Words by Oliver Burkeman

The problem, I tell myself – and complain to my friends, and sometimes in my writing – is that the world is too distracting. I am constantly being interrupted by emails, or lured away from work by the temptations of Twitter. Other people keep stealing my attention, rupturing the inner stillness that suffuses my happiest and most fulfilling days.

The real problem, though, is that this is a lie. One moment’s introspection reveals the truth: I want to be distracted. I seek distractions out. My attention, far from being stolen, is freely given away to almost anybody who requests it. The apps I download in order to shut off my laptop’s access to the internet – like the writing trips I deliberately arrange to places beyond the reach of mobile phone networks – aren’t really intended to prevent others from harassing me. I don’t get that many phone calls, or even that many emails. The goal is to defeat my own addiction to distracting myself. And sometimes it even works, for a few hours. But the struggle to restrain my own urges is too paradoxical to keep up for long – which is why you’ll find me on the summit of the hill behind the secluded rural cabin, smartphone aloft, in a desperate effort to hunt down any trace of 3G.

This is an absurd and frustrating situation, and it is at least partly explained, I think, by the argument advanced in Matthew Crawford’s excellent book The World Beyond Your Head. Our era, Crawford argues, defines freedom as the autonomy to do what you want, when you want. This includes the freedom to let our attention move in accordance with our impulses and whims, so that we never need experience boredom, which might be defined as the absence of any immediately appetising object of attention. Not for us the deeper freedoms that result from, say, learning a technical skill or a new language, with all the moments of boredom that will unavoidably entail along the way. Any such demand for sustained attention feels like an outrageous imposition, even when the demand is coming from oneself. To resolve to spend a few hours in stillness, in meditation or focused concentration or quietly conversing with a loved one, is to resolve not to do a myriad of other potential things – and that can seem like far too much of a sacrifice.

And then there is Nietzsche’s terrifying insight: we crave distraction because “when we are alone and quiet, we fear that something will be whispered in our ear.” It’s not that distraction feels especially good; at best, for me, it feels dully comfortable. But it certainly feels better than the difficult emotions that often attend stillness and attentiveness. In silent meditation, you’re alone with all your worries, regrets and self-reproachful thoughts; in focusing on difficult creative work, you’re liable to run into daunting challenges and the fear of failure. Doing anything that really matters involves risking an encounter with difficult emotions – whereas distraction constantly offers an escape hatch. Frequently, and dangerously, this takes the form not of obviously pointless, time-wasting activity – videos of cats on YouTube, and so forth – but of busywork that could pass for useful. Writes Nietzsche: “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

The real real problem, Nietzsche seems to be suggesting, is death. (Isn’t it always?) Our lives are appallingly finite: if you live until the age of eighty, you have about four thousand weeks, excluding the ones you’ve already used. Yet there’s something about the modern technologies of distraction that fuels our delusion that things could be otherwise – that we might live forever. On the internet, you can go anywhere, discover anything, be anyone; there are always new things to read and new people to encounter; possibilities stretch out endlessly before you. All this makes it far easier not to confront the frightening truth of life’s finitude – or to face the fact that, in order to spend a finite life in a meaningful way, you need at some point to stop chasing newness and focus on doing a few things well. The psychologist Ernest Becker famously argued that many human activities, from art and war to childrearing, are really “immortality projects” – attempts to convince ourselves, on a symbolic level, that we might transcend our mortal, animal nature. Perhaps a life lost to distraction is its own kind of low-grade immortality project. I click and click so as not to focus on the fact that I’m going to die.

Jennifer Roberts, an art historian at Harvard University, requires students enrolled in her courses to select one work of art – for example, a painting hanging in a local gallery – and then go in person to look at it for three hours straight. “The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive,” she writes. At first, the viewer may be intrigued by what he or she is seeing. But pretty soon, mind-wandering begins, followed by boredom and impatience – sensations that can be surprisingly hard to bear, given that they do not entail physical pain. It’s only later, on the other side of the impatience, that students really begin to see the work of art. Roberts explains: “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness.” Staying still pays dividends. But first you must make it through the restlessness.

Roberts’ account of her students staring at paintings is remarkably similar to mine on silent meditation retreats. These are usually held in beautiful settings, and so of course it is delightful, at first, to be surrounded by picturesque views. But the delight is brief: with the usual outward distractions of life largely removed, it becomes much easier to focus on activity inside the mind. This turns out not to be delightful at all, but more like spending your day in the company of a strikingly boring, anxious and occasionally verbally hostile toddler for whom one feels little affection. It takes persistence – on my first retreat, it took days of persistence – for the inner distractions to subside sufficiently to appreciate the stillness behind them.

For a few days following a retreat, I retain, above all, a clear sense of the preciousness of attention, this finite resource that I squander so unthinkingly the rest of the time. In that post-retreat phase, I find myself feeling slightly resentful if obliged to use email or tap out a text message; I want to steward or even hoard my attention, not spend it. Stillness has become my default state; distraction, at long last, holds no appeal. That feeling soon fades. But I return to the memory of it again and again, when Twitter or Facebook threaten to lure me in. It serves as a constant reminder that there is a better feeling than the fleeting and minor pleasure of distraction. We distract ourselves because we don’t want to confront reality, here, now, as it really is. Yet when we actually manage to do so, we’re glad we did, even when it contains difficult emotions or experiences.

It’s worth not giving in to the impulse to seek something else to focus on instead. The advice sometimes dispensed on meditation retreats gets it right: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Oliver is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. His books, articles and blog focus on social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness. Find out more at oliverburkeman.com.

This feature was first published in Issue One of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri