Our business has enjoyed working with an outside vendor that has been a key part of our software’s development over the past fifteen years. Over the years, I have made many visits to their offices and remain struck by the noticeable quiet and calmness that one is met with upon entry. From the reception to moving around the office, the environment can feel quieter than a library. It’s not because there are strict orders mandating no talking. Nor is it because those that work there have nothing to say. I’ve seen staff congregating outside on a break happily engaged in vibrant conversation. What is it about this office that explains its quiet? This IT firm is committed to using technology to build its business. Its staff are not at the mercy of inboxes and instant messaging, nor are they glued to their phones. Staff are busy producing quality code for customers and are deeply engaged in meaningful work. The office environment works to reduce input from both visitors, staff interruptions, phones, and more in order to ensure that developers are afforded the opportunity to work for long stretches of time focused on a single task. As Catherine Price writes in How to Break Up with Your Phone, “If you’re distracted, you can’t immerse yourself in an experience—which means that you can’t, by definition, get into flow.”
Too many office environments are the exact opposite. They are a deluge of distraction. “Open” office environments with cubicles or staff seated side by side. Multiple monitors with several applications and browser tabs open with various forms of messaging pinging users all hours of the day. We’re overwhelmed with a never ending onslaught of stimulation. We can only attend to so much and our ability to concentrate is less with all of the digital noise. In an earlier article we talked about the cost of diluted attention in terms of making mistakes. We also expose ourselves to not just poor performance but less of an experience. Price writes, “We experience only what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.”
I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy heli-skiing several times. Every part of the experience is incredible. From loading the helicopter, riding in it, to getting out, and watching it fly away, each has a deeply exciting aspect. That’s all separate from enjoying basking in the scenery and skiing untouched slopes set aside for just your group to enjoy. It’s a rare and unforgettable experience to embrace. Unfortunately, you see more people trying to record things in the moment and not paying attention to the present. Ten years ago, the companies would have a photographer/videographer travel with groups to take pictures and provide a souvenir video or picture for guests. Nowadays, this role isn’t needed because people are recording every second of their experience themselves. Instead of viewing vistas, they fumble frantically to turn on helmet cameras in order to record their exploits thinking about their shares and likes. They reach for their selfie sticks faster than they would for a shovel in an avalanche. They fail to see that in their zeal to record their experience, they are missing vital elements of the event.
As we noted in an earlier article, being tethered to technology costs us. It costs us in our ability to do rich, meaningful, and fulfilling work and it costs us from being fully immersed in incredible experiences. We are missing out on several levels without even realizing what we’re missing. Unfortunately, distraction is our default. Evolution has built us intentionally to see things that are different in the environment around us and to switch our attention quickly to these differences to determine whether a threat is present. Nature was cruel and unkind in our past and focus wasn’t always helpful. We needed to be alert and able to quickly react. In fairness, it is not all our fault. Many of the technologies we depend on daily were intentionally designed in order to lure our attention. Our attention is the commodity in demand. Others are deliberately trying to take control of our attention for their own purposes. The devices and technology that is supposed to empower and free us is doing the opposite. These devices aren’t our friends. We need to separate ourselves from them to take back control of our attention. We’re not suggesting we need to be all business all the time. Mindless entertainment is perfectly fine as long as we are choosing the time, the place, and the duration of it. It’s when distraction is our default that we abandon our own agency.
Distractions can come in different shapes and sizes. The most debilitating one most of us face today is our smart phone. Then, in our office environment, comes email management. Finally, it’s all else which includes things like general noise, fly-bys, and drop-ins. In the balance of this note we’ll focus on trying to claw back a little control over our phones. Smartphones are sometimes bulked into a category referred to as wireless mobile devices. Some researchers note that the acronym is shared with that of weapons of mass destruction. Our phones can become a WMD for our personal productivity. Instead of ceding control to the engineers designing devices to weaken us, how can we work to take back our personal power and avoid being blown up?
Step 1. Cultivate awareness.
When an object, substance, or activity compels our attention even though negative consequences result, we’re considered addicted to it. As you start to see your attention drifting to devices, you are better suited to begin exploring how you want to reclaim control of it. Before we can make an advance we must increase our awareness of where we are. Catherine Price in How to Break Up with Your Phone reminds us that “we’re never going to break up with our phones unless we think it’s vitally important to do so.” In order to get a sense of the influence of these devices over our lives, we need to start with developing our awareness of our usage. Price invites us to consider and write down our responses to two questions:
- If you had to guess, how many times a day do you think you pick up your phone?
- How much time do you estimate that you spend on it per day?
From here, we’re tasked with getting an objective answer to these questions. We’re encouraged to download an app that will track our usage. There are plenty of options that will provide the hard truth both with respect to how often we’re reaching for our phones as well as how much time is being spent with them. After a week or so of using one of these tracking apps, we’ll get a sense of how we’re actually using our devices (or, more likely, how our devices are using us). If the tracking app suggests you’re touching and using your phone more than you noted in your original responses, it’s a pretty clear indication that someone or something is in charge other than you.
It is at this point that the cost of allowing our attention to be taken from us by our devices may become clear. The good news is that you’re not alone. This is the sad realization most of us will come to. Hopefully, the awareness helps us internalize a disconnect between where we are and where we want to be. The stronger this disconnect between where we find ourselves and where we want to be, the stronger will be our motivation to take further action. For many of us, this will feel like stepping on a scale after a few years of avoiding it. We may be met with a bit of a shock that gets us to sit up straight and pay more attention to what we’re doing with our time. The cold hard truth may well hurt, but this hurt will help us to do something about regaining control.
Additionally, take time to observe how others interact with their devices. How do you feel about others when you see them face down in their phones? Ask yourself how do you look to others when you’re in a work context and distractedly checking your phone? Are the people you most respect and admire at the mercy of their devices? If you’re a leader, consider a question posed by Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book Executive Presence, “How can you trust a leader to keep his eye on the big picture if he can’t keep his eye off his iPhone?” More importantly, consider how they relate to others while they stare at their screens. Do you see others “engaging” in a conversation with a real person while staring at a phone? How does this make you feel to witness? How do you think the person feels that is talking to one staring at their phone? Do you think they feel heard? Do you think they feel a closer connection? This behavior is, sadly, becoming common such that it now has earned its own word. Phubbing refers to phone snubbing where we tune out our conversations with those physically present while staring at our devices. Start by seeing this behavior in others and begin to recognize the negative consequences it has on those impacted by it in order to heighten your sensitivity to ensuring you don’t do this to others. When you’re with someone, be with them. Tune in to real people and put down your device.
One way to build an opportunity for you to reflect each time you touch your phone involves putting a note or image on your screen that you see each time you access your phone. Perhaps, the message is a picture of a post it note that has written on it, “Do you really need your phone right now? Are you reaching for it in order to do something or out of boredom/reflex?” Simply seeing this may, over time, cue your mind to ask yourself whether you really need to be using your phone. Are you in charge? Or is the device sucking you in? Alternately, you could try to increase the effort required to access your phone. Instead of using the face ID to unlock your phone, set up a complex password that is cumbersome to enter. This modest extra effort will give your brain a chance to catch up and consider whether the effort is worth it.
Step 2. Give yourself a chance.
We can help ourselves by taking steps to control our environment. Before we worry about our work world, it may be easier to start by taking a few steps related to our personal lives. We can begin with the area over which we have the most control. In How to Break Up with Your Phone, Catherine Price offers a detailed 30 day program to follow to regain control over your device. Consider picking a copy up and working through the program with family members or a few colleagues at work. Try the program for a month and see how you feel at the end of it. Then choose to maintain the pieces that you feel helped you gain control over your devices and day. A few suggestions Price includes in her book follow.
We can soothe the relentless scanning by separating ourselves from our devices in a few small, manageable ways. Two recommendations being widely touted involve not taking phones to our bedrooms at night coupled with creating a central charging area for all family member phones. A modest investment in an old school alarm clock is a great way to remove the “need” for having a phone in your room at night. Give yourself a break from your devices. Make it a family commitment. From here, we are encouraged to try to set a curfew for turning in our devices where we may even enjoy a little time without them doing other things. Put phones away at agreed upon charging station by 9pm, for example. In this way you’re able to train yourself to find some way to enjoy yourself for a little while in the evening prior to retiring. You can then move to set times in the morning before which you won’t touch your phone. Consider a commitment to leaving phones at the central charging station until 7:30am, for example. Another great suggestion is to designate a few areas in the home as “no phone zones.” For example, phones should not make it to where we eat.
None of these suggestions imply anything other than a commitment. A desire to try. Try one of these for a week, for a day even. Work up to doing all of them for a month. Celebrate with a family dinner and a movie at the end and enjoy a conversation about how surprised you may be that your worlds didn’t implode without constant access to your phones. From here, momentum may be maintained by setting goals for how much less time you want to spend on your phone. To accomplish this, you can now consider deleting some apps from your phone. Reduced games, reduced social media apps will reduce the time sink on your device. Chipping away with your commitment will allow you to reclaim control of your attention. You’ll find all kinds of time to do productive things for yourself or with your family. If you’re still not convinced of the value you can look forward to from separating yourself from your phone for just a little while, take a look at Bill Maher. This video has now been seen over two million times. Bill Maher offered a rant on the damage our phones are doing to us in mid August. In eight minutes, Maher manages to highlight several pain points our phones have crated. The comments are a further testament to the resonance of the rant. If we can put our phones down, we’ll feel better all around.