Gene Autry once sang a song, with the lyrics,
“I got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle…As I go ridin’ merrily along…”
Now it is our mobile devices…phones and email alerts that go jingle jangle jingle…
I admit, I love my iPhone; I just love it! Almost everyone of my generation loves their smartphone. Heck, we all grew up with encyclopedias (ours was World Book, my friend had Britannica) and I did indeed use the volumes as sources for any number of papers growing up until I learned to use the card catalog at the library. Remember that? Today, right now on my personal phone, I can look up anything I want, in the very moment I wonder about it and see the answer from not just one source, like with my beloved World Book, but from sources too numerous to count. What a magnificent luxury! I know no one who could have imagined such a thing in 1970.
That being said, if I need to, I can wait; there really isn’t much in my life that can’t wait 30 minutes. I am a life coach; I am not a researcher developing a cure for cancer or autism. I have learned over the years that there is, from time to time, value gained from waiting.
I have clients however that take a completely different approach to their phones. To them, they are both a blessing and a curse. Their desire to remain attached to their “network” is almost pathological. As a coach I remain, in a session, open-minded, non-judgmental, and always acknowledge and validate the concerns of my clients. That being said, this particular focus, i.e., on remaining connected, bothers me personally quite a bit. I usually keep my mouth shut about it; it isn’t a way to make friends these days. But like most people, I do shake my head when my wife and I are out to dinner… talking… reconnecting, and we see young couples both on their smart phones. No conversation, no looks of enjoyment, just rapt attention to the little 2 ½”x 8” devices.
I wonder sometimes—do they see God in there?
Then later I ask myself, “Why does that bother me so much? Why do phones, how they are used in general, seem to disturb me so much? Why does it bother me so damn much when my wife pulls out her phone when we’re driving to a restaurant together? Why do I fanatically hate it when people who hold up their phones and record half a concert? What’s the up with that, coach, I ask?”
Am I the one with the problem here? Hey coach, go coach yourself.
When I think about it for more than just a minute, I realize that I am not messed up. People—myself included—have developed this too creepy to be cool love/hate relationship with our phones these days. Every year, from what I can see, we grow more deeply attached to them than the year before. Yet every year, I for one, and many others, seem to begrudge the fact that we’re glued to them.
What’s up with that that?
If you think about it, our attention is the only thing we truly own in our lives and where we choose to place it is one of our last fundamentally personal choices. Of course you can lose things you own; they break, get lost, or stolen, or you just plain get tired of them. If you don’t work fanatically hard, your body will decline over time and what you thought you had suddenly is gone. Your relationships can fall apart in spite of your best efforts. Even your memories and intellectual capacity fade eventually.
That being said, the ability to pick what you select to focus on—that’s yours until your last day.
Unfortunately, with today’s technology, phones in particular, our attention gets stretched in hundreds of ways in our day-to-day life. This very challenge makes the choice of where to place our precious attention all the more difficult—and more important—than ever.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, states clearly that the ability to focus deeply on a single project, idea, or task for long periods of time is one of the most important skills for succeeding in the information age. He also proposes that it’s that very ability that appears to be dwindling among the population. In his book As a Man Thinketh, James Allen, back in 1902 opined that what you pay attention to sets the direction of your life. So, between those two authors, from completely different times, there is quite a similar message.
If you combine the two of them into one philosophy, I would say that our ability to focus and hone our attention on what we decide is important to us is a core component of living a happy, healthy life. If you are distracted with silly and unimportant things, e.g., where your least favorite person goes for lunch, what Kim Kardashian wears under those tight skirts, you won’t be focusing on your single project, task, or goal long enough to make any difference at all. And don’t we all strive to make a difference?
We all have those days or weeks (or months or years) where we’ve felt absentminded, lost and out of control of our own reality, at the effect of everything around us, constantly sucked down crayfish holes of stupid pointless things, creating a drama of endless and pointless clicks and notifications for things you don’t even care about.
In my experience as a coach, to be happy and healthy, one of the key things we need is to feel is that we are in control of ourselves. We need to feel like we are using our abilities and talents effectively…that our work and life have meaning. Well, folks, here is a spoiler alert:
To do that, you have to be in control of where you put attention.
As I circle back around to it, I think this is why the cell phone thing stirs me up as much as it does. Life can be really hard, even when you pay attention. Life requires—yes, I said requires—focus and exertion, mental and physical discipline. So, when you stop every 10 minutes (or less) because somebody imagines the need to email their boss or text their partner, it jerks you out of that so important focus. And here is what really cranks me up; it snatches me out against my will. I didn’t ask to be distracted.
I call it “distraction pollution,” when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves interferes with the attention and focus of people around them—me. And with the explosion in smart devices and internet available pretty much everywhere from Waterproof, LA to Moscow, distraction pollution is undermining our daily lives without our even realizing it. That is what is so insidious about it; your hardly notice it at first.
It’s why I get frustrated (quietly pissed, if I am honest) at dinner when someone starts texting in front of us. It’s why I grow enraged (quietly) when someone pulls their phone out in a movie theater, lighting up their corner of our shared universe. It’s why I can be catty when someone is checking their email instead of watching the game…how much did that ticket cost? If you are bored, go home. Really…just go home.
Their inability to focus, embracing each and every distraction, interferes with our, yours, and my, already-fragile ability to focus. The same way second-hand smoke screws up our lungs, or crack cocaine ruins the lives of those around us, what we do with our smartphones harms the attention and focus of people around the user. And just like most addicts, the user doesn’t see or care. They hijack our senses, and at times, our sensibilities. They force us to put our thoughts or conversations on hold, and redouble our effort to focus needlessly. It is selfish. It causes most of us to lose our train of thought and forget the important point we were composing in our mind. It literally eats away at our ability to connect and merely be present with one another, destroying all thought or possibility of intimacy in the process.
But the addiction comparison doesn’t end there. There’s growing evidence that suggests we are doing long-term harm to our minds and our attention spans. The same way crack screws over your long-term health in the name of a series of short-term bursts of highs, I contend that the dopamine kicks we get from the sparkles, dingles, and incessant inane information on our phones are damaging our brain’s ability to focus over the long-term. Is that really worth all those “likes” on that really cool new photo of your “keto lunch” you just took and posted to everyone on the planet? You think they care? Now who is self-important?
You probably figure that I’m overreacting here…going out off the deep end. Like I got distracted at a movie or at work by a peer on their phone, and now I’m taking it out on you, on thousands of readers on the internet. But just think about it for a minute. I think this is screwing us up more than you realize.
I’ve begun to notice that as the years pass, it’s growing increasingly difficult for me to sit down and write an article like this than it was just a year ago. Now I am not whining; it’s not just that the amount of available distractions has grown exponentially; it’s seemingly my ability to focus, resisting those once easy to resist distractions has degraded to the point where I occasionally feel as though I am no longer in control of my own attention.
This is disturbing to me. It’s not so much that I resent the woman at the gym who can’t go 10 minutes without checking her messages (even though I do resent it). I resent that I am quickly becoming just another person in life who can’t go 10 minutes without checking messages. And I’m absolutely sure that I’m not the only one. How about you?
I have clients who report growing anxious if they find themselves unable to monitor their phone in social situations. They bring their phones into conversations the way some people carry dogs in Neiman Marcus. It’s a safe escape for them if the necessity to interact with another person’s thoughts and feelings become too intense. It is the source of their own “safe space.”
I know you have seen those people in the workplace who always need to be checking email or their messages. They do it to feel as though they’re being good, productive employees. Isn’t that sad? It really doesn’t matter if it’s their kid’s piano recital, or at a stop light, or in bed on a Saturday. They simply ache to always be caught up on every piece of information that is flung their way, otherwise they’re somehow failing. They are lost in the noise, never to catch up with who knows who, doing who cares what.
I’m going to the movies with my son today and you can be sure that there will be some fool who just can’t sit through whole movie without pulling out their phone more than once in the middle of it. They just ruin it for the rest of us. How about people who can’t make it through a meal without putting the phone next to their plate. It is like money is going to spew forth from the tiny little thing and they don’t want to miss a penny of it.
It’s happening everywhere, and becoming—or has become—a sad social norm. Since this kind of reduced attention is going to become the norm, it will soon be socially acceptable to not pay attention and we are all going to suffer for it.
I guess I am a throwback and as much as I enjoy all of the gifts that modern technology has provided, I still remember a world where people had the personal discipline to sit through long, dull conversations, without feeling the need to douse themselves with some form of instant-gratification delivered by technology. A world where people were, at least some extent, cognizant of not only their own limited attention spans, but the precious attention of others. It was considered rude to be distracting at the movies if you were the jerk who completely killed the mood of a dramatic scene by distracting your neighbors.
Can you imagine a world where devices enhance our lives, and not become substitutes for them? No one ever opened their slide rule in a movie to solve a math problem. When people understand that the instantaneous delivery of the most up-to-date information possible to your doorstep has indirect associated costs as a counterpoint to the clear benefits.
Rather than remaining in the past, this one might be in the distant future, but how about a world where people are aware of their own attention as an important resource? They view it as something to be cultivated and renewed, to be built and cherished, the same way they take care of their bodies or their intellectual growth. They will understand that that very cultivation of their own attention will in a peculiar way, set them free. Not just free from the screens, the beeps and vibrations in their pockets and lives, but free from their own unconscious compulsions to see what is happening to things and people who really don’t matter to them.
How about a world in which that very respect for attention would grow and extend to the world around them, to their friends and family? A place to live where people honestly acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that their inability to focus clearly, and for the appropriate amount of time, is not only harmful to themselves, but harmful to their relationships and their ability to develop and maintain intimacy with someone.
They will understand that these dangers, these distractions combine to put even their own world at risk…and for what?
Does someone in your life have an overly intimate relationship with their smart phone?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going and where you would like to go.