We are living in a world that doesn’t support us being mindful or attentive to the here and now. We are building technology that doesn’t support us staying in the present moment. And somehow … we as a society aren’t complaining about this. This technology-centered world that we live in is what psychologists in this area comically refer to as the era of mass distraction.
Smart phone addiction is at the center of this epidemic, however it is not the only thing causing it. Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms, and see if you can relate:
- Do you feel anxious when you can’t find your phone—even if it only went missing for one minute?
- Do you check your phone whenever—and as soon as—you hear it beep, ding or ring?
- Have you ever checked your phone thinking you felt it buzz, only to realize it didn’t?
- Do you usually have your phone within arm’s reach?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are probably—at least in part—addicted to your mobile device. And you’re not alone, not even close: individuals in our culture check our phones more than 150 times every day and teens between the ages of 14 and 17 send a text every six waking minutes. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea—I’m not anti-device—I think our phones are helpful. They have the ability to teach us, keep us safe, keep us in touch with one another, and keep us organized and on track with our responsibilities.
However, they also have the ability to take the opposite side of any of those pros: to keep us from learning and listening, to put us in danger, to disconnect us from one another, and to distract us from our responsibilities. The personal computers that most of us keep in our pockets can keep us from our most important priorities and relationships. That is, if we don’t figure out a way to be the boss of our phones instead of vice versa.
The Anti-Mindfulness Era
I first heard the term “weapons of mass distraction” a few years ago and thought it was clever. Now, I think it’s just sad because in my opinion, it’s turning more true every year. The term can refer to not only cell phones, but also to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to email notifications on our computers, and many other technology-induced applications and tools.
We’ve somehow allowed technology to determine our priorities. I don’t know about you, but when I hear my phone beckoning—even if I’m in the middle of a task that requires my full attention, I need to know exactly who it is and what they have to say … immediately. After all, it could be someone calling to tell me about a hidden treasure, a golden ticket, or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if you don’t respond right away, you may miss out.
Or … it could be your neighbor asking you if you have any laundry detergent they can use, or a friend wondering if you’re free for dinner three weeks from Thursday.
But you just never know.
The problem is, we’ve become conditioned to assume that the notification coming from our phone or device is the most important thing we need to focus on … whenever it surfaces. And far more often than not, it is nothing more than a disruption from what we were already doing—what we already deemed to be the priority at that given moment.
And when we self-distract like this, any time an email, text or notification calls us, we are taken away from those actual priorities. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has said that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to a task once distracted. Think of how much time and efficiency you may be wasting by self-interrupting each time the phone tells you there’s something you need to know.
Even when we’re not at work or in the middle of critical thinking and problem solving, we are beckoned mid-conversation, while we’re connecting with friends, loved ones, and ourselves. And these meaningful human connections are at the top of the list of things that make us happy as humans, according to a 75-year study done at Harvard. Yet our society has made it easy and acceptable to disconnect from one another constantly. It’s become normal to duck out of a conversation for a cell phone glance and interrupt conversations and eye contact to look up information and read a text message. This is harmful to our relationships; it sends a message to your present company that whoever or whatever is on the other end of the device is more important that you are at this moment.
This way of living with distraction is not serving us well.
What Do We Do About It?
There are a lot of strategies you can try to alter the relationship you have with your devices. For example, since I’m aware about my inability to ignore a phone notification, my cell phone is almost always on silent and I turn off all notifications so my curious mind doesn’t get distracted. I check my email and messages when I’m ready to, not as they come in. Read the blog post I wrote all about how to take a technology break for more ideas. There are also more formal programs and retreats (check out Digital Detox) that can teach you how to lighten attachment issues and distance yourself from the digital force.
But is it our responsibility? Why are we living in a world that is slowly making us miserable? And how did we get here?
Tristan Harris, Product Philosopher at Google working on design ethics and leader in the movement “Time Well Spent,” argues that designers of the technology we are using should assume responsibility for building applications, devices, and tools to support our best interest. His latest
Harris said, “Just like a city shapes the lives of its inhabitants, software shapes the lives of it users. Therefore software is a domain of great responsibility.” He calls the movement design ethics, and the work he is doing is fascinating to me. You can read more about it here. And you can learn more about his latest venture, The Center for Humane Technology, here.
In a world where social networks, media websites, and applications vie for consumers’ attention, someone needs to step in and be the user advocate—to help us take control over the time we’re spending, to help keep us in line with our priorities and help us stay focused and present. We all want to continue to use technology—but how do we do so without losing our priorities and ourselves in the process?
Harris has some good ideas on how we can get there in his December 2014 TEDx Talk. His analogies are powerful (he compares the use of our mobile phones with the addictive nature of slot machines, the most profitable industry in the United States) and his presentation is filled with insight into the psychology behind technology usage and ways to design that help us spend our time well. I’ll sign off with a recommendation to watch his 15-minute TEDx Talk:
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