I Tried ‘Being Present’ and It Was Terrible
Pls don’t make me do it again
As a modern woman with my pinky toe on the pulse, I understand that distraction is considered by many to be the enemy of enlightenment. If we just learned to unplug and meditate and IRL talk to each other, our problems would dissolve like Splenda in hot coffee, sans cancer. At least that’s how the fairytale goes. I wouldn’t know.
Like any self-respecting millennial, I feel a healthy mix of resentment and shame regarding this line of thinking. I’m protective of my distractions. Which is exactly why I volunteered as tribute to forgo all of them for a week. I couldn’t help but wonder a la Carrie B if it might change everything. Would I make 17 new friends? Be struck by a groundbreaking idea and go on Shark Tank and pick Robert? Figure out the whole Bermuda Triangle thing? I had to give it a shot.
The rules were pretty simple:
1. No using my phone nor reading nor doing anything, really, while in transit. That means no music and no apps unless imperative i.e. maps.
2. No engaging with for-fun apps or content when I’m working or waiting around for something.
Essentially I just had to sit there. Easy enough! It was terrible.
I feel superior to my former distracted self within minutes of starting this diet. I’m working on a story about which I feel a smidge apathetic (I have no fucking idea what to say) and such a conundrum would normally have me procrastinating with the internet. Open tabs haunt me like grim reapers of attention when I’m suffering writer’s block. Without that option, though, I’m forced to face the blank page sooner. It feels sort of nice.
I briefly wonder if I’ve solved A.D.D.
A few hours later, things take a turn. Never do I enjoy listening to music more than when I walk through New York and romanticize it for something it’s maybe not. Commuting without headphones feels sad. I walk to the subway station in silence. Spooky! I wait by the tracks and am off-put by the deafening screech of the passing trains (I assume they’re rolling over six million rat kings). When it comes time to actually ride, I aggressively door-lean in silence and wait for the epiphanies. They never come. I’m so bored!
The ride to Manhattan almost doesn’t end — I consider moving in — but then it does. When I transfer trains, I make an attempt at waxing poetic about the sound of pounding feet at Union Square (I normally don’t hear it), but tbh it’s a stretch.
I would rather be listening to Moonlight by Noble Oak.
Please imagine this underlined in dramatic, red, Gelly Roll pen: Commuting without using my phone is so. fucking. boring.
Things I am not feeling: a newfound sense of camaraderie with my fellow riders, full of ideas, calm. Things I am feeling: NOTHING. I briefly consider becoming a distraction zealot/writing the counterpoint to The Power of Now.
At work, I keep doing this thing where my fingers, driven by muscle memory, move towards Command+T (new tab) whenever I’m stuck on a sentence I’m writing. I freeze before doing so, deciding whatever hamster video I’m about to watch isn’t worth it (a lie for the sake of the diet).
Later, on my way out of the office, my brother convinces me to subscribe to The New York Times Crossword app. I’ve recently become obsessed with the Sunday crossword, so granting myself access to hundreds of puzzles on my phone during this diet was maybe, possibly, a huge mistake.
I do the crossword the entire way home.
Worse, I pretend it doesn’t count as cheating because it’s “educational,” dismissing the entire premise of the diet, which has nothing to do with education.
I’M SORRY JOURNALISM.
I spend the rest of the night writing on my computer while trying to ignore the Gossip Girl marathon my roommate is constantly streaming in our living room. I occasionally glance up and rant about Serena doing that stupid thing with her mouth, but mostly I focus.
I miss Instagram and listening to You Were Right by Beauvois.
On my way to work on Wednesday I’m feeling pious/ethical and thus do not open the Crossword app. Instead, I watch a girl carefully unwrap the plastic covering of a cassette tape for fifteen minutes, slowly unwind the tape reel (glacial, really) and then meticulously wrap the strung-out tape reel around the tape. I am rapt. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?
I can’t. I start doing the crossword. I’m sorry. Do I get credit for not listening to Stay by Dimond Saints or checking my email?
At the office, I find myself clicking on links my coworkers send in order to take a break from writing by convincing myself that it’s “work.” Ultimately, there is no justifiable reason to read Why Liberals Are Wrong About Trump (despite it being great journalism), so I quickly close out and get back to work.
By the time the clock strikes 10 p.m. and I’m still writing, I realize that my Command+Ts and link breaks aren’t distractions so much as necessary reprieves during long days. I wonder if “distraction” is really something I suffer from, or if I need these diversions to stave off burnout.
I get home after a crossword-less commute that lasts ~one year and continue writing. As a diet-approved distraction, I stream Peaceful Cuisine cooking videos nonstop in the background.
I decide, again, to forgo my Crossword app on the train, but not without disdain for myself for pitching this story/downloading my new favorite app during it. I notice today that I feel a little more present. I take note of the sounds of people shifting in the train car, feel nothing, and then notice a pregnant woman and give her my seat. Would I have noticed her had I been on my phone? Maybe not. DISTRACTION-DIET WIN.
The train ride stretches on for several hundred years. I’m just bored. As in, the ailment your mom says makes you boring. What’s so wrong with music? Romantic line at the climax of this diet: “If distraction is wrong I don’t wanna be right.” Cue melancholy soundtrack: Goodnight by Shoffy.
The day goes by without much of a hitch (please do know that my 45-minute commute back ages me by three years and that I eventually cheat by doing the crossword). Later, when I get home and am working on the couch, I get so desperate for a distraction that I brush my cat’s hair and literally clean his butt to avoid writing, which I psychoanalyze not at all.
By the time I get into bed, I am straight up giddy to check Instagram guilt-free. Unfortunately it is very late and I am so tired I cannot keep my eyes open long enough to do it.
Cancel this distraction diet!
While walking to the train today, I pass a car that’s blaring music out of its windows and am so enamored with the sound that I nearly forget everything I learned about strangers in strange cars and hop right in. That’s how desperate I am to enhance this boring commute.
Seeing that it’s Friday and I’m having trouble focusing at work, I use the MR comments section (a beacon of all that is good) as a diet-approved distraction tool, since it’s technically part of my job. When I leave the office, I very cheaply consider the diet done because it’s Friday, I’m on my way to meet a friend for a drink and I’ve never wanted to pop my headphones on more.
This might have been a good time to test my strength as a distraction dieter. Instead, I take advantage of my position as rule-maker and immediately blast Touch Me by Allure, open my Crossword app and commute the whole way to Brooklyn on a freaking rainbow. The ride goes so fast I almost miss my stop.
I love distraction so much I might as well marry it.
Ultimately, this diet did little for me beyond reveal: a) my passion for having a soundtrack to my life b) how often I have writer’s block and c) my brain’s ravenous desire for content snacks after long stretches of focus. The thing is, none of these register as problems I want to fix. I actually think sitting on the train with music inspires far more interesting thoughts between my ears than sitting in silence.
I will say that abstaining from my distractive crutches was good practice. I am more aware now than ever about my twitchy involuntary tab-opening when I’m struggling to write, for instance. I’ve also discovered a really uninteresting way to slow down the space-time continuum as we know it, which strikes me as big.
Should I call Shark Tank?
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos by STAN HONDA/AFP and Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images, map by NYC MTA.