Liminal moments are transitions from one thing to another throughout our days. Have you ever picked up your phone while waiting for a traffic light to change, then found yourself still looking at your phone while driving? Or opened a tab in your web browser, felt annoyed by how long it took to load, and opened up another page while you waited? Or checked a social media app while walking from one meeting to the next, only to keep scrolling when you got back to your desk? There’s nothing wrong with any of these actions per se. Rather, what’s dangerous is that by doing them “for just a second,” we’re likely to do things we later regret, like getting off track for half an hour or getting into a car accident.
A technique I’ve found particularly helpful for dealing with this distraction trap is the “ten-minute rule.” If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in, but not right now; I have to wait just ten minutes. This technique is effective at helping me deal with many potential distractions, like googling something rather than writing, eating something unhealthy when I’m bored, or watching another episode on Netflix when I’m “too tired to go to bed.”
This rule allows time to do what some behavioral psychologists call “surfing the urge.” When an urge takes hold, noticing the sensations and riding them like a wave — neither pushing them away nor acting on them — helps us cope until the feelings subside.
Surfing the urge, along with other techniques to bring attention to the craving, has been shown to reduce the number of cigarettes smokers consumed when compared to those in a control group who didn’t use the technique. If we still want to perform the action after ten minutes of urge surfing, we’re free to do it; but that’s rarely the case. The liminal moment has passed, and we’re able to do the thing we really wanted to do.
Techniques like “surfing the urge” and thinking of our cravings as “leaves on a stream” are mental skill-building exercises that can help us stop impulsively giving in to distractions. They recondition our minds to seek relief from internal triggers in a reflective rather than a reactive way. As Oliver Burkeman wrote in the Guardian, “It’s a curious truth that when you gently pay attention to negative emotions, they tend to dissipate — but positive ones expand.”
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