Removing Online Distractions Provides Space for Change

Do you want to know the secret to keeping New Year’s resolutions? Remove your online distractions. Anyone can do it in four simple steps. Let me show you how.

Step one is to reflect honestly on the current state of your life. This exercise will inspire the urgency you need to make important changes. What kind of person do you really want to be? What do you wish you were doing that you’re not doing now? Have you given up on cherished hopes and dreams? If you had only a year left to live, what would you spend your time doing?

Put your phone on airplane mode, grab a pencil and take some notes on each of these questions.

Step two is to make room for meaningful change by removing distractions. What are you immediately drawn to when you’re bored, tired or stressed out?

Social media, online shopping, binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu, playing video games, watching sports or devouring the latest political commentary — these are all mind-altering drugs that keep you pacified and distracted from achieving your dreams. They distort reality by giving you a shot of dopamine and a false sense of accomplishment.

Earlier this month, I went cold turkey on two of my biggest distractions: online news and televised sporting events. Several of my friends and family members have recently taken a 10-day break, or “fast,” from social media.

The key to removing these modern distractions is to make it more difficult to find them. Use built-in features of your favorite web browser to block news, shopping or video streaming websites. Temporarily disable or pause your Netflix account. Uninstall or disable apps on your phone. Turn off notifications and cancel subscriptions. Whatever method you decide to use, don’t rely entirely on your willpower to resist the lure of temptation. Use your device settings as a digital support system.

Step three is to commit yourself to a grand project that aligns with your personal calling in life.

Removing mind-numbing distractions creates a vacuum that needs to be filled by more worthwhile things. Write a book. Put your time and talents to work in a community organization. Make a plan for paying off your student loans within the next five years. Improve your health with a personal fitness program. Prepare yourself for a new vocation. Become fluent in another language.

Now, you might think you don’t have a personal calling. Maybe you don’t see any unique gifts or opportunities in your life that could serve as the basis for a glorious venture. If this is true, then take a step back and use your imagination. Whether you enjoy playing video games, binging on Netflix, shopping online or watching sports, you know how to imagine yourself as somebody else. So put your well-developed imagination to work on your own life. Reimagine your future self as a transformed, purpose-driven being: more courageous, more caring, more disciplined and more aware of your hidden talents.

In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.” If you’re facing a recent track record of failure, you may need to change direction a bit. But don’t ever give up on yourself. Make room for divine guidance, put your rationality to work and commit yourself to an ambitious calling.

Step four is to take small steps toward accomplishing your goals. Glorious triumphs are always achieved incrementally. You need a grand vision or project to motivate your small steps. But the key to success is to learn from your mistakes and celebrate progress, no matter how small. Small wins give you momentum, creating a snowball effect toward greatness.

A couple of years ago, as part of my desire to write and publish, I decided to start a blog. To improve my writing, I committed myself to just one blog post per month. At the end of the year, I could look back and celebrate 12 published posts.

While each post was just a small step, it gave me something to build on during the next month, something to learn from, something to refine.

Don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged by the ambitious nature of your project. Maintain the lofty vision of who you want to be and what you want to accomplish. But embrace progress in a way that scorns the all-or-nothing mindset.

In summary, here are the four steps: Take time to reflect on what’s missing in your life, remove your biggest distractions, commit yourself to a grand project, and celebrate small, imperfect steps toward your ultimate goals.

After a few distraction-free days or weeks, if you want to plug yourself back into the internet, you’ll be much more capable of balance. But you might just be too busy for some of your old diversions.

* This article was previously published as a guest opinion in the Deseret News on December 29, 2018.

When Busyness Becomes a Substitute for Deliberate Parenting

My family and I recently returned from a memorable vacation to Yellowstone National Park. For three days, we were awestruck by the wild wonders of the park, including a dramatic eruption of Old Faithful, vast herds of bison roaming the Hayden Valley, and the majestic power of the lower falls rushing through the canyon. While in the park, we had no cell phone reception. Thankfully, we were forced to disengage from the perpetual call of responsibilities back home. Each evening, instead of checking our smartphones, we played board games in a cabin we rented in West Yellowstone.

Our vacation ended too soon and we quickly plugged ourselves back into real life. We came home just in time to reset the sprinkler system and save our dying front lawn, complete a late club soccer registration, and help our older son pack his bags for a summer sales job in California.

Admittedly, keeping busy has its advantages. The kids rarely complain of boredom and we don’t have much time to worry about whether life is meeting our expectations. But our time in Yellowstone reminded us of the benefits of slowing down and being more fully present with our children. We enjoyed a small taste of what Henry David Thoreau describes in Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We can learn to live deliberately without building a cabin in the woods, but it’s hard when we find ourselves in the midst of a dizzying schedule of daily activities. Busyness is a problem when we allow others to define and order our family priorities and when we stop paying meaningful attention to our children and their challenges. Most parents would like to live more purposely in the present, to take more time to notice their children, and to face neglected problems with an intentional strategy. But we too often lack the urgency or perhaps the wisdom to pause and purposely break free of our addiction to the busy life.

So how can we alter our frenetic lifestyles and embrace more deliberate parenting? First, we need to find a way to focus more consistently on our highest priorities. If it’s been a while since we’ve consulted with family members in defining and ordering those priorities, this is the first step. Without a well-defined list of family priorities, we’re like sailors lost at sea without nautical charts, driven wherever the winds take us.

Ideally, family priorities dictate which events and activities end up on our calendars each week. But even with careful planning, heavy social responsibilities inevitably take us off course. PTA meetings, church activities, sporting events, and music lessons are all important, but they can easily get out of control. This is why we need to set aside regular blocks of time to reexamine our lives and assess our priorities. A monthly family council can be used to check our bearings and set a new course, dropping unessential activities that are distracting us from quality family interaction and relationships.

Cutting down our list of daily activities can help us pay greater attention to parenting challenges that require patient and calm deliberation. Mental illness, bullying, learning disorders, and video game addiction are just a few of the formidable challenges faced by today’s parents.

Abraham Lincoln’s advice to lawyers applies to parents as well: “When I have a particular case in hand, I…love to dig up the question by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fires of the mind.” Like Lincoln, we can cultivate the ability to give undivided attention to our most deeply rooted problems. Anger, frustration, and moving on to the next activity can all divide our attention and leave our problems unsolved.

French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil describes why it’s so difficult to maintain our focus: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” She continues: “That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” Indeed, it’s usually easier to stay busy with shallow concerns than to dive into the deep end. But sustained focus on concrete problems opens our minds to fresh strategies and provides new hope for ourselves and our loved ones.

The key to more deliberate, intentional parenting is largely a matter of replacing busyness with greater focus: prioritizing family activities and removing unnecessary commitments, deliberating over our family’s challenges, and being fully present when we’re with each other.

Five Tips for Achieving Greater Happiness

Here are five tips for achieving greater happiness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. For more insights on happiness and character development, check out my e-book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

Tip number one: Focus your time and effort more on building your character than securing your happiness. The idea of striving for greater happiness can be paradoxical. Sometimes the more you strive for happiness, the more elusive it becomes. When you try too hard to achieve a perennial state of happiness, you can actually end up more vexed and disappointed than you would otherwise be. You probably know overly anxious people who are constantly asking themselves why they’re not happy. It’s important to study and reflect on the meaning of happiness, but there’s no question that we can overdo it. Find your purpose, build your character, do noble things, and most of the time happiness will find you.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau. Near the end of Walden, he declares, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Happiness is about confidently and steadily living the life we’ve imagined and then finding an unexpected success.

Tip number two: Understand that adversity can refine your character and make you more capable of experiencing happiness in the future. During difficult times, remind yourself that your character is built to manage those very difficulties. Generally speaking, happiness is less about what happens to you and more about responding to your own life’s challenges in a way that builds your character and confidence.

A quote from an unknown author sheds some light on this point: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” If we allow it, adversity can give us two invaluable gifts. First, it reveals our character strengths and weaknesses, showing where to direct our self-improvement efforts. Second, adversity can be a refining power, giving us confidence and stability in successfully facing future challenges.

Tip number three: Find joy in the simple, quiet, everyday moments with family and friends. You should by all means dream big and stay motivated for achieving great things in your life. But if you ever feel like family responsibilities are preventing you from fulfilling your true purpose, you probably need to sort out your priorities. There’s no higher purpose than reaching out to family and friends, supporting them in ways that only you can. More than anything else, genuine happiness is about finding joy in these ordinary, unremarkable moments.

Tip number four: Strenuously avoid the two unmistakable adversaries of happiness, blame and self-pity, especially during moments of intense disappointment. We know that happiness depends to some extent on other people. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is to blame others for your lack of good fortune and to feel sorry for yourself. On avoiding self-pity, I admire Thoreau’s encouragement: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.”

ConfuciusOn finding happiness when those we love and depend on fail to meet our expectations, I appreciate the wisdom of Confucius. His key to “banishing discontent” is “to demand much from oneself and little from others.” Be generous and forgiving of other people’s shortcomings. And while striving for lofty personal goals in terms of your own character development, be charitable to yourself too. So much of life is about moving forward with hope, avoiding negativity in spite of frequent failure. When life knocks you down, pick yourself right back up and keep going. Refuse to allow yourself to wallow in self-pity and to blame others for your lack of good fortune.

Tip number five: When the happiness odds seem particularly stacked against you, make the conscious decision to be happy anyway. Make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Remind yourself that even winning the lottery would not endow you with happiness for more than a short period of time. You have great power in choosing happiness now, in any situation, if you’re willing to cultivate the characteristics that are conducive to happiness.

In summary, use these five tips to discover greater happiness: First, focus on building your character and happiness will follow naturally. Second, allow adversity to refine your character by revealing your flaws and providing invaluable experience. Third, uncover joy in the common, everyday moments of life. Fourth, find greater happiness by avoiding blame and self-pity. And fifth, practice making the conscious decision to be happy, under any circumstances.