Want to Be More Mindful? How to Be Mindful in a World of Distractions

Peggy Loo, PhD on Mar 22, 2023

When you hear the word "mindfulness," what pops up in your head? Meditation exercises? A cairn on a mountain trail in the middle of nowhere? Some kind of spiritual guide or yoga?

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the act of intentionally bringing your undivided attention to your present experience in an observing, non-judgmental way. That’s it. You can become mindfully aware about anything — sore muscles after a move, your surroundings at the park Saturday morning, or what you are feeling after an unexpectedly tough conversation with a friend. You can be mindful that you are having a distracting train of thoughts during a first date or that you’re no longer hungry after your second snack. 

A lot of people are intimidated by mindfulness because they think they need to carve out a lot of time for deep personal reflection in the middle of the day. First of all, that’s not realistic for many of us. Secondly, practicing mindfulness isn’t like adding another commitment or activity into your schedule — it’s about actively noticing your experience of whatever activity you are already doing.

Mindfulness Is Not…

It’s important to know that mindfulness is NOT:

  • Meditation or visualization
  • A relaxation technique
  • Goal-oriented or future-oriented
  • Introspection (i.e., asking yourself questions to reflect)
  • Only for highly trained spiritual people
  • Guaranteed to make you feel good (I know. Read on anyways.)

Anyone Can Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about your attention — more specifically, guiding your attention to the present moment and becoming aware of what is there. Again, you can be mindful about anything. You are not trying to achieve a state of zen or flow, think through a problem, or fix anything (even if you choose to tackle something later on based on what you became aware of). 

You are simply becoming cognizant of the here and now by observing. Anyone can practice mindfulness — even if you struggle with distractibility or have a lot going on in your life right now! You can be mindful for five seconds or 30 minutes. You do not need to wait until you book a vacation, are out in nature with trees, or even completely alone. You can be mindful anytime, anywhere. It is, in some ways, the most challenging and simple act there is. 

Even though mindfulness doesn’t have an outcome or goal in mind (since it’s just about becoming aware of what is happening right in front of you), research is abundant with the mental health benefits of practicing mindfulness, such as stress reduction and improved mood, memory, and self-reflection. So what gets in the way?

Obstacle 1 to Mindfulness: Multitasking

One of the easiest culprits to point to include work culture and attitudes that are largely antithetical to mindfulness. Many industries and workplaces positively reinforce multi-tasking, high-yield outcomes, efficiency, and a constant future-orientation. Getting a lot done simultaneously and effectively makes most of us feel pretty good. We also like to look forward to things and plan for the future. These values aren’t inherently wrong, and in fact, they can be strengths in specific contexts. However, you can see how it would be incredibly hard to shift gears to give your undivided, full attention to one thing in the present (without anticipating what’s next) if the majority of your time or week you are trained and rewarded otherwise.

Obstacle 2 to Mindfulness: Screen Time

Largely, I’d say our relationship with our phones and the internet often discourages mindfulness. I do love the internet. But I hate what it has done to our attention span and sense of intentionality! Often our online habits promote passive, unplanned attention towards something outside of ourselves — especially when we’re online wanting entertainment or distraction (which is all of us, at some point).  

Endless scrolling, algorithms designed specifically to draw your interest, social media likes, eye-catching, uninterrupted video content automatically queued up — before we know it, hours have passed that we didn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong — I love Netflix and The Dodo dog rescue videos. But I have definitely noticed its effect on my attention span. It becomes too easy to rely on something outside of ourselves to grab and keep our attention rather than being the master of our attention spans and directing purposeful focus where we want it to go (or stay). Mindfulness is active, intentional, and completely self-guided — whether it is paying attention to hunger cues, a sudden burst of anxious thoughts, or being completely relaxed in bed.

Obstacle 3 to Mindfulness: We Prefer to Avoid Tough Stuff

Perhaps a less obvious but common obstacle to mindfulness is our natural tendency to be pain-avoidant. Many patients will tell me they want more alone time or time to slow down and focus on themselves, even to be mindful — but then will easily pass on opportunities when they arise. 

The truth is, sometimes we avoid being mindful because we’re afraid of what will come up if we actually pause from our busy lives and pay attention. Whether it is boredom, loneliness, unhappiness, anger, self-criticism, or something else, becoming mindful of your present experience doesn’t always feel good. Remember that mindfulness is not a relaxation strategy, nor is it solution-focused — you aren’t trying to steer your experience somewhere you want it to go. You are tuning into some aspect of your present experience, whether that is what you are thinking, feeling (emotions or sensations in your body), or doing. That means sometimes you’ll become mindful of a very pleasant experience — and it may also mean that sometimes you’ll become aware of something unpleasant.

Obstacle 4 to Mindfulness: Being an Overachiever

Unrealistic expectations are also the enemy of mindfulness. Have you tried to be mindful before but then gotten distracted and discouraged? Or tried to be mindful for an unrealistic amount of time? That happens to all of us, and it’s okay! If you get distracted when you’re trying to be mindful, simply become mindful that you’ve gotten distracted and guide your attention back to your original focus. 

If I were trying to become more mindful of how much shoulder tension I carry as a professional who has a very sedentary job, my inner monologue might sound like this: "Hm... What side of my body feels more tight right now? Oh, I need to respond to that email I got yesterday. Do I have anything in the fridge for dinner tonight? Oh, I’m getting distracted. I’m noticing that I’m getting distracted. Back to checking in with my shoulders. What side of my body do I feel the most muscle tightness and where exactly?"

I highly normalize with my patients that practicing mindfulness isn’t natural for most of us and takes time. It’s like any unused muscle in your body — if you rarely exercise your biceps or triceps, I wouldn’t expect you to do a pull-up the first time you work out (i.e., the equivalent of trying an hour of mindfulness before bedtime after reading this post). Trying to be mindful might feel awkward initially. You might not feel like you can keep concentration for long the first few times. But your attention and focus will grow and strengthen with practice!

Some Tips If You Are a Beginner to Mindfulness

Start small with one short, mindful moment.

Pick one thing you’d like to become more aware of in your routine and when you want to be mindful about it. For example, when you close your work computer for the day, check in with yourself to see if you have muscle tension and where. Or when brushing your teeth, pay attention to your mood as you’re winding down for the night.

You don’t need to pick something you have a routine around, but routines are good places to start because they offer regular opportunities to practice mindfulness. You could also try becoming mindful of something that is likely to be enjoyable. For example, you could pay full attention to your experience while you are eating a meal or your favorite snack rather than multi-tasking (e.g., watching a show) while you eat.

Take stock of what your main obstacles to mindfulness are.

Reflect on what gets in your way, and be honest. Is there one thing you can do to lower an obstacle this week? I know that I can default to screen time when I’m trying to pass smaller chunks of time because it doesn’t seem like enough minutes for anything else. A good example of this is I tend to check personal emails or texts I missed on my phone when I’m commuting home from work (also an example of me trying to multitask). Instead, I’m working on staying off of my phone during this time so that I can become aware of how I’m feeling before I walk in my front door.

Be mindful with people you like.

Mindfulness is hard, and it takes practice to become good at it. Try it with a friend or partner (you each focus on your own thing) so you can report back. Who says mindfulness has to be a solo activity? In some ways, it helps you answer the question, “How are you doing?” It gives you something to talk about with your person. If you become mindful of something that is tough to sort out or feel, talk it out with that person or consider therapy if you are interested in professional support.

Be nice to yourself.

Whatever you become mindful of — remember that mindfulness is like a pulse check — it simply reveals something real about how you’re doing right now. You might realize you’re really stressed out and tense at night or that you’ve been avoiding a friend because they disappointed you. It is not helpful or productive to be judgmental of whatever you become aware of. Instead, see it as a new insight that you could respond to (later, not while you’re being mindful!) and a way to invest in yourself and your mental health.

Peggy Loo is a Psychologist in New York, NY.

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