You’re chatting with a friend, and they head to the bathroom. You pick up your phone and play candy crush.
You’re waiting for the train, and you’re early. You take out your tablet and look at Facebook.
You’re in the queue at the supermarket checkout, and it’s lo-o-o-o-ng. You take out your phone and flick through email.
You have a lot to do, and catching up on email can seem like a good way to pass the time. And playing a game or looking at social media can seem like it gives you a break from the stresses and strains of daily life.
But is our addiction to technology really such a big deal?
These days, we have more entertainment and distractions at our fingertips than at any other time in history, and that’s increasing all the time. But spending time with friends and family in the UK and US recently made me realise quite how ubiquitous our devices are. They’re out at every opportunity: I’d find sometimes even in the middle of conversation people would pull them out and check them, and I’m not even sure the other person always realised what they were doing.
Not a short cut to radiant relationships.
But, apart from being perhaps a little rude, our addiction to technology suggests to me that we’re afraid of being in the now, as we take every opportunity to distract ourselves with technology. It’s as if we’re afraid for even a second to pass without there being something for us to do. Or several things.
But why should this be? Why do we distract ourselves with ‘lazy electronic junk food’?
Why are we so afraid of being in the moment, and what can we do about it?
1. We’re afraid of being bored
Wifi, the internet, and the proliferation of handheld devices means we never have to be without entertainment again. We can read, play games, watch videos, and check social media whenever we want.
This means whenever we have a spare moment, we no longer need to be bored.
Surely that’s a good thing?
Well, not necessarily.
In my family, long before the digital age, we had a (annoying to my 15-year-old self) saying: ‘only boring people get bored.’ The theory was that there was always something interesting to do or think about if you just put your mind to it.
A fascinating project on the podcast New Tech City focused on this very issue. Called ‘Bored and Brilliant’, it set 6 days of daily challenges to reduce the average 64 minutes per day we spend on our phones.
It was inspired by research that suggests that ‘mind-wandering’ leads to reflective, creative thoughts, and that minds *need* to wander in order to reach their full potential.
When we constantly check our phones (the average person unlocking their phone a massive 110 times a day), we don’t allow space for this mind-wandering – or boredom to you or I – to occur. The classic ‘I get my best ideas in the shower’ happens exactly because it’s one place where we don’t have that much occupying our minds.
What do to about it:
• Think about where you keep your phone when you’re with people, or travelling. Try putting it physically away, rather than keeping it in your hand – if you have the ringer on you’ll still know if someone calls you.
• Make an active decision to include ‘mind-wandering time’ in your day. If you worry about being bored, you can always give yourself the ‘task’ of daydreaming about something specific, be it what to make for dinner from the eclectic mix of ingredients in your pantry, or the theory of relativity.
2. We think multitasking is an effective way to get s**t done
Multi-tasking is all the rage, and I’ll admit it often seduces me. Listen to a podcast and learn while I’m doing the washing up? Fab! Do my expenses while watching an episode of Marvel’s Shield? Great! Tweet while I’m at a live event? Awesome – I can show everyone else what they’re missing out on!
But more recently, research has shown that we’re not, actually, that good at multitasking.
The constant ‘ping’ and ‘bing’ of social media alerts, new emails into your phone and the twenty interruptions a day from clients at work all take a toll on your productivity as your attention shifts between the task you were doing and the new activity.
All this means that multitasking can:
• Lower your IQ to that of an 8-year old.
• Even damage your brain.
And those who think they have a special gift for multitasking? They were actually worse at multitasking than those who prefer to do one thing at a time.
Of course, not all multitasking is bad, or rather, there are some forms of multitasking where that productivity cost probably isn’t a big deal. If I’m putting the washing on while listening to the radio, it probably doesn’t matter if it takes me a little longer.
But in a car travelling at 30mph, the half a second of time lost when switching between listing to the radio and another car doing something unusual could be enough to mean you crash into an obstacle that you could otherwise have been avoided.
What to do about it:
• Do one thing at a time. This might include only having one window open on your computer, or one app on your phone. It might mean turning off the phone or incoming emails while you’re working on a proposal. And it definitely means putting the phone away and not leaving it on the table when you’re with a friend.
• Try meditation. Yep, it’s hard. No, it’s not flakey, and it doesn’t have to be religious. And there aren’t any short cuts. But the benefits are huge. It’s a great way to increase concentration and focus. Try headspace if you’re new to meditation.
• Use something like the Pomodoro technique to be productive whilst focusing on one thing at a time for short bursts.
3. We have a fear of missing out (FOMO)
Demonstrating its new prevalence, the word ‘FoMO’ or Fear of Missing Out, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.
Social media, in particular, has increased our anxiety that someone else might be having a better time than us – that we are ‘missing out’ on something, whether that’s an experience, a product, an interaction or other event or activity. Social media and marketing are taking advantage of these feelings (and if you had any doubt about that, read this).
We’re constantly on the lookout for new experiences, and keeping an eye on blogs, websites or our friends and families’ social media is one way we do that. But whilst FoMO can be motivating, and drive us to lead more diverse lives, it can also be toxic.
Those who cope badly with FoMO may experience an inability to make choices or move forward in life, an inability to commit in relationships (or to anything), stress as every opportunity they take is seen as giving up all the other (probably better) possibilities, and an overloaded scheduled as they try and fit far too much in.
What you can do about it:
• Say no to three things this week. Remember, every yes is a no to something else. You only have 24 hours a day; so fill them wisely. There is no perfect choice, so be mindful and make active choices about how you spend your time.
• Be fully present in whatever you have chosen to do in that moment. Keep technology off, or have an agreed ‘checking’ time if you’re with others.
• Stay offline for an entire day (put your out of office on if you’re concerned people might miss you. But they probably won’t.). When you go back on, notice exactly what you haven’t missed.
If You Avoid the Moment, You’ll Never Get it Back
You might think that using social media means you’re growing your relationships. Creating more and more contacts. A broader and more diverse network.
But if you avoid the moment with the person sitting opposite you, right now; if you avoid the intimacy of real connection, and of getting to know a person warts and all rather than their more polished social media self?
That’s when you’re really missing out.
Because knowing the real person helps you to stop comparing others’ outsides with your insides.
Helps you develop compassion as you understand that human beings have a lot more in common than they do diving them.
Means you truly connect.
So step away from the phone.
And enjoy the moment.