If you’re like me, you’ve “woken up” from an Internet-induced daze already today. Maybe more than once. It’s like you get sucked into some kind of vortex of Wikipedia, news, and Twitter that keeps your mind completely devoid of meaningful thought. But that’s not how it has to be.
You can be more mindful of your browsing—and of your time in general—to stay focused, reduce stress, and be a lot more purposeful with your time online.
What Is Mindfulness?
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness before; it’s a bit of a buzzword at the moment. We see the words “mindful” and “meditation” all over the place, and it’s easy to just ignore it all. But there’s something extremely valuable underlying all of these claims: mindfulness and meditation really work!
People have been meditating for thousands of years, and mindfulness is a natural extension of meditation. In meditation, you seek to empty your mind and gain a state of deep, peaceful clarity; it’s in this state of emptiness that it can rest and recharge. Even a few minutes of this can be extremely refreshing. When was the last time you didn’t feel overwhelmed by how many things you need to do? (Being a postgraduate student, I can confidently say I have no idea.) You can’t maintain a clear head when it’s full of lots of competing things.
Mindfulness is the slightly more active cousin to meditation. When you’re being mindful, you make a point to focus on the moment and what you’re doing; not worrying about yesterday, not planning for tomorrow, not letting your mind wander. It’s being aware of what you’re feeling and thinking, and not judging or trying to change it. It’s being open to change, sensation, and experience.
You might think that this is something you do often, or that it’s easy to do, but if you try it a few times, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find it slightly more difficult than you expect.
So why mindfulness? What is it about this singular focus that provides the benefits that it does? Most of the time, our minds are wandering and trying to think about and process many things at once. You’re working on a spreadsheet, checking Twitter, listening to music, thinking about lunch, wondering if your boss liked your presentation yesterday, planning your next smart home project etc. That could literally be over the course of a few seconds.
Research has shown that humans aren’t very good at multi-tasking, so being in a state like this, first of all, will decrease your effectiveness in whatever it is you’re trying to do. It’ll take longer, and probably not be up to the standard of quality that you were hoping for. Not only does multi-tasking like this make it difficult to get things done, but it can also add to your stress level and contribute to a reduction in attention span.
Mindfulness seeks to counteract these effects by keeping you focused in the moment.
When it comes to web surfing, mindfulness keeps you from falling into the black hole of the Internet. You’ll be more focused on your work when you’re supposed to be working, and you’ll be more restful when it comes time to take a break (mostly because it’ll be a conscious choice, so you won’t feel guilty for accidentally getting sidetracked).
Unfortunately, you can’t become a mindful master overnight. It takes months, if not years, of practice to get really good at it. But even just taking the first step will make a big difference — once you’ve been practicing for a week or so, you’ll probably start to notice some differences in how you work and how you feel.
In the beginning, you can just practice mindfulness for short periods of time. While some people recommend starting at 10 minutes, I found it challenging to maintain even a few minutes of focus at first. Being a writer, I’m always thinking about the next article I’ll be working on, which turn of phrase I plan on using for a particular section of a piece, pitches I’d like to write, and so on. Being a student, a runner, an avid reader, a gamer, and an aspiring drummer only gives me more things to think about.
But taking just a few minutes to focus on a single thing is great. In most places where you find meditation or mindfulness advice, they’ll tell you to focus on your breath for a few minutes. This is a great place to start, and it will really help you notice when your mind begins to wander. When it does, bring it back to your breathing; this is the practice that will help you learn to stay focused and intentional.
You can also practice mindfulness with everyday activities — if you’re listening to music, just focus on listening, and not thinking. (It should be noted that at this point in writing the article I started playing Vectorman on an emulated Sega Genesis; I still have a long way to go before I’m a mindfulness maven.)
It can help to focus on a specific sensation: when I was walking through King’s Cross Station the other day, I walked over a studded, grippy portion of the floor for a minute or two, and I focused on the feeling of the studs through the soles of my shoes.
After you’ve practiced focusing for a while, you can start moving up to focusing on tasks — keep your attention on the task at hand as well as how you’re feeling and reacting to it.
If you’re working on finding a bunch of articles on a specific topic, don’t get distracted when you see that there are new tweets in your timeline. Stay focused on searching.
If you’re on a conference call, don’t be daydreaming about the weekend; be fully focused on the call.
If you’re writing an article, don’t stop to play video games when you’re not sure how to start the next sentence; just keep writing.
These are all ways that you can practice mindfulness, both on and away from the computer. Start small, and work your way up. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to bring your mind back to what you’re doing when it begins to wander — this is the true exercise, the redirection of your thoughts. Once you can keep your thoughts on a single thing for more than a few minutes, you’ll notice that your focus and productivity have improved quite a bit.
Some Useful Strategies
So, now that we’ve set out what mindfulness is and how to practice it in general, let’s get into some specific tactics for making it easier to stay mindful while you’re browsing the Internet. The Internet is full of distractions, so it can be tough. Here are five strategies that I’ve used at various times that have helped me stay focused and in the moment.
Keep Your Tabs Clean
This is a big one. It’s not hard to have 15 or 20 tabs open in your browser at a time, and that gives you a lot of chances for getting distracted and losing mindfulness. Develop a tab management system that will help you store the information you want to look at later (I use Evernote and Pocket, for example), deal with the tabs that you can at the moment, and only leave open ones that need to be open. Try to stay focused on the tab at hand before going on to another one.
Turn Off Notifications
There are a lot of notifications in and around your browser. Email, social media, instant messaging, and a host of others that can distract your attention from what you’re doing. Turn them off. Only check your email when you specifically intend to spend some time dealing with it. Only check social media when you have some time to spend learning things or being entertained. (This is a great strategy for use on your phone, as well; turn off push notifications.)
Set Up a Mindfulness Timer
This is a good habit to get into no matter where you are; set up a timer on your computer or your phone to go off every hour (or, if you’re really serious about mindfulness, every 30 minutes). You can also use a Chrome extension, like StayFocusd, or an app, like Breaktime (Mac, $4.99) or the Mindfulness Bell website. Whenever the alarm goes off, take stock of your attention: what are you doing? What should you be doing? Where is your mind wandering to?
Keep a “Mind Dump” Notepad Nearby
This is a bit like journaling on the go. Whenever you’re working on something and a thought enters your head that has the potential to distract you, write it down. That way, you know that you won’t forget about it: it’ll be there, recorded, ready for you to deal with at the proper time. I recommend using a pen and paper for this, but you can keep it however you’d like; using a task management system could work well, as well as an open Word / Google Drive document that you review at the end of the day.
This is a hard one. Because we live in a productivity-centric society, we spend all day trying to accomplish as much as we possibly can. So we speed through articles, web pages, emails, and chats as quickly as possible so we can get to the next thing. This is the opposite of mindfulness. Regularly remind yourself that things that are worth doing are worth doing well, and they’re worth spending time on. You’ll spend more time on the things that matter, and do them better, and you’ll spend less time on things that aren’t worth your time.
Being mindful might sound like a lot of work, and sometimes it can be. There are days when I am much more distractible than others, and staying focused on anything feels like a monumental task. But with practice, you can strengthen your “mindfulness muscles” and get better at directing your attention to what’s important.
Try it for a week or two and see what happens. What do you have to lose?
Have you made a point to be mindful? Do you think you could benefit from it? What distracts you the most throughout the day? Share your thoughts below.
Image credits: Business woman meditating near laptop (edited) via Shutterstock, thoughts via Shutterstock, Backlight profile of a woman breathing deep fresh air in the morning sunrise isolated in white above via Shutterstock, The empty king cross station platform via Shutterstock, Mark Hunter via flickr, Tristan Schmurr via flickr.