We’ve recently noticed people accidentally bringing phones into class, or texting on smartwatches during practice.
Distraction is the default mode of modern culture. We ingest a daily barrage of images, media and news intentionally designed to hijack our focus and turn us into information addicts.
The digital attention economy is bankrolled by our urge to check our phones.
Tristan Harris says “the average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Are we making 150 conscious choices?”
I know we all know this. But there is urgent value in remembering why it’s so hard to stop.
For some, it’s social media, others binge on news, or messaging, or I personally get caught in random research rabbitholes (curiosity isn’t always a virtue).
Whatever your i-vice, one innocent urge to check can set dopamine-seeking fingers unconsciously scrolling for a 40min trance.
Here are 6 reasons why:
1. Our phones are designed like slot machines.
Of course we get hooked when we’re carrying the pokies in our pockets.
Addiction is activated in the reward centres of our brain, which cause the release of feel good neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
Slot machines have bright, flashing lights, repetitive sounds, and variable rewards generated at random. Just like phones. We don’t know what will happen next. Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful motivator and manipulation tactic.
2. We love to be liked.
Social and relational stimuli are a huge source of dopamine. Notice how you can now ‘love’ a text message? More micro-interactions and subtle visual cues are being built into media design (eg. the heart pops when you tap it).
3. Our tech learns how to interact with us.
Behavioural feedback allows our devices to personalise cues at just the right time to keep us on. Instagram often delays ‘like’ notifications until you’re going to leave. Tristan Harris (Director of the Center for Humane Technology) and Yuval Noah Harari (Author of Sapiens) explain it in this excellent interview: ‘When Tech Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself’.
4. Just thinking about our phone can give us a hit.
Studies have shown that merely imagining picking up our device triggers anticipatory dopamine. Even if upside down on the table, it still hijacks attention.
Algorithms serve us more intense versions of our perceived interests to keep us engrossed. Extremism is seductive. (If you haven’t watched The Social Dilemma yet, it’s a sobering experience).
It’s no mistake we feel like slaves to our devices.
6. The allure of productivity.
I used to believe I could multitask like a boss.
It fuelled my inner efficiency fanatic and led to a sense of busyness that the hustle culture taught me to be proud of. But research has shown that the brain cannot actually focus on more than one thing at a time. It can switch between tasks very rapidly, but this dramatically diminishes concentration.
While it may seem satisfying to be ticking multiple things off our all-hailed To-Do lists, multitasking is a myth.
So how can we elevate this conversation beyond the commoditisation of focus?
By choosing what we pay attention to in the world, we are shaping the way we experience it.
There is more to notice in this kaleidoscope life that we can ever take in. And being porous little beings, we are so easily shaped by whatever we attend to. Our inner world is woven of our outer world. And while we cannot always control what happens around us, we can control what we give the most attention to.
As we all know, the human mind is highly trainable. Whatever we practice regularly, our brains myelinate into easefulness. So rather than practicing distraction, we can practice more presence.
Most of us don’t plan to zoob out on purpose. It’s a lack of cognitive control that leads us astray.
Abundant research explains how practicing paying attention, on purpose, leads to not only a more stable mental state, but generally higher emotional and psychological well-being. Yoga, mindfulness techniques, and especially meditation, are all exceptional ways to train this skill.
The art of impulse inhibition
Particularly relevant re: phone use is learning to apprehend the urge to pick it up. ‘Urge-surfing’ is a mindfulness intervention used for addiction recovery. Because urges rarely last longer than 30mins (if not fed), we can learn to acknowledge it, breathe with it, and surf the peak till it passes.
We practice this in mindful movement classes, by making every action on purpose, rather than autopilot. When challenged this way, we’re also training our ‘distress tolerance’. That’s the ability to sit with uncomfortable sensations and not always defer to ‘scratching the itch’, so to speak.
This is a long way of saying that we kindly do not allow phones in our classes.
Smart watches can come in only with all sounds and lights switched off.
We’re also inviting everyone to put devices on silent and out of view in the community space before and after class.
(For those doing our Solstice practice month, this would secure 90mins off your device most days. Which, on average, would reduce screen time by 35% per week. Yeah you’ll miss a few notifications. But you might find a much better connection.)
Once present, we can tend to what is truly important to us in the here and now. Which is the only moment we ever have.
In the end, our lives will be made of what we paid attention to. Spend it wisely.
More info / support:
– I highly recommend Catherine Price’s book How to Break Up with Your Phone
– I haven’t read Digital Minimalism yet but Cal Newport’s books are great.
– Therapists are available at Human.Kind for Clinical Psychology and Counselling
– For addiction support online / by phone: ReachOut.com
Please feel free to share your favourite book / podcast / film / article / advice / ramblings on the topic in the comments below.