Mindfulness: The New Gym

We go to the gym because our modern world no longer requires us to be fit – we’re not lifting rocks or hunting animals, instead, most of our waking hours are spent sitting at a desk and then sitting on a couch.

Because of this, working out is a habit that we must develop if we wish to maintain a decent level of fitness. Without it, we wouldn’t break a sweat.

The fact is, it’s now easier than ever to live a sedentary lifestyle as there aren’t any immediate consequences to doing so. We can sit at home, watch Netflix, order food, and nothing bad will really happen. Our lives are not at stake.

Despite this, many of us recognise the benefits to good health and so we make the choice to drag our asses to the gym (or on that run, or to that swimming pool, etc.), knowing that if we don’t, our health will likely deteriorate.

Well, the same is now true for mindfulness.

In the modern world, we’re constantly bombarded with electronic stimuli. Our brains – reacting to different pings and pop-ups; flicking between different apps and binge-watching different videos –  have now become accustomed to a constant stream of distraction.

And just like a sedentary lifestyle, there aren’t necessarily any immediate consequences to this either. The difference is that, while the long-term downsides to a sedentary lifestyle are quite intuitive, the long-term downsides to indulging in digital distraction are much less so.

The main issue is that, as we grow increasingly accustomed to on-demand distraction, we end up worsening our ability to maintain focus on a single task – and this ability is important for a variety of reasons.

For a start, the more we can concentrate, the more effective we can be. Whether in school, in our careers or in our personal goals, the ability to focus is key to performing at our best. And life’s more fun when we’re performing in this way.

Beyond that, the enjoyment we derive from any activity depends on the level of attention we can give it. Getting lost in anything becomes more difficult if we’re constantly being interrupted by an urge to check our phones, or to switch our attention towards a quick hit of novelty.

Just as gyms provide a solution to the lack of physical activity required in our modern world, so do mindfulness apps in making something like meditation (in this case, the ability to sustain focus and resist distraction) easy and accessible.

The good news is that mindfulness not only makes us better able to manage our desire for distraction, but it also reduces that desire. For example, a 2020 study found higher mindfulness was “significantly associated with lower boredom proneness, impulsivity, and problematic use [of smartphones].”

Meditation shouldn’t be thought of as some ‘zen-like’ habit that only the enlightened can benefit from – the practice has now been digitized just like everything else. Instead, we ought to view it as a practical strategy to improve our wellbeing – particularly as this is the general scientific consensus anyway.

According to MedicalNewsToday, “Meditation is considered to boost a range of cognitive abilities, such as mental clarity, stability, and creativity, while increasing the length of time that someone can hold their focus.

Interestingly, these are the very opposite results to the problems that we’re seeing arise through excessive internet use – such as anxiety, mood swings, boredom and scattered attention. Therefore, we might consider mindfulness (or meditation) as a tool to better navigate through the digital world.

Mindfulness is the skill of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. It’s almost the antithesis of mindless internet browsing, where we’re sucked in and (often) not really conscious of what we’re doing. 

Presence and distraction can be thought of as two competing forces in a constant tug of war. As companies within the attention economy pull harder to distract us, so must we if we wish to maintain a healthy balance.

This takes effort – it requires developing the ability to put our best interests over instant gratification, resist temptation and embrace boredom when it arises. As Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, explains in his book Deep Work, “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction” – and this is exactly what meditation can help us do.

The reward of practicing mindfulness is becoming less distracted and more mindful, but technology is encouraging us to become more distracted and less mindful. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing such a rise in mental health issues.

Thankfully, meditation is now a digitized industry and it’s extremely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. There are many great apps to get started, like Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up.

To overlook the benefits, or to believe that they won’t apply to you, is the same as going to the gym for a week, not seeing any progress and then giving up.

Chances are you’re not some genetic anomaly, you’re just being short sighted or looking for an excuse to not put in the work – which, initially, meditation may very well be. Either way, you only get out what you put in, and if you put in the time and effort, you will improve, you will experience the benefits and, over time, you will strengthen your focus.

The irony is that, as instant gratification becomes ‘more instant’ and ‘more gratifying’, the more important mindfulness becomes and yet, the easier it becomes to ignore. The average person is spending more time surfing the web and more time scrolling through their phones with each passing year – not less. If you wish to be any different, you must swim against the current.

That said, there are many, many more benefits to mindfulness that extend beyond just the ability to better retain focus and to become less distracted, but these two are particularly important and particularly relevant in our modern, hyper-connected world.