19 August 2014

The Need for Distraction

Personal Picture // Singapore, June 2013.

As I discovered willpower is a finite resource, I also noticed the brain isn't in full activity all the time. It can only think hard, solve problems or engage in creative activities for so long before it needs down time. In other words, we need distractions, but our consumerist society made sure these distractions were linked to shopping.

The Need for Down Time

 It all started after my shopping fast misshap: how could this happen? When and why did I browse the website I bought from? Determined to understand and adjust, I realized it all stemmed from reading a lifestyle blog who promoted this website as a good source of natural and organic beauty products. But when and why was I browsing this blog in the first place? It was the end of the day, I was tired and my brain needed something easy and distracting to read.

Thinking about it, I usually can't write in the evening, nor draw or edit pictures. I play the violin right when coming home (because playing at 7AM would be hard on the neighbours), but if I don't play before dinner I usually can't bring myself to do it after. Why? Because these creative and learning activities require energy and after a long day of work, my brain needs down time. That's also when I used to read blogs, watch TV, browse websites - social media but also online shop recommendations.

How the Consumerist Society Exploits This Need for Distraction

In our consumerist society, distraction activities are often linked to shopping or building the desire to shop for something new. Watching TV - and its subsequent ads - is the most popular distraction after all. As the sadly infamous quote from Patrick Le Lay, then president of the French national TV TF1, said:

"There are many ways of talking about television. But, in a business perspective, let's be realistic: essentially, TF1's job is to help, say, Coca Cola, for example, sell their product. However, for an advertising message to be perceived, the watcher's brain must be available: in other words, it needs to be distracted and relaxed to prepare it between two advertising messages. What we sell to Coca Cola, is available human brain time."

Since TV is vastly funded by ads, I'm persuaded this cynical view of TV's role isn't that far from the truth, even if a bit simplistic. And it works because the brain needs distraction. What other distractions are common today? Browsing the Internets, including social media, blogs, and online shops. And going shopping itself.

When in need of distraction, the brain is drained of energy - maybe it's the end of the day, or the end of the week, after months of work without holidays... The common factor here is that the brain lacks of energy, willpower. I didn't find any research to support this, but it is possible that brain biases are particularly strong at that time, and that we are more likely to run in automatic mode.

Finding Alternative Distractions

How to adapt to the brain's need for down time, without being vulnerable to purchase mistakes? Of course, I don't think we should remove distrations from our lives, the brain needs down time. But distractions don't have to come with commercial activities like browsing and filling up wishlists and baskets.

Here are some first ideas of how to rest after a long day or week: watching a light TV series or film  like a comedy, simple, not too intricate crime fiction, action-packed stuff...  Depending on your taste of course. If you watch it from a DVD or VOD, there will be no ad, and it's a good way to spend a quiet evening without being exposed to temptation (examples: Scrubs, NCIS, Poirot, Marvel films...) Another idea is to read light fiction: crime stories, young adult series...

This down time is also a good moment for a relaxing body care ritual: a warm bath (or foot bath if you don't have a bathtub, like me), a self massage of legs, feet, hands, face, a gentle body scrub followed by a body cream...

As a last idea, it might be counterintuitive but I find physical activity to be relaxing for the brain: running or walking, attending a sports or yoga class... Or, of course, going out with friends for an afterwork drink or a film seance always works well as a healthy distraction.

Since I found this out, I have reduced temptation and my shopping fast has remained successful so far. Here are simple resolutions I've put into place to improve my brain's down time:

  • No internet in the evening - apart from checking a recipe for lunch or the weather, no reading or browsing after work
  • No research or decision making when I'm tired - no looking for natural alternatives to my depleted shampoo, no checking out website recommendations...
  • No TV  - but I've been doing that for over two years now. I get my films and series though DVDs or VOD, ad-free.
  • No complicated non fiction reading in the evening - my bedtime readings are now dedicated to light, entertaining fiction books.
  • I prepare most of my next morning's needs in the evening though - since the morning is, on the contrary, a moment where my brain is on full speed, I don't want to waste that time preparing lunch, selecting outfits etc. So now, I prepare the food, the outfit, the handbag and sport gear for the next morning in the evening, when my brain is down, and dedicate more morning time to creative and learning activities - writing, attending MOOCs...
  • I'm selecting moments to consider purchases, make decisions, analyze my behaviour - and this is often on Sundays when I'm most recharged, or in the morning. Never when my brain cries for down time.

Long Term Work: Reduce the Need for Distraction

The brain may need down time regularly, but it might be possible to reduce the need for distraction by fighting stress and busy-ness in the first place. As I read about slow life and mindfulness, it seems that regularly engaging in self awareness exercises, meditation, and otherwise slowing down helps maintaining the brain in a more alert state, and avoid depleting its energy too quickly.

I'm still on a learning path for this one, but here are the ideas I read about: get enough sleep, do one thing at a time, fight against artificial deadlines and feeling of urgency, engage in mindfulness and meditation exercises to train the brain to be more present and less "automatic"...

On the subject of training the brain to be more present, I'm currently reading the book "Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes" by Maria Konnikova. I'll probably dedicate a post to this very interesting book, but it seems a lot of Holmes's abilities are linked to him being mindful and observant, in the present moment and not stuck on automatic mode while lost in thoughts.

I am still in the middle of a learning curve when it comes to the subject of nurturing better distractions, finding down time activities, and cultivating mindfulness, but I think it might be an important component to overall well-being. What about you? Have you noticed a specific time of the day or week when you need distraction? How do you relax?


  1. This rings so true! It's at the end of the work day that I often find myself wanting to go shopping for anything! Now that I am on maternity leave I have realized I have saved so much money since there'll isn't really an "end of the workday"! Now I long for some other form of relaxation, such as reading, going for a walk, cooking... It's a nice shift of mindset.

    1. Ah that's interesting how your maternity leave helped you shift your mindset! Are you going to work again afterwards? I hope that mindset will follow you for future "end of workday"! I used to go shopping after work sometimes as well, but that's such a weak moment of the day, now I walk home from work and that's indeed very relaxing :)

    2. Yes, I am going back on SEP 15th, and I am sure I won't go shopping after work because I'll be so anxious to go back to my little girl. Plus if I can in the evening I'll try to go swimming. Let's see how it'll go!

  2. "Mastermind" looks so interesting! Definitely picking up a copy. I also find that I can't get any work done late at night, my brain is just wrung completely dry, and I always wind up making my worst decisions then. I'm glad someone else has this problem! I usually keep a list of all the "busywork" that I need to get done that doesn't require too much brainpower: paying bills, cleaning the kitchen, painting my nails, filing away information... and I'll do that later at night so I can focus during the morning/afternoon.

    1. Mastermind is definitely a very interesting read! I'm almost done but I think that's the kind of book I'll read again regularly. In the end, I was very surprised how a book about Sherlock Holmes's mindset and abilty turned out to be something about mindfulness, active thinking and defeating brain biases. Definitely useful for us all even if we don't solve murders on a daily basis. That's a good idea to find errands/stuff to do in the evening that don't require much brain power. I already do the cooking and painting my nails, but that's a good idea to get a bit of administrative stuff done too :)

  3. Thank you Kali for this interesting post :)
    I agree with you about the finite willpower as I've tested it also myself...
    Actually I try to rebuild a meaningful life and have new projects. Since my pregnancy and new mom condition, I tended to forgot myself and it was really painful. So I try to simplify my life to make room for me-time and projects.
    As you I don't watch TV in the evening as I can't sleep well after and go to bed to late. So when I see somenthing interesting at the TV, I check it in my agenda and then plan plan to watch it later with the VOD. Like this I can watch only things I like and as you said I don't watch advertising.

    1. It's interesting to see how needs change with life stages. I guess being a new mom means spending a lot of time for the baby and the family, and it must be easy to forget yourself. I can imagine this is also draining of willpower to learn how to be a mom :) I agree with you that if I watch screens too late in the evening I don't sleep well either. VOD is really a good way to enjoy interesting TV programmes without the advertising. Ever since I stopped watching TV, I just can't stand advertising anymore at all, so much useless noise!

  4. I can really relate to this, and there are some great strategies in here I'm going to try. Lately I've been getting emotionally overwhelmed as well as mentally, and I tend to seek out distractions from that. For example, the police overreach situation in Ferguson, Missouri, is very upsetting to me and because I'm from that area most of my Facebook friends are posting about it. So Facebook quickly turned from a fun time-waster into a sort of lighting rod that upsets me rather than distracts. I've been turning to shopping forums instead, which is not a viable solution.

    I love the suggestion to avoid the Internet after work; however, do you think that having these additional rules will further tax your limited store of willpower? Or, rather, maybe they will make it easier to avoid temptation and in that sense it'll be a net positive. I have an Evernote account (with mobile app) and there is no reason I can't jot down anything that comes to mind in the evening and look it up when I relaunch the web browser the next day.

    Finally, I should get back into crafty hobbies like small sewing projects, knitting, jewelry making, etc. These are distracting enough while also keeping the mind engaged in a less taxing/stressful way.

    1. It's interesting how being emotionally and mentally overwhelmed would lead you to search for more distraction from it. I've heard a lot about the Ferguson situation in the news, and I can only imagine how it must feel when you actually know people from there who share their own personal emotions and feelings about it. Actually I have also been in an emptional turmoil lately, for very different reasons, and it is true that it seems to drain the brain and lead to more distractions.

      Avoiding internet after work first sounded like another "rule", but in the end it doesn't require that much willpower because it becomes a habit. I turn the computer off after using it in the morning or on week-ends, so fetching it and turning it on in the evening is a "difficult" step to take, therefore it's easier to stick to my rule and not go on the internet in the evening. That's a good trick I've been using lately to defeat bad habits: make them hard to do, and make the better/healthier option easier to do, that way it requires less willpower to do the healthy thing than it does to do the bad habit.

      Crafty hobbies are definitely a calming option too! But I guess that works if you are already quite good at it and don't need to learn - since learning takes a lot of energy. In "Mastermind", the author sayd Holmes uses the violin to distance himself from problems and rest his brain but it works because he is already a virtuoso at the violin, when you're learning it's quite taxing instead. That's really a good idea though, I used to knit a long time ago and it was a very quiet and relaxing moment indeed.

  5. I feel the most run-down physically, mentally, and emotionally by Wednesday-Thursday, which I think is linked to it being the middle of the week and thus the weekend seems far and the week interminable. At work, it's also the busiest time so the day feels hectic and when I go home there's still the regular household chores to do.

    I feel as if relaxing has to be budgeted into the day's energy quota, if you will. If I want to workout, go to work, come home and clean up, AND have time for my own pursuits, I have to allot energy for myself to do that. Often I feel like we're called to work like a slave or that family and friends' needs must be fulfilled before ours, but I really have learned that I can't be present for every single invitation.

    1. I can relate to the mid-week effect! I think Wednesday is the worst, because it's really halfway, already starting to get tired but having another two days to go before enjoying the week-end. That's why I find those evenings are the most important. I've ben taken to the idea of practising yoga these days, and I was thinking of doing it on Wednesday or Thursday nights for that reason. Household chores can be calming though. In the evening I like to prepare the next day's lunch, in silence, listening to the oil singing on the frying pan, smelling the fragrances of the freshly cut herbs. Even washing the dishes can be calming when focusing on the sensations of the water running down... That sounds like mambo jumbo doesn't it?

      But I agree that finding down time for our brain has to be a choice, when it's so easy to have a fully booked schedule between work, friends, family... These days my week-ends and days off have been mainly used for family reunions (wedding, birthdays, wedding anniversaries...) and I feel all the more drained. In these cases I agree that sometimes, it is necessary to decline some of the social gatherings to rest and regain energy for the upcoming weeks.

  6. My distraction after a tough day or when i have some spare time is editing photographs. I have hundreds of them waiting to see the light of the day, needing my attention. It doesn't cost me money and makes me very happy. And its quite rejuvenating.

    On a different note, after all the intended cleansing, the only time i catch myself wandering on retail websites is when i click on links posted on the lifestyle blogs i follow. Makes me wonder, if one can put out their life and photographs without prompting users to consume. I am new to blogging and been extra careful but i still can't help talking about objects i like. Can lifestyle blogs exist without promoting consumerism? Even the ones that talk about simple living talk about that one special purchase they made instead of the ten they assume everyone around is making.

    1. Photo editing can be very calming if you're used to it indeed! I find I need to be well rested to engage in that activity as I'm still a beginner photographer :)

      The question of blogging and encouraging consumerism is a very interesting one indeed. Jess wrote an interesting article about it but I think she removed it from Empty Emptor unfortunately. As a blogger, I feel a bit uncertain between the wish to share great products I have discovered and find worth looking into, and the wish to avoid generating purchase intents among my readers.

      I think it depends on the editorial line of each blog - some, like the Minimalists for example, don't promote any products, and they even refuse to disclose the brand of the products they use when they talk about it (I remember a post about the boots one of them replaced lately).

      On the other hand, as a reader, I found really good products thanks to recommendations from like-minded bloggers: quality, ethical, locally made, sturdy... Sometimes it is so hard to find the adequate item when I do need one, that I'm happy to receive recommendations once in a while. I guess it's a matter of avoiding lifestyle blogs who promote certain brands or objects if you feel tired and prone to temptation :)

  7. It’s interesting to compare how different people interpret ‘down-time’. I almost always relax in the evenings by reading (sometimes fantasy or crime fiction but mostly ‘Literature’) or watching shows (preferably HBO, so not necessarily ‘light’) … Losing myself in a really good story is one of the best ways to make sure my mind doesn’t stay stuck in repeating stressy events or thoughts. Only right before bedtime do I limit my activities to watching light comedy, reading a short poem, listening to a quiet song …
    Also, I find that browsing the internet and doing online shopping gets me more wound up than relaxed (I have installed an internet ban the last hour before bed time!). Which is probably why I did a lot of that back when I had a more demanding job: I just needed this ‘quick fix’ to feel excited again after coming home from work completely drained.
    I always feel it’s about some sort of balance, though it’s something I feel more than something I consciously implement (apart from the internet ban).
    E.g. sometimes cooking a new dish, though certainly demanding, is exactly what you need after some intellectually demanding work. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done than focus on the body: like take a bath, do sports, or just go for a walk outside without so much as an ipod. Sometimes meditation helps me relax, although it is a practice to focus the mind and not intended for relaxation. So I conclude that in my experience (without scientific evidence), it’s about balancing activities that require different part of the brain. My job requires a lot of planning, switching around between tasks, weighing options and making decisions. I would say that that is why, for me, doing something that focuses the mind in the present moment is usually more relaxing than anything.

    1. I believe it is a very personal affair indeed. Every job requires a different type of energy, so the subsequent "down time" needed by the brain would be different as well. I'm sure a construction worker wouldn't consider a run "down time" after spending several hours standing and moving things around. Besides, we all have a different personality and need different types of activities to rest. It also depends on the mood - for example when I'm drained by a long and busy dayn I may need something different than if i've been stressed out by a conflictual situation etc.

      And finally, I wonder if "distraction" and "down time" are exactly the same thing. Maybe sometimes the brain needs to rest, to replenish energy, and sometimes it just needs to take our minds off things and plunge into a different world or activity that requires focusing. The examples of "distracting series" or "light fictions" are for the evenings when my brain needs a down time from the very draining job of thinking of strategies and plannings. But sometimes I just need to break away from reality, another type of distraction - that's when I play video games, or watch "HBO type" series and read all kinds of books.

      In any case, I feel like society has a lot of ready made "distractions" for us either when we need rest or to break away from reality, and they often involve building a need for buying new things...

    2. It's an interesting distinction, and one that might explain the difference between activities that I find relaxing but would or would not do right before bedtime :).

  8. Sounds really good. I read a recent article (I forgot where...but I think it was business insider) said today's 9-5 unproductive work schedule tires us out and pushes us to make more last minute impromptu decisions. I definitely will try to plan a schedule like yours once I'm in Vienna.

    1. That would make sense! I think going shopping after work (even more so online shopping, from home, as a "reward" to a long day of work) are probably fostering a lot of impulses indeed :) I'm so excited for you that you are going to live in Vienna! Definitely a good time to reset habits, as your environment will be brand new anyway:)

  9. I too am guilty of wasting hours of time reading blogs and articles online before bed. I find that if I keep my mind too active, I have trouble getting to sleep! It turns into a vicious cycle where I distract myself because I can't sleep, and then ruin any chance of getting to sleep. My new rules are: no phones anywhere near my bed - if I wake up and don't check the time, I have a better chance of getting back to sleep, no internet until I get to work (except to quickly peruse emails/messages in case of something urgent), and no lying in bed with my laptop on my lap...many days are lost forever from doing this! So far, so good. And because the internet connection here in Indonesia is so slow, I feel like I'm achieving a lot more. I shudder to think how many hours I've wasted waiting for websites to load when I could have been down at the beach or enjoying my time here before I move back to Australia! Old habits die hard.

    Always great to read your blog and comments section and realise it's not just me getting caught up!

    - Louise | Hey Louise!