Push: Mastering Distraction (Part 1)
Habits of attention in an age of distraction
I don't know if I'm truly addicted, but the benefits of my smartphone no longer outweigh its costs and I’m reevaluating my always-on relationship with the internet.
Smartphone addiction doesn’t only look like someone hunched over a tiny screen for most of their waking hours, it also looks like distraction, fragmented attention, and options of least resistance. Granted, all this existed before smartphones but since I’ve begun questioning my habits I’ve become convinced that smartphones fundamentally alter the equation. I’m not just distracted; I’m less present and struggle to give people and tasks the attention they deserve and require—I’ve changed.
Anxious, distracted, and overwhelmed
My smartphone and the internet aren’t bad things. They’re great tools for all kinds of tasks, but just because they’re useful tools doesn’t mean they’re benign or even neutral. What makes a smartphone useful is also what makes it extremely dangerous: an internet-connected smartphone is a conduit. It doesn’t just do a thing; it does tons of things, and does them while tethered to all of my relationships and responsibilities. The worst part is all the software is designed to get me to use it as much as possible.
If this isn’t an overwhelming prospect, then, like me, you probably believe functional omniscience and omnipresence are both possible and good. That’s a lie, though, and one that only serves to hook us into a self-defeating cycle. If I have to know all the things, keep up with all the things, and be available to everyone (and they to me), then I can’t help but enslave myself to the only tool which makes this a possibility.
If you don’t agree, that’s fine. I’d love to hear from you about how to have a healthier relationship with smartphones and the internet. Leave a comment at the bottom—Facebook won’t know what we’re talking about and maybe we’ll make blogs great again.
But for those who know there’s a problem, I have a few suggestions for how to push back against distraction without going off the grid (yet).
Resist: Short-term detox
Notifications are not your friend, unless friends are defined by utter disrespect. By default, they’re on, fuel anxiety, and unaware of your humanity. What can be done?
- Shut off notifications for Social Networks. The average person checks Facebook 14 times a day which means that mention or photo tag isn’t going to go unseen for more than a hour. Relax. If this makes you sweat, leave on the app badge counter on.
- Build vibration patterns for notifications from people. Sometimes the phone can just stay in your pocket; finish that conversation. (Insert photo)
- Better yet, shut off vibration and alert tones for anything except texts and calls.I’ve already been trained to compulsively check my phone, I don’t need to be prompted.
- Shut off notifications for nearly every app. Make some hard decisions. Are the breaking news alerts necessary? Most apps are just trying to get your eyes on their service (does anyone need to notified about who someone else followed on Twitter?—no. The answer is no).
Out of necessity I also keep notifications on for my email app, but I use one which filters out notifications for emails not flagged as “important”.
This is may not be for everyone, but it’s been an interesting experiment. For me.
I shut off autocorrect as a test and I learned something. I’m almost physically incapable of using my smartphone for it’s intended purpose without the help of software. I can’t type as quickly as a want without typing out gibberish…which just proves to me that Ishouldn’t be typing that fast.
With autocorrect off (and few custom text replacements for contractions, etc.) I type more slowly; as slowly as I need. Being forced to slow down this way reminds me of my limits and it regularly forces me to take a breath, think, and communicate on a more human scale.
I leave spellcheck on; I’m not an animal.
This one is specific to having my phone nearby while working. It’s a small thing but for someone who is very visually aware it’s helpful.
Most phones have accessibility settings which allow the screen colour to be set to grayscale. This can be assigned to the home button on an iPhone to be activated and deactivated by a triple click.
The red notification badges and other screen activity are a lot less distracting in black and white—also, the world’s colours seem a little brighter.
Lift to wake
I enjoyed this convenience when it first came out. But since I’ve started assessing my phone usage I’ve changed my mind.
I found myself sneaking a look for notifications whenever the screen lit up, even when I had no conscious intention to check. Just picking up my phone became an opportunity for distraction in moments when I was simply moving it around.
It’s off now and I don’t miss it.
Tracking Screen time
This is the place to start if you’re skeptical. When I started tracking my screen time using the Moment app I realized how compulsive my usage ways. I was picking up my phone nearly 100 times a day and spent hours of bottomless sites like Facebook and Instagram. Maybe you read long-form journalism on your, but I wasn’t.
Try the app. It’s free and it’ll help you diagnose the problem.
Feedless & News Feed Eradicator
Get rid of worst part of most social media—the endless scroll of content that mostly makes you sad!
News Feed Eradicator is a browser extension that replaces your news feed with a quote and Feedless does the same on iPhones (by deleting the app and restricting Facebook to the mobile browser). By doing this, I’ve restricted my access to Facebook and other sites) to my homebound tablet, and making my work laptop and my ever-present smartphone a lot less seductive.
Resisting distraction is only the first step, because breaking bad habits is only possible when they’re replaced with good one. Check out “Push“ Part 2: Embracing Attention (coming soon).
The Binge Breaker - This is an eye-opening article about a former Google project manager who claims software designers exploit our psychological weaknesses.
In 2017, Key Facebook builders disowned their creation - When the builders start saying, "what have we done?" it's definitely time to ask ourselves, "what are we doing?"
Facebook Owes You More Than You Think - Less about smartphone addiction and more about the extremely bad deal of giving away our privacy in exchange for a social platform.
Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future - Again, tangentially related, but a very interesting exploration of what's required to take back ownership of the internet from "platforms" like Facebook, Google, etc.