Do you ever feel like you are less focused than you once used to be? Is your attention span shrinking?
What do you do in those seemingly “dead” minutes while waiting for the bus or a friend to show up before a date? How do you spend those 15 minutes between awaking and actually getting out bed, those moments spent standing by the stove waiting for the soup to heat?
My hand automatically reaches to my iPhone and wherever Facebook ushers me. There comes a sudden curiosity to Google “cooking with fresh turmeric” when I don’t even have turmeric—or hold that thought! Let me look up how to spell infinitesimal, because why not do that right now, in the middle of the street, as wait for a green light?
Lately I notice that my concentration scattered. I check my email in the middle of writing an essay, answer Facebook messages half way into a book, and before I know it, I am reading about the latest adventures of ISIS or watching a TED video on body language.
Recently, I wrote about “flow,” the higher mental state one reaches while engaged in a challenging, goal-oriented activity. “Optimal human experience,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihaly explains, occurs when you are completely focused on doing something that’s not only enjoyable but also challenging.
But how am I meant to focus on anything with infinity in my pocket? The Internet thumps my quest for “flow” on its proverbial head day-by-day, minute by minute. And the biggest culprit for my distracted brain is the smart-phone that seems to have grown into a third hand.
“People spend more time using their phones nowadays than have sex,” my friend Jesse said as I lamented my addiction to the phone a few weeks ago.
Despite this awareness of the time I daily waste scrolling the touch screen, I couldn’t curb my use. A few months ago, I deleted Facebook from my phone. I felt immediate relief but the bliss lasted only a day before I logged in from Chrome. I was now wasting time in a less user-friendly environment. Great! Then I deleted Chrome. Obviously, that didn’t work either. I simply continued browsing in the same frequency from Safari.
I am not alone in my frustration. According to a study by Pew Research Center, “67% of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.”
In the past few months, my adventures in deleting applications from my phone inspired a few friends to do the same. Unfortunately, not one of them lasted longer than a few days.
In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, behavioral scientists Winifred Gallagher argues that the quality of your life is directly linked to what you choose to focus on:
The difference between ‘passing the time’ and ‘time well spent’ depends on making smart decisions about what to attend to in matters large and small, then doing so as if your life depended on it. As far as its quality is concerned, it does.
By disrupting my focus, the Internet reduced my quality of life. And the worst of all, I felt it disrupt my writing. Yet committing to a focused life is easier said than done!
The first step is admitting the problem, in other words, acknowledging that I am at risk for turning into a mindless monkey with incontrollable fingers. The “simply don’t use your phone so much” method obviously did not work for me (or my friends). To wane myself off this addiction I either had to cut off my hands, move to Cuba and become an anti-Internet activist, or downgrade to a “stupid phone.”
How to dumb down your phone
I decided to make the switch to a stupid phone. Luckily my sister had one of those dinosaurs laying around. But my new dumb-phone sat untouched, on my dining table, for weeks. There was resistance. A lot of it. How could I live without Whatsapp? And what if I got lost in a foreign neighborhood and needed Google Maps? How would I part from Spotify? As my sister’s old phone gathered dust on the table, I continued to lead an unfocused life, the urge to scroll time away unabated.
And I had other excuses too… I couldn’t seem to transfer my contacts to the simcard. Did you know that iPhones have this dim deficiency in not allowing transfer of contacts to SIM??? Shocking, I know!
Another week passed as my dumb phone and I developed a mutual staring relationship whereby I called it stupid and it said nothing back. Meanwhile, I developed “smartphone thumb.” (It’s a thing. Google it.) The iPhone had to be eradicated, and not just for my mental, but physical health.
In observing my pathetic state, my friend Nirah came to my rescue: “I will manually transfer your top 30 contacts to your dumb phone. So stop complaining and let’s get to it!”
But it wasn’t two minutes into the deed that Nirah said, “Did you know that this phone has Internet abilities as well?”
Turns out in all those weeks of distant parley with my dumb phone, I hadn’t even turned it on to check! I sank deep into desperation in realizing that we now live in a world where dumb phones are smart.
Did I actually have to use willpower to eradicate my addiction? That would be like trying to quit smoking while carrying a pack of cigarettes.
Thankfully, I found this article on Gizmodo about a fellow who turned his iPhone into the dumb-phone of his dreams by deleting all applications. Apparently there are child-safe restrictions on this damned appliance! Nirah graciously deleted and password protected Facebook, Safari, AppStore, and all other applications that could steal my glow—I mean flow!
At the moment, I have the best of both worlds. I still use utility applications like Google Maps, Waze, Dictionary, Spotify etc. But my phone cannot browse, check email, or enter any social media application.
Reactions to dumbing down my phone were mixed. Most of my friends could not understand why I stripped my phone off its precious functions.
“How are we supposed to reach you?” many asked. Well, you can call me, SMS me, email me… I’m the least bit unreachable and the wonders of the Internet in its entire splendor are still available from my computer.
As Jesse said, “there is so much unstimulating over-information turning us into judgmental non-thinkers. Since I stopped using social media besides basic chat and communication, I’ve gotten out of my house more, finished long-over due projects in a matter of hours, and most importantly, I can think clearer and focus.”
Smartphone overuse has already become an epidemic. As we lose our ability to focus and deal with boredom or loneliness, we console ourselves by listing the ways our smartphones ease our lives and increase productivity. For those of us with friends and family scattered around the world, the lure of social media grows even greater. However, the Internet cannot trump the pleasure or necessity of face-to-face contact with fellow humans.
Limiting Internet use by restriction is only a part cure. The only way to fight this epidemic—as with fighting all addictions—is through building community. This animated video “Everything We Know About Addiction is Wrong” based on Johann Hari’s Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs sums it up pretty well:
Human beings have an innate need to bond and connect. When we are happy and healthy we will bond with the people around us. But when we can’t because we are traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that gives us some sense of relief. It may be endlessly checking a smartphone, it might be pornography, video games, reddit, gambling, or it may be cocaine. But we will bond with something, because that is our human nature.
I have thus prescribed myself two-tiered cure: a stupified iPhone and more time with friends! It’s been two weeks since the switch and for the first time in years, I am not falling asleep to my newsfeed. I’ll let you know how it goes…
P.S. After various communication mishaps due to SMS messages that got lost in the abyss of telecommunications, I made an exception to allow whatsapp on my phone. Otherwise, my phone remains as dumb as it gets. Meanwhile, I am still working on limiting distractions while on my laptop.