I think you know what I mean by “internet brain.” After spending an hour or so online—scanning your social networks, jumping from one diverting link to another, and sampling little snippets of text and imagery for as long as they hold your increasingly attenuated attention—you feel completely scattered. Any task that requires the sustained and focused application of your brain has become impossible.
The internet makes it very easy to get trapped in a pattern of desultory distraction. In fact, apps and websites are usually engineered to be optimally “engaging” (read: distracting). Some commentators have speculated that the internet exploits the information-gathering impulses we inherited from our savannah-dwelling ancestors. Regardless, the result is often lost time and low productivity.
In the past, I’ve had to be plugged into the internet for work—monitoring Twitter, checking facts on Google, and keeping up with dozens of RSS feeds. When being online is central to your job, a “digital detox” isn’t the answer. It would be impossible without going on vacation entirely. I needed to get work done despite my proximity to the internet. I needed the strength to navigate the Scilla and Charybdis of social media and my RSS reader without a productivity shipwreck.
I started meditating out of curiosity. I had read an excellent book called The Ego Tunnel, in which the hot new philosopher Thomas Metzinger (yes, there exist hot new philosophers) explained how meditation changed the neural activity in monks. I was interested, so I started meditating using email instructions from a friend. I liked it, and started going to a center in L.A. where people practiced zen meditation. Now I do Vipassana meditation on my own using a guide called Mindfulness in Plain English (which still tends to be very aphoristic). You can get it online for free.
Most schools of meditation share one basic foundational activity: You try to focus your attention on the process of breathing to the exlusion of everything else. This may sound easy, but in practice, it’s extremely difficult. You fail constantly. As soon as you begin to meditate, you’re hit with a maelstrom of thoughts and sensations, ranging from the trivial to the deeply important. You’re supposed to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without judgment when they crop up, as they inevitably do, but then return your attention to your breath.
While meditating, I can sometimes go for several minutes without getting distracted from my breath. These are periods of profound calm. But the practice of meditation is mostly acknowledging that you have been distracted yet again, and trying to focus on your breath. And I found that this process actually built my capacity to recognize when I am being distracted and respond appropriately.
Furthermore, it wasn’t until I tried to quiet and clear my mind in this way that I became truly aware of how loud and cluttered it sometimes gets. I find that when I meditate, this cacophony often calms down. Fleeting thoughts, distractions, and impulses pass. Once the dust from all the frantic thinking has settled, I’m left not only with a renewed capacity to resist distraction, but also with a clearer sense of my priorities.
When meditating regularly, my work life is much easier. I can take a break in the middle of a larger project to look up a critical piece of information or check for an important email and then catch myself immediately if I start to get sidetracked. I found that I can work consistently and productively for longer periods of time—and this means that I have more free time as well.
Wired recently published a piece describing the new enthusiasm for meditation as a productivity booster among Silicon Valley tech professionals. I’m not surprised. As more of us work in roles that require being online and connected for the entire day, and often into the evenings as well, the costs of digital distraction, and effective ways of combating it, will become more apparent and important. In the case of the tech companies, of course, there’s a little irony in the fact that the more productive their employees are, the more quickly they’ll crank out new distracting technologies.
Start taking ownership of your health with our DIY Health Check-up.