A couple weeks ago, I was at the gym and noticed something that I see way too much when I’m there. A guy was sitting on a bench, face buried in his cell phone. About 10 minutes passed, he was still there.

He got up from the bench, walked to the other side of the dumbbell area and grabbed a couple of 40s and proceeded to pump out a set of 10 curls.

Then, he returned right back to the same bench, where his water jug sat to reserve it. He assumed his position once again and blew the next 10 minutes on his phone.

This dude never actually used the bench on which he sat, which is horrible gym etiquette and a pet peeve of mine. But beyond that, it got me thinking once again about something that affects us all.

Distractions. And worse, the incessant need to always feel “busy” or engaged. If we aren’t doing something – anything, we’re idle.

And when we’re idle, we’re being lazy. Right?

Why do we Americans possess this strange need to always be “doing something”, and how come so many of us subconsciously view idle time as a waste of time?

The punishing addiction to distraction

By now, we know how devastating distractions can be in our lives. Take driving. That’s one of the clearest examples of distractions.

Unfortunately, the United States is the worst offender. We, far and away, admit to using our cell phones while driving…a LOT.

Cell phone use percentage

And, it correlates closely with our propensity to kill ourselves when behind the wheel of a 5,000-pound death machine that we call a “car”:

Road traffic deaths in the U.S.

What causes us to suck a driving? It’s not because we’re all dumb. And, it’s also not because we have some sick desire to wreck our cars.

No, it’s distractions. We’re busy doing something else when we’re engaged in another activity that’s more important. Driving is a prime example, and the numbers show it’s literally killing us.

It’s so bad that billboards are now pleading with us to put down our damn phones:

Text and drive funeral home

We don’t stop, though, do we? Of course not. The phone rings and we need to pick it up. We get a text from someone and we just have to look.

After all, it “could be an emergency”. Or, the curiosity just gets the better of us. We gotta know who wants our attention. It sorta makes us feel good inside, doesn’t it?

Our phones are little brains housed neatly inside a cheap Korean-made plastic case and we feel compelled to use them every chance we get.

We tell ourselves that it’s our connection to the outside world.

Whether it’s when we’re behind the wheel of a car, in the gym or waiting in line at the grocery store, our need to occupy ourselves with something other than living in the moment is unrelenting.

Sorry brain, no rest for you. You always gotta be doing something, pal.

The Internet is a huge disruption system, pages all linked together in a giant web that keeps us looking for more and the next best thing. Social media like Reddit and Twitter monopolize our lives and we’re left fending for ourselves in useless arguments or looking for digital communities to save us from reality.

Because, we just gotta fit in. We can’t be on the outside.

After all, nearly nine in 10 millennials check email on a smart phone. We’re also way more likely to check work email after working hours (including when in bed!).

We just can’t get enough distraction. We’re f-ing addicted to it.

The problem with an addiction to distraction

We’re human beings, damnit. We aren’t machines. Our brains have a finite amount of free space to store information and a relatively limited number of neurons with which to process new information.

When we keep bombarding our brains with useless distraction, we’re taking up precious cycles that could be used for things that are far more meaningful.

Yes, like driving a damn car.

Or if you’re at the gym, maybe taking time between sets to reflect on the exercise you just performed. How did it feel? Did your form look right? Any aches or pains? Perhaps you want to go heavier next time, or stick to the same weight to avoid unnecessary risk of injury?

When we bury our faces in distractions, we lose focus on what’s right the hell in front of us. We don’t live in the moment because we don’t give our brains an opportunity to just sit and reflect. Or rest.

To process our surroundings.

To give us an opportunity to figure out why we’re sad or unsatisfied with life and change our lives for the better.

Our addiction to distraction keeps us on the same hamster wheel that we’ve been on our entire lives. We don’t notice the obvious. We’re kept oblivious and uncommitted to life, to our relationship and what truly makes us happy.

And the more that I’ve observed about early retirement (and those who are truly “happy”), the more convinced I am that the happiest among us have avoided (or at least escaped from) this punishing addiction.

What if we stop this relentless addiction and just bloody live our lives?

Look, I have a cell phone as well. I use it. I’ve glanced at it at the gym too, just like everyone else. Sadly, I’m not completely immune to this addiction.

But, I’ve become way better at avoiding the punishment.

And, a huge enabler is early retirement. I’ve removed the easiest excuse to constantly check my phone: My job.

But, I don’t believe early retirement is the only way to break through a constant need to be distracted, either. We can all do this.

What if we:

  • Stopped checking our email from bed?
  • Turned our phones off when we’re driving?
  • Limit our Internet usage to an hour a day?
  • Use our phones only as a source of music at the gym?

What if we pretend that we’re on an airplane on approach to our destination? Our seat backs are in the “full upright locked position”, our tray tables are locked, our personal items are underneath the seat in front of us.

And, yes, our cell phones are in airplane mode.

What if we all decided, once and for all, that life happens in front of us, not in our digital device, and that the more attention we paid to the life in front of us made us more aware…more aware of our surroundings and those around us, but also more aware of ourselves and what ails us.

Sometimes, our digital lives need a little airplane mode time.

So, are you in?