The Unexpected Benefits of Covering My TV
Fighting distractions and temptations has a hidden cost. Although you might win the fight, you will have to spend mental energy to do so. This leaves less energy for doing other things, like resisting future temptations or getting work done. How can you minimize this drain on your mental energy? As I was recently reminded, sometimes the best strategy for fighting distractions is simply to avoid them.
Up until about eight or nine months, babies don’t have object permanence. Even if you hide an object while they are watching, once it disappears from sight, they assume that it has disappeared altogether. If it’s a beloved toy, they might become upset and if it’s something less interesting, they might just forget about it and move on.
Adults, of course, do have object permanence. When you put the cookies in the cupboard you know that they still exist behind the closed door. Even so, putting something out of sight can send it to the back burner of your mind. This phenomenon has its negative side – it’s easy to ignore a humanitarian crisis, for example, if it’s happening somewhere else. But reducing the mental pull of something is often to one’s advantage.
Out of Sight Out of Mind
During our recent home organization and beautification spree, my husband and I realized that the television was a problem. I personally don’t like the look of big black reflective screens and I also dislike how they so often become the focus of a room. It was time to hide the TV.
A quick look on Pinterest shows many creative solutions for hiding TVs. Ours was simple and decorative. We put the TV in a wide storage cabinet and hung a weaving – made by my mother – across the opening.
As expected, I’m much happier overall with the living room. I am no longer annoyed by the big black box and I get a little zing of pleasure from seeing the weaving.
What I wasn’t expecting was the significant drop in our TV viewing. Now that the screen no longer beckons, watching things in the evenings – a habit that was solidified during Covid lockdown – is no longer our default.
Reclaiming Mental Energy
We spend a good deal of mental effort ignoring and resisting distractions and temptations. Just like we have to resist the siren call of a naked TV screen, we must willfully resist the offered dessert when we’re trying to cut back and fight to keep our eyes on the road when confronted by video billboards. These things are hard enough to do on a good day, but when we’re mentally fatigued, like I often am by evening, resisting distractions can be almost impossible.
Dealing with distractions is a mental double blow. They not only create problems in the moment but they also reduce our ability to stay on task in the future. Distractions get their hooks into our attention and do their best to pull our focus away from whatever else we’re trying to do.
There are numerous studies demonstrating how our effectiveness can tank in the presence of distractions. Worker productivity in open-plan offices suffers in the presence of distracting side conversations. A moving goalkeeper distracts even expert penalty kickers, making them less likely to score. And cell phone use, even if it’s hands-free, siphons attention and worsens driving performance.
Even if we ultimately win our fight with distractions and finish that report, make the goal, and arrive at our destination safe and sound, the battle itself requires mental energy. This drain on our mental resources – and the mental fatigue that can follow – makes it difficult to focus and meet the next attentional challenge. Although mental energy is renewable, topping up the tank takes time. Wouldn’t it be more effective to conserve what we have?
One of the best strategies for conserving mental energy is to tweak our environment so that distractions and temptations are avoided. Granted, this isn’t always easy – the ubiquitous eye-level candy shelves at grocery store check-outs come to mind. But dealing with some distractions might be as simple as covering the TV.
Years ago, my husband finally dealt with the problem of a distracting candy bowl at the office by asking the admin to put it in a cupboard – a simple act that significantly cut his sugar consumption. More recently, my brother’s solution for fostering effective family co-working while confined to the house during the pandemic was to buy everyone noise cancelling headphones. This not only made it easier for everyone to do their own thing, but it saved the collective family sanity in the process.
What temptations or distractions are draining your mental energy?
What simple things could you do to put these distractions out of sight or out of mind?
What would you do with the mental energy you save?
Connection to the Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE) Model: Being Capable. An environment filled with distraction and unwanted temptation is the very opposite of supportive. Resisting distractions takes mental energy, leaving us with fewer mental resources for dealing with other things. Although there are ways to help restore our mental resources once they have been depleted, it’s even more effective to change our environment in order to eliminate or reduce unnecessary demands on our attention.
Anne Kearney is an artist and writer living in Barcelona, Spain. Her writing and artwork are inspired by her decades of experience as an environmental psychologist working for universities, non-profits and NASA. She has a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Stanford University, and a M.S. in Resource Policy and Behavior and Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology from the University of Michigan.