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Put your phone down | Just Reflections - Issue #16
For me, each day begins with my phone and also ends with my phone. I think phones are great, they have changed our world in many wonderful ways. And in many ways phones are like an extension of ourselves. They extend our memory by keeping notes and reminders and all sorts of things for us. They extend our reach by giving us instant messaging with our loved ones anytime anywhere. You can land in a completely new place where no one speaks your language and find your way around on your own with the phone's navigation capabilities. Phones have become a foundational part of our entire society. Every single adult I know has a phone and most of the children I know have phones as well.
But as philosopher Paul Virilio wrote, ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.’ As good as phones are, they also take away a lot from us. One of those things is true human connection. We miss out on a lot because our eyes and minds are constantly glued to our phones. It's an acceptable thing now that you can meet up with someone in person and then both of you spend half the time on your phones talking to other people who aren't present there with you. In the worst case, maybe even sending each other messages while you're right there next to each other. And the other half of the time you spent commenting on all the things you're seeing in your feeds. Why then did you meet up in person in the first place?
We go to dinner with friends only to find that half the people are distracted by their phones and are not really present with us. You're talking to your partner or friend and they check their phone mid-conversation or even mid-sentence or you can hear from their responses that they're no longer here with you. Saying I'm so addicted to my phone or to social media is everyone's mantra nowadays and we laugh about it. Right before we go back to check our Twitter feed.
This week I want to talk about phone usage. I think it's time we put our phones down and interacted like human beings.
You use your phone more than you think
The statistics for phone usage are pretty crazy. I know there are people reading this who are thinking it doesn't apply to me. While there are definitely people whose phone usage isn't bad at all, they're far fewer than we think. So, let's take away the guesses. If you're using an iPhone or an android phone, your phone likely has a usage tracker. So take a moment right now to check your usage stats so that you proceed with this issue with the correct perspective.
Finding phone usage stats on an Android operating system
Go to Settings.
Tap “Digital Wellbeing & parental controls.”
Under “Your Digital Wellbeing tools,” tap “Show your data.”
Note: if this is the first time you open Digital Wellbeing, you might need to set up your profile.
Finding phone usage stats on an Android operating system
Launch the Settings app.
Scroll down to the words "Screen Time" (beside an hourglass icon in a purple square). Tap into "Screen Time" to see app usage details.
Tap "See All Activity."
If you poke around you should be able to see your weekly usage and even how much time you spend on each app, etc. Here's my weekly usage (which, I must say, is one of my good weeks):
Now that we have the numbers, let's proceed.
Your phone is ruining your relationships
Relationships are hard, and adult friendships are hard. One thing that contributes to this is that while we all have a longing to be understood, we're often not great at understanding other people. That is compounded by the fact that these days there are so many distractions around us constantly beckoning for our attention. Even when we're with people physically, we're rarely fully present with them. So we still miss all the non-verbal cues that could enhance our connections. The result is that our phone usage is making us less happy.
But I can multi-task. No, you can't! You're bad at multitasking. Research is rife that reveals that humans are terrible at multi-tasking. People (women) like to bring up that women are better than men at multitasking. Sure that's probably true but men are already really terrible at it so the baseline is pretty low and women are likely only marginally better. This means that women aren't good at multitasking either, men are a 1 and women are a 1.2, out of 50 (Don't quote me on my PhD level statistics). This all means that while you're on your phone you're not fully present with the people you're with. You're not fully present with the ones on the phone either. It's a loss either way.
I've definitely been guilty of being on my phone too much. In fact, there was a time where I'd say to my wife, "You're always on your phone" and she'd say it right back and we couldn't settle who was worse. I was probably worse.
I used to be on my phone all the time. While my friends are telling me things that are important to them and I'd be like, yeah go on I can hear you. I'd be on my phone during meetings at work and miss important things. I'd be on my phone while driving, even on the highway while at the speed limit. God knows how I'm still alive. I'm pretty sure that there are people who've been annoyed by my phone usage or avoided spending time with me because of it. I read Jason Lengstorf's article describing his compulsive phone usage on his blog and thought this is terrible but that I've done most of these things before. I could relate a little too much. Here it is, see if you've seen this before in yourself or in someone else.
I'd check my phone in mid-conversation. In mid-sentence. I'd take phone calls during dinner. I'd be that asshole in line trying to manage social media while also paying for my groceries. I was always around, but never really there; I was on the internet, making sure my empire of selfies and clever tweets was still intact. In the meantime, my friends were viewing me as less and less of a person worth engaging, because I was clearly prioritizing my online relationships over the flesh-and-blood connections sitting in front of me. I worried that if I looked away — even for an hour — I'd allow the world to fall apart. A client would need something, or I'd miss a huge opportunity if I wasn't keeping vigil over my phone. — Jason Lengstorf
You may not be as compulsive of a phone user as Jason was. But if you use your phone while having conversations with people you're physically with. You're likely not giving the best you can give to those relationships because hanging out with someone who's always on their phone is really unpleasant.
Put away your phone
When we think of distraction, we often view it as something external. But Nir Eyal, author of "Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life" suggests that many of the triggers are internal. We reach out for distractions because we're avoiding some internal discomfort. For example, when you're feeling lonely check Instagram, when you're bored check Twitter, when you don't know what to say next in a conversation you check your notifications. With this in mind, conquering distraction should, therefore, focus on those dealing with those internal triggers.
The following are some lessons I picked up about having better phone hygiene and being better human beings in a digital age.
When you're with people in person, don't hold a parallel conversation on your phone.
Listen to people when they talk, not just with your ears but with all your senses. Take in their words, take in their expressions, their mannerisms. Take in the environment. All of that comes together to give a fuller picture of what people are saying and what they mean. When we're constantly on our phones, a lot of that flies past us.
Putting your phone away allows you to be fully present. You're thinking about what's happening here and now. Not a bit here and a bit there. So as you listen, feel the breeze, taste the food, watch the way they purse their lips oddly when they say the letter 'u' or the way they look away as if in embarrassment when they say a certain name. Allow your brain to get many stimuli to form clearer memories and you'll find that you get more out of meeting with people.
Use lulls in the conversation to think, not to check your phone
When the conversation cools down and there are awkward silences the temptation is high to flee from that by checking your phone. Resist it! Use those lulls and silences to think and reflect. To look around and see the environment. The conversation will pick up again on its own and when it does, your mind will not have been drawn away to another place with other people. Popular author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek in this popular video says this is one of those mechanisms that allow for the little innocuous interactions that build trust to happen (it's a short video, check it out). If we block those moments by putting our face to our phone we will miss out on cues for deeper interactions.
Turn your values into time
Use Do not disturb mode when you don't want distractions. Many of the times when I've thought about using Do not disturb mode to block out distractions, I've failed because I don't know when to schedule it. Focusing deeply is something that mostly just happens to me, it's rarely planned.
Nir Eyal says we can't term a thing a distraction if we don't know what it's distracting us from. So he talks about this principle of turning our values into time using our calendars. The way he suggests doing this is by using your calendar as your To-do list. Schedule time in your calendar to do the things that you value. Do you value getting good sleep? Schedule it on your calendar. Do you value spending time with your family? Schedule it on your calendar. When there's something you value, make planned, intentional time for it instead of putting it on a To-do list as something you need to do some time. Doing this forces you not only to think about what you want to do but also when you want to do it and for how long. This adds some additional layers of commitment, more so if you create the events and invite the people involved, if any.
When the time comes, your commitment should just be to do the thing you said you'll do for the time you planned to do it for. That's it. Once you're able to do this, you will know exactly the times when you don't want any distractions. Then you will be able to schedule the times for your phone to go into Do not disturb because you want to be fully present for the things that you value.
Turn off notifications
One reason you find it hard to use your phone on your own terms is the pull effect that notifications have. When you hear that buzz or see that notification light blink, you're drawn to your phone. It's not allowing you to come to it at your own time. It requires your interaction right now. From that moment on, you're in a constant battle to stay focused and not check what the buzz or light is about and chances are that you'll end up yielding. But if the light never comes on and there's no buzz when you're busy, you'll be able to finish what you're doing without distractions and only check the phone when you want to check it not when it prompts you.
Most of the notifications you get can be turned off completely with little to no consequence. You don't need to know every time someone is speaking in a Twitter space or whenever your aunt posts the latest chain message in the family group chat. Turn that off.
Buy a wristwatch and an alarm clock
Closely related to turning off notifications is getting a wristwatch. I've never really been a watch person. In fact, I used to ridicule wristwatches saying why would anyone buy a single-purpose device in the 21st century.
My wife recently lost her fitness watch, so I bought her another one. Then we found the one that was lost, so there was an extra watch and I figured, let me try this watch thing. After having a wristwatch for a little over a month, I realize that using my phone to check the time was one reason for my high screen time. I check the time, then realize that I have notifications. Then 30 minutes later, I'm deep in a thread on Twitter. Sure the notifications came in silently, but now that I've picked up the phone to check the time, I'm tempted to check what they're about. But with a wristwatch, when I need to know the time, I check the watch and get back to what I was doing.
Similar logic applies if you use your phone as an alarm clock for waking up in the morning. If you want to avoid your phone being the last and first thing you use, buy an alarm clock, they're very cheap.
Create pacts for yourself
In case you're prone to forgetting all this in times of temptation, use pacts. Pacts are a way of predetermining the actions you will take when temptation strikes. Nir Eyal explains three types of pacts in his book; effort pacts, price pacts and identity pacts.
Effort pacts are when you add effort between you and the thing that you want to change. Do you want to check your phone less when you're out with friends? Turn it off, sure if you really wanted, you can always turn it on again but that extra step adds some additional effort that might deter you from doing it or at least give you enough time to realize that you're now being tempted and stop.
When you first start doing this, you're going to be filled with a lot of anxiety. In fact, when I was telling a friend of mine what I want to write about this week their immediate reaction to this point was, "What if there's an emergency and I miss it?". There's a big likelihood that there won't be an emergency. How many of the notifications you got in the last month can you classify as important events that if you'd missed for an hour, things would have gone terribly wrong? I'm guessing not many if any at all. Whatever it is, it can likely wait for you to finish playing with your child.
You've likely had plenty of times when you were working on something really important or exciting and you got so engrossed and didn't touch your phone for several hours. When that was happening, you likely weren't worried that you're missing some big emergency. Likely because you thought the task you were engaged in was important enough to get your full attention. My challenge to you then is; make the people you're with important enough to get your full attention. You can deal with promptings from other people later, the world will wait.
Price pacts are when you make it cost you to be yield to the distraction. One idea to illustrate this is something I read from Jason Lengstorf's blog. He agreed with his friends that upon sitting down for dinner, everyone places their phone on the table face down. For the duration of the meal, touching phones is off-limits. The first one to touch their phone pays the bill or does the dishes. That way there's a cost to indulging and that can be a deterrent.
Identity pacts are when you declare yourself to your friends and family as someone who holds a certain identity and doesn't do the thing that you want to stop. When you declare that you are a person who values the time you spend with people so you don't touch your phone when you're with them, people will hold you accountable for your words. They will remind you when you act contrary to your identity. It's an identity you declared for yourself and they will remind you to live up to it. That way, you don't just rely on your own willpower when temptation comes.
Author James Clear agrees with this from a different perspective. In the second chapter of the book "Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones" he speaks extensively about the power of embodying an identity when building habits. I think these quotes sum up the idea well.
True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you'll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don't shift the belief behind the behavior, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. — James Clear
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it actually is big. That's the paradox of making small improvements. — James Clear
Reduce the time you spend taking pictures
We're obsessed with taking pictures and updating our social media friends about where we are and what we are up to. We don't want to wait until later in the evening. We want to do it now. So much that when we get to a place, we spend a lot of time taking pictures and trying to find the perfect shot for the gram.
I'm not against taking pictures, I actually take tonnes of pictures and I really enjoy it. But I think before we think about Instagram, let's spend time taking in the place, taking in the experience and being fully present in that moment, even if it means missing a few photo ops. It will be sad to leave your fancy holiday destination with many amazing pictures but few lasting memories about the place. You saw it, you were there, but you were not really there.
So spend less time taking pictures and more time immersing yourself in the experience.
This all reminds me of Soul — my favourite Pixar movie — and this statement I wrote in a previous issue about one of my big takeaways from the movie.
...[be] fully present in each moment and [enjoy] where [you] are. Slow down and enjoy the little things you walk past every day. Breath in the air, let the rain hit your skin, laugh with friends, take in the view. Those brilliant and vibrant parts of life are just as worthy of celebration as accomplishing our big goals.
Those are the moments that make the experience magical, but you won't notice all that if you're busy looking for the perfect shot or DM'ing people who aren't there with you.
When you try out these things, it's going to make you restless and anxious when you don't have your phone right next to you or when it's off. Especially when others haven't made the same commitment to reducing their usage. You'll notice how many people use their phones when they're with you or with others. You'll get annoyed when they're not fully present with you when you're present with them.
Don't let that turn you into an angry grinch. Go on your own journey and allow them to find their own. Who knows, maybe when they see how present you are for them and others, when they realize how well you listen and how much you pick up on all kinds of cues in conversation. They might be inspired to try what you tried and ask you how they can be like you, then you can direct them to this newsletter. Or if you want to take the boring route and tell them that you put your phone down and claimed back your humanity.
Looking at where I come from, I've already made some significant milestones when it comes to my phone usage when I'm with people. I rarely touch it. If I'm out with you and you see me do it, remind me. But I want to make more changes. Starting today, I will fall asleep to a book instead of my phone and I will start charging my phone in a separate room overnight so that it's not the first thing I check in the morning. They're not massive changes but they're meaningful minor improvements to me. What are you going to do to reclaim your humanity?
Finally, let me close with Gary Turk's famous 'Look Up' spoken word poem. Describing the poem, he says, "...in a world where we continue to find ways to make it easier for us to connect with one another, but always results in us spending more time alone." If you didn't check any of the other things I referenced, please check this one.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.