain conversations, how people reacted, etc. I actually do this quite often when I lay down to go to bed–I finally reflect on all the day’s events. I had a revelation during that mid-day rest, however, when I realized that for years now, I have distracted myself at every possible moment of my waking day and it wasn’t until I laid down to rest that was finally able to reflect.

How odd. Whether it is browsing Reddit, reading a book or listening to a podcast, even my walks around town are filled with some sort of attention-demanding distraction. If I’m spending time with my significant other, my attention is on whatever it is that we are doing together, whether that be talking, watching a film, or walking to the gym. There is rarely a time that I stop and sit and just think. At least, not until I finally crawl into bed and give myself the opportunity to focus inward.

And what a shame that is.

You see, I am of the belief that the only way that one can truly grow as an individual is through self-reflection. We want to grow, and change and develop. Louise Penny, in her book Still Life, puts it thusly:

Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving, you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead.


And I can’t help but to agree. Perhaps defining this process of self-reflection is necessary, so let’s do that. When I speak of self-reflection, I mean to play back in your mind different choices that you made, what the outcomes were, and how you could have done better now that you have the time to think it through. Just think about it: many of our decisions are, by the nature of time (damned linearity), near-instantaneous.

burning hand on stove cartoon

Source: Robert Platt Bell

For the purposes of explanation, I will limit the discussion to a conversational example, as it is something we can all relate to. We are told to choose our words wisely, but how wise can you be in an unfamiliar situation with only seconds, if that, to formulate an appropriate response? Our words can be so powerful, yet so many of us devote so little time to reflect on them. How, then, if we pick our words and dispose of them immediately afterwards, are we ever supposed to learn from our mistakes? Is not the child that burns its hand on a hot stove more cautious of it in the future?

It seems common sense to think that people should learn from their mistakes–the problem with these more nuanced situations, such as the conversational example, is that “mistake” is not spelled out so clearly as in the latter example. It requires careful evaluation of the outcomes of our actions in order to have any meaning. The biggest problem, in my estimation, is that people are not honest with themselves.

Be as Objective as Possible about Yourself

None of the aforementioned theoretical growth from self-reflection is possible without first being honest with yourself. This, I believe, is one of the most difficult things we as humans face. We become very defensive when our actions are challenged, as to do so is to question our judgement.

Perhaps this illustration will help: From the moment you were born, your context has begun its development. You go through life having different experiences and influences that shape and mold the person you are. You have made decisions along the way, and over time, all these factors have compounded into who you are today. You now find yourself in a conversation with someone, and you have a knee-jerk reaction to something that was said. Perhaps you’ve made a sarcastic remark. Maybe you’ve emitted a jovial laugh and patted the person on the back. Maybe what they said has angered you, and you snap at them.  All of these reactions can be the result of the same initial comment, but with different, life-long context.

So let’s say you’ve reacted irrationally, but within the context of your life, it makes sense to you. The onus of self-discovery, by definition, lays on you. The steps you must go through to resolve and learn from this are the following:

  1. Recognize that how you reacted or behaved was inappropriate – This is harder than you might think. When our context and worldview has culminated in us acting a certain way, we have already justified the behavior. Reflecting on this reaction and coming to the conclusion that you were wrong requires great objectivity.
  2. Evaluate why you acted the way you did – This could be difficult as well. You’ve likely got decades of experiences and influences that, collectively, have molded you. Which one of those was responsible for the irrational behavior?
  3. Think about how your actions affected those around you – Now you’ve got to sit back and think about the result of your action. This shouldn’t be too hard, but keep in mind that the other party may not have been entirely honest about how they were made to feel. Err on the side of increased severity.
  4. Think about how you would have liked to have acted, if given a second chance – Our lives are filled with interactions. I’m willing to bet that you will run into a situation similar to this one again in the future. Think about it now so you don’t make the same mistakes.
  5. Apologize, and move forward – It sounds like this interaction could have caused some damage. If so, rebuild the bridge.

This is perhaps a bit too formulaic for a process as abstract as self-reflection, but it provides a framework at the very least. I hope that it is clear how this might lead to personal growth and discovery. If we can apply this to our everyday interactions and can be honest with ourselves about how we come across to a given third party, then there is no excuse to not continually fine-tune our personalities to meld ourselves into something we can eventually be proud of.

Making Time for Self-Reflection

You will recall from the beginning of the post that I found myself constantly distracted all day. So much so that the only time I had for reflection was at night before I go to bed. I don’t believe that this is a healthy practice, and there is really no reason not to take a few more reflection breaks throughout the day.

Perhaps on your next bus ride, you just sit and look out the window instead of listening to music or reading a book. Take a stroll through town with the intentional focus of reflection. Sit at your desk and close your eyes for five minutes, setting your focus inward. The more often you can inject these moments of reflection into your life, the more you can manage yourself on a micro-level. Your recollection of the situations will be greater and you will be able to dissect the information more granularly. This should, in theory, grant you an elevated level of precision in diagnosing and addressing potential personal changes.

Give it a try for the next week and see if it makes a difference in how you interact with others. Be critical. Be objective. Be honest. And let me know how it goes.

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