I run a lot of experiments on myself – especially when they’re too difficult or time-consuming to run on other people :) – and I’ve already done several at the intersection of my attention and my smart phone. A little over a year ago I changed the settings on my iPhone to literally make me aware of every single email that landed in my inbox. I set different audible alerts for emails vs text messages vs phone calls vs incoming tweets, etc. I even set different vibration patterns for each so that I would know what was going on even if my phone was in my pocket. The motivation at the time was to never miss anything, to never be unaware of anything that was happening. I even signed up for some ridiculous alerts like receiving an email every time there was an earth quake above a 4.5 magnitude. I quickly discovered one annoying issue: My phone would wake me up in the middle of the night or just as I was falling asleep. So I turned on do-not-disturb hours from around 11pm – 7am (not that I’m ever awake that early). Problem solved.
The short-term results were interesting. I felt very up-to-date on everything and I knew things before other people did – which of course made me feel special for a few moments. That good feeling was a little reward and so I became accustomed to receiving a little dopamine release every time I checked my phone to see what the newest alert meant. Because I was being rewarded, I continued the experiment for several months.
The long-term results were not so positive. The trigger that finally forced me to end the experiment was that I noticed that when I was sitting down with a friend, client, or colleague, I found myself constantly distracted by these constant interactions. In some 60-minute meetings I might get 60 notifications. Being distracted while face to face with another person has several downsides, but the one that struck me the most was a feeling of guilt. Here we are, two people who have carved time out of our busy schedules to meet up and my little glowing rectangle is beeping and buzzing like a bumble-bee that won’t leave you alone. My allowing the constant interactions was simply rude and I felt guilty about it.
So I did something about it. I’d silence my phone when I sat down with someone. This was a great solution. I had the best of both worlds – feeling up-to-date most of the time, but not being rude while I was face-to-face with someone. Often I’d forget to silence my phone and so it would inevitable buzz and beep during the first few minutes of any meeting and so I developed the habit of very intentionally silencing my phone in front of the other person immediately. This often caused the other person to silence their phone as well – which was great.
But after a few months of this another problem crept up. I’d have these days where I’d look back and realize that I’d spent hours on my phone. I’d receive some notification about an event – for example the Boston Marathon bombing. I’d read a few tweets, study a few pictures, search for a few hashtags, and generally obsess over the topic. After I’d exhausted all of the recent information, I’d put my phone down and get back to whatever I was doing before I was distracted. And then 90 seconds later… BUZZZ.. Oh, something new happened! And I’d be right back in the rabbit hole. Hours would go by and I would get nothing done. A simple task might drag on for days and again I’d feel guilty. I wasn’t getting enough done and it was my own damn fault.
Occasionally I would muster the discipline to mute my phone. But it would still vibrate. So I’d place it on something soft or move it far away so I wouldn’t feel the buzz. This gave me a break sometimes but I soon realized it wasn’t enough. So I continued to tweak the parameters of my experiment.
I took a big step one day and turned off the vibration when my phone was silenced. So if I was muted, I’d really be muted. No sound, no vibration, no distraction. And then almost immediately after I changed this setting, I started always leaving my phone muted. I’d go days without hearing a single noise from it. I liked this. I felt as if I’d found a new equilibrium. If I wanted to know what was going on with all my emails, tweets, and notifications, I could simply look at the screen and choose to dive deeper or not. I did this for several months and I felt pretty good about it.
Until, once again I realized that I was being distracted by this damn glowing rectangle. I’d have my phone next to me on my desk and I’d see the screen flash a new message came in silently. My head and eyes would automatically turn towards my phone to assess the threat just as you turn in the direction of a lightening strike on a story night – even though there’s nothing to see anymore. So if I needed to concentrate, I’d turn my phone face down or put it out of sight so I couldn’t see the screen.
But still I was distracted. I’d periodically reach for my phone after a sprint of concentration and I’d often fall down the rabbit hole again. I had made progress, but eventually I understood that I needed to take more drastic measures. So last week I decided to swing almost all the way to the opposite side of the spectrum from where I’d started. I didn’t throw my phone away or anything, but I did turn off nearly all notifications so that now I really only see my missed calls and messages and I have to seek out distractions instead of actively inviting them into my world.
This past week has been great. There’s no buzzing or beeping and the only visuals I see are the occasional phone call and text message – which are typically at least an order of magnitude more important and more urgent than an email, tweet, or other notification. I should note that it wasn’t hard to change these settings and that I don’t miss the distractions at all.
I think this experiment is over. It’s been over a year – one of my longest experiments – and I’ve learned a lot. My #1 takeaway is something that we all know, at least at an intellectual level: When we do things that don’t align with our values, we feel bad.
But what does that have to do with distractions and concentration? It’s simple: I value my ability to solve difficult problems and the concentration, focus, and struggle that’s required to solve most interesting problems. I also value information – but only when it’s relevant, timely, and something that I can act upon. Most information fails these criteria and therefore isn’t valuable to me. When my real values lost battle after battle with my simple doberman brain, I felt guilt – guilt for not living up to my potential, and for not being intentional in both my work and my play.
Most distractions are a choice and I hope I’ve learned not only to choose more wisely, but also to stack the deck in my favor – especially when it comes to environmental variables that are within my control (namely, my little beeping, buzzing, glowing rectangle).
Hope this is helpful, bellay