Trading addiction for habit

Just when I was feeling pretty good about how we’ve chosen to position ourselves in the world — across the hall! — I was pulled up short by how I choose to interact with the world.

It happened early Sunday morning. Opening The New York Times to the Sunday Review section, I was confronted with a jarring illustration above a headline that hit painfully close to home: Addicted to Distraction.

IMG_0711The essay by Tony Schwartz recounts his realization that he’d been looking in all the wrong places for the energy and inspiration he needs to fuel his life. With some work, he made progress reversing a lifestyle of too much diet soda, too many carbs, too often a second drink in the evening.

The tougher challenge? Clicking in and out of email, checking website stats, chasing mindless clickbait down rabbit holes too embarrassing to identify by name or url.

Me, too.

It seems so incongruous. Here I am living in an idyllic physical environment, surrounded by loved ones, and I’m still distracted by stuff that’s not only less important but less appealing as well.

Schwartz is right to put a tough label on it: Addiction, which he defines like this: “The relentless pull to a substance or activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life.”

Among the 266 comments attached to the article is this especially apt description of the Internet: “It ain’t called the net for nothing. The more we thrash around in it, the more tightly bound we become.”

I first encountered Schwartz 40 years ago, when he was the enterprising Ann Arbor stringer for the Detroit Free Press. After 25 years in journalism, he moved on to a career as an author and then a student and teacher of achieving more satisfaction in life and on the job.

At the risk of reinforcing the online habit we’re both trying to diminish, I tracked down Tony at the website for his company, The Energy Project. And I spent just under three minutes getting his take on what he regards as the “four core needs” we all share.

Screenshot 2015-12-01 09.24.01Chief among them: A source of spiritual energy that’s “derived from a clearly defined purpose in the service of something larger than yourself.”

Clarity about that purpose came easier in the years when Carol and I were raising a young family and engaged in full-time work we both felt lucky to love. But things can get fuzzier as the nest empties, and the 9 to 5 (or 7 to 11) life gives way to something less structured.

But what, exactly? Since taking a buyout from Poynter in 2012, I’ve been fully involved, until recently, with various teaching assignments and work on Detroit143.org. My purpose still seemed pretty “clearly defined,” in Tony’s words. Less so now.

Sure, there’s always plenty to do in and around Boston, especially with Carol and the four characters across the hall so readily available. I’m also a newly elected member of the pastoral council at our church, the Paulist Center on Beacon Hill, and I’m already behind on a couple of self-assigned writing and photography projects. But I’ve yet to find the right rhythm. Probably because I’ve yet to connect with the sort of energy I need.

The trick will be finding a focus on what really matters. Turns out there’s a book for that. Now I need more of the the healthy habits required to make it real. I know I have an addictive personality. How do I develop a habitual personality?

One of Schwartz’s favorite techniques is to decide the night before what his most important task will be the next day. Come morning, he devotes his first 60 to 90 minutes to exactly that.

I have a similar, more modest idea in mind: Deciding the night before on something I want to address, one way or another, in the day ahead. And then, before newspapers or email or Facebook the next morning, to spend some time thinking and writing about my focus for the day.

I’m not forgetting about all that other stuff Schwartz addresses — better diet, more exercise, fewer drinks. But one thing at a time.

How are you dealing with the tug of digital media these days? What luck have you had trading in troublesome addictions for healthy habits?

3 thoughts on “Trading addiction for habit

  1. We’ve struggled with this for years. I strongly recall a couple we had dinner with later separating; he told me, “She spent time with her computer every night after dinner, but not with me.” A computer is always alert, always interesting, never talks back, never falls asleep. Why not engage with it instead of with your beloved partner? But — we’re talking as you two are about how to control it. Maybe an hour in the morning and checking email before 6 p.m.? We’re not as compelled by our phones — we only get texts in emergencies! We also want to spend less time with Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper on CNN, and more time reading and talking about what we’re reading. These changes happen slowly, and you’ve got to keep talking about your goals or it’s easy to shrug them off. Thanks so much for bringing this up and calling Schwarz’s piece to our attention.

    • Points well taken, Susan. Especially enjoyed your take on tech’s personality traits: “A computer is always alert, always interesting, never talks back, never falls asleep.” As you know, though, Larry’s way more fun.

  2. Pingback: A reminder from across the hall: “I need some privacy!” |

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