Insight Timer is my first recommendation when people ask me about meditation or mindfulness apps, but it’s not actually the one I use most frequently. When it comes to actively strengthening the muscles of focus and attention, Pocket — yes, the app that lets you save articles and videos from the web to check out later — is my favorite.
What is mindfulness? Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John writes:
Mindfulness is becoming aware of the distractions in our daily lives, in our minds and hearts.
When we become aware of our distractions we are empowered to make a choice. We can either indulge in our distractions or come back to the task that we were initially focused on.
Developing mindfulness in our daily lives allows us to function at our full potential.
Meditation is the most widely-recognized tool for cultivating mindfulness. I’ve been meditating more-and-less regularly since 2009, and this practice has definitely helped me become more aware of my well-worn thought patterns, knee-jerk reactions, and compulsive behaviors… ever-so-gradually opening up more choice in terms of how I respond to the the things that life brings my way.
Surprisingly, using the Pocket app has also significantly deepened my awareness of the things that distract me, and given me a greater ability to focus… and not only while I’m browsing the internet.
I realize this sounds absurd, so before I continue, consider the following scenarios:
- Researching something online for work, you fall deep into a totally fascinating (if totally unrelated) rabbit-hole: “oh look, 50% off coupon for donuts at the place on K Road hmm maple bacon I wonder if that’s yum why don’t they have old fashioned donuts in New Zealand what is the history of donuts anyway it seems like most cultures have some form of them oh wow Cook Island Donuts and where can I find some of those?!” (etc)
- When taking a break to check email or social media “just for a minute,” you feel compelled to read all the interesting articles that your friends (or e-newsletters) have shared lest you lose track of them… and suddenly realize it’s been… a lot longer than you intended.
These are just two of the too-many-to-count examples of my getting sidetracked while trying to be productive, and I suspect you could list many more of your own.
It’s not entirely our fault that we get sucked in; news sites, social media platforms, and online marketplaces (to name just a few) are designed to keep us engaged for as long as possible, and to come back as frequently as possible. And so staying engaged and continually coming back is exactly what we’ll do, even if our intention is to focus on something else.
If / when we want to break the cycle, mindfulness is key. First we can become mindful that something is happening, and that it is cyclical. Then we can become mindful of the cycle’s various stages, noticing, for example, when a distraction presents itself, what the urge to follow it feels like, how we actually feel when we follow it, and what familiar thoughts and stories we tell ourselves when we notice we’ve become distracted.
I’ve been using Pocket since 2011 (when it was called Read It Later). At first, when I’d come across a tempting link while in the middle of trying to focus on something else, I’d use the app’s browser bookmarklet to save the link to Pocket. Later, when I had some free time, I’d open the Pocket app on my phone to browse the list of articles I’d saved, magically stripped of their ads, yet another benefit of the service. I traveled a lot back then, and having a personally-curated reading list made the long flights and layovers much more interesting!
Over time, this practice of using Pocket released me from compulsive urge to immediately follow and read the endless stream of distracting links. A few years in, I learned to step saving as many articles in the first place; it turned out that the act of revisiting the articles I’d saved to read later helped me begin to distinguish between the sort of articles that seemed interesting at first (but that I never seemed to get around to reading) from those that I would truly enjoy reading after the “I MUST read this!” surge had faded.
After a few more years of paying closer attention to my media consumption, I came to notice that I didn’t want to cultivate the kinds of feelings that came up while I browsed my social media channels: judgement, scorn, FOMO, stalker tendencies, jealousy. I deleted my Facebook account and stopped posting to Instagram. Most recently, I shut down two entire email accounts and conducted a massive e-newsletter audit, unsubscribing from a great many whose content fell mostly into the “I thought I cared, but actually I don’t” category. Less time sorting through noise, more time to focus on more meaningful interactions.
And this, ultimately, is the point of mindfulness: to allow us to develop our ability to focus our attention on the things that really matter, and to identify distractions for what they are.
I’m so grateful to Pocket for its unexpected role in supporting my efforts to become more mindful. That it is now part of Mozilla, the makers of Firefox and an organization that has always stood for an open and accessible internet, is icing on the cake. I only wish I’d signed up for the premium version early on, so that I’d have permanent copies of the many now-broken links I saved years ago!
What has helped you become more mindful, on the internet or otherwise?