In my last blog, I promised to share another important step I’ve taken in order to create moments in my day where I can concentrate on the thing in front of me - with zero distractions.
The biggest distraction to all of us is our phone.
So, my phone is no longer my phone. It’s my gremlin. Super cute at first before you spend more time with it and discover an evil, destructive side.
(And neither do well with water.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realised that my gremlin was doing me real harm.
It was preventing me from doing great work.
It was making me feel overwhelmed all of the time with the constant pings and vibrations.
It was stopping me from paying full attention to the real human beings I was spending time with.
My biggest and scariest realisation was that my gremlin was in charge of me.
I decided I needed to work out how me and my gremlin could be friends. How to live happily together and bring out the best in each other.
My journey towards feeling calmer and making better use of my time is not leading to a conclusion that the digital world is bad, it's almost that it’s too good. That’s why everywhere you look everyone is on their phones, all the time. I knew this wasn’t about a digital detox. I wasn’t chucking the gremlin out of the window. I still needed it in my life. It was more about recognising that I’d introduced a tiny tyrant into my pocket that demanded constant attention. I needed to escape its clutches and take back control.
The first step was to reflect on how much my gremlin was influencing my behaviour.
Part of this reflection involved reading and learning. I read two books written by Sherry Turkle who is a Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. One is called ‘Alone Together’ and the other ‘Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age.’
Both of these books are fascinating and really highlight the price we are paying for our distraction. Two things stood out for me and made me determined to make some big changes.
The first is that there is a clear trend line: we are more and more distracted in each other’s company and we know it. Recent surveys report that 89% of people say they interrupted their last social interaction to turn to their phones, and 82% say that the conversation suffered because of it.
The power of our gremlins to influence our behaviour is so much greater than I realised. Even a silent gremlin has an affect on us. Studies show that if 2 people are having lunch together, a phone on the table steers the conversation to lighter subjects, and each person feels less invested in the other. This is madness, but when you think about it, it’s not surprising. With the gremlin sitting there at the table, you know not to go deep because there is the risk you can be interrupted at any time. I think we’ve all had that horrible moment when you are sharing something really important and you suddenly realise mid-sentence that your mate has stopped listening. Their gremlin has grabbed their attention and you have that awkward decision of whether to press on and hope they come back to you or to just slowly wind down the sentence to a miserable end and sit there feeling like a dick…….and then pick up your phone to mask your embarrassment.
The second learning is that one of the most dramatic costs for our distraction is our empathic capacity. Research by the University of Michigan using data from over 14,000 students demonstrates a 40% decline over a 30 year span in the markers for empathy among college students. By spending less time giving each other our full attention, we are losing the ability to care about each other. This makes me really sad. I care deeply about a lot of people. I’m determined not to lose this ability and to make sure my children grow up caring about the people around them.
With my resolve heightened by Sherry’s lessons, here are some of the steps I’ve taken to build a better friendship with my gremlin.
1. Understanding that I’m hardwired to respond
One of the most illuminating things I’ve learnt about our relationships with our phones is that our brains have a neuro-chemical response to every ping or ring. This is something we can’t stop. We are wired this way. Human beings have a deep motivation to be connected.
Our brains haven’t changed biologically in the last 50,000 years. So according to our brains, we still face the same dangers as our ancestors living out on the Savannah. Out there, being connected to the tribe was a matter of life or death.
So with each phone ping, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. This is our brain's way of rewarding us, of telling us that we are doing good.
The tribe is pinging you, you are safe, good work little human, go make more pings please.
We crave and are stimulated by being connected. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us.
Once I knew this was happening, it sort of gave me more power in resisting the pull of the ping. I could understand that my desire to drop whatever I was doing and leg it over to the gremlin was driven by the dopamine shot. By understanding what is happening and why, I can tell myself rationally that I won’t get eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger if I don’t immediately respond. I can have times during the day when I disconnect fully from the tribe, but still stay alive.
I started to enjoy hearing a ping and feeling satisfied at resisting it. Instead of the dopamine hit, I gave myself a little pat on the back. I actually started purposefully leaving my gremlin perched on top of a cupboard in my kitchen that I walk past regularly - and I’d enjoy walking past and wilfully ignoring it. My fingers pretty much twitched as I walked past, desperate to just click on that little circle just to see if there were any new notifications. But I resisted. I whistled and walked on by. I started to show the gremlin that it wasn’t my master. I could choose to ignore it. It’s ridiculous but it’s sort of empowering. Like walking past an ex with your head held high, pretending that you haven’t even spotted they are there.
2. Creating gremlin no-go zones
Our gremlins are our constant companions day and night, at work and at play, when we’re with friends and when we’re alone. There’s no respite. No wonder our brains are frazzled.
One study estimates that we tap, swipe and click on our devices an average of 2,617 times a day.
I thought this number sounded a bit bonkers - so I spent a day logging how many times I switched on my phone and the actions I did on it each time….OK, not so bonkers.
So I decided to try and reduce this number by creating ‘gremlin-no-go-zones’ in my life. When you take a moment to think, it’s pretty easy to select times in your day where screens simply don’t belong.
I started with meal times. I sat down with my adorable little gremlin and laid down the new rules of our friendship.
You are no longer welcome at any eating occasion.
It feels great to just enjoy the food and enjoy the company. Whether it’s a family meal or a lunchtime butty with pals, it’s far nicer when no gremlins are allowed.
Once you start, it’s amazing how many other no-go-zones you begin to put in place.
3. Choosing to look up
The gremlin in our pocket constantly wants us to look at them.
“Look down at me or I’ll have a tantrum and terrify you by switching off and making you think you’ve lost all contact with the whole universe!”
We spend so much time looking down. Next time you head outside, just notice how most people around you are looking down.
Sometimes it’s really nice to look up. Look up at the buildings around you. Look up at the sky. There’s a lot of beauty out there that we are simply missing.
My colleague Alex has a super cute, super energetic little boy (yes, that’s the nice way of saying he is a bit of a handful!). Last week the two of them lay down on their backs in their garden and watched the planes fly over their heads. Benjamin absolutely loved it. It was the longest time he’d stayed still ever. (Literally ever. He doesn’t even like sleep.)
Even a crazy 2 year old is telling us that there is better stuff to look at than our screens.
4. Muting the monster
I’ve turned off notifications. All of them. I don’t need any of them. I’ve muted the gremlin and taken back control.
Our time is precious and limited, and yet we’re wasting so much of it every day. We now spend more time on our screens that we do sleeping, and so much of it is the mindless screen scrolling we do to distract ourselves when we feel uncomfortable or bored.
Every day we reject an experience or a relationship in favour of time with our screens. Our loved ones feel ignored and resentful that our gremlins get to spend more time with us that they do.
I’m starting to understand more and more that giving our time and attention to each other is the most precious thing we can give.