Late last year I hit a wall. For reasons unknown to me then, I couldn’t seem to break through plateaus in a few aspects of my life including my business, my fitness and several close relationships.
Around the same time, a good friend of mine, who I consider to be very ‘connected’ (and I don’t mean from a networking perspective) shared a piece of wisdom during a conversation: ‘The Devil is in the Distraction.’
Initially I didn’t quite know what he meant, but I knew that what he had said was important and was related to my then circumstances in some way.
You know when someone says something to you and it penetrates straight to your core - usually it’s an instinct (or a small voice) that tells you to pay attention to what you’ve just heard because the message is specifically important for you. Well it felt like that.
I took note of it and reflected on it for a while but I couldn’t figure out exactly how it related and within a few days I had forgotten about it.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I was on a flight to Chicago. It was one of those that have wi-fi on board - what a time to be alive. Unfortunately my phone battery was dead and I didn’t have the charging cable with me, so I had to go a whole 3 hours without it.
Seated next to me was a young man, about 25 years old. He’d wisely remembered to bring his charging cable and I watched enviously as he plugged in his phone and jacked himself into the matrix.
By the time we had taken off I’d finished with the in-flight magazine and was already becoming bored. The guy next to me was leaning forwards with his elbows on the tray-table, his head resting on the seat-back in front of him and holding his iPhone ten inches from his face.
I didn’t mean to snoop, but I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the screen. What I saw was intriguing, albeit disturbing. I watched him repeat an endless loop, cycling between Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Web browser, Messaging. He’d switch between each of them every few seconds or so, type something, and then switch again. I swear he did this for the entire 3 hour flight - he didn’t look up from that screen more than a couple of times, not even when the cabin crew offered him a drink.
I remember thinking ‘This is literally a mental illness. It’s a purely compulsive behavior.’ I then self-righteously congratulated myself on the fact that my phone use, while heavy, was nothing like his.
The next morning, when my alarm went off, as was my routine at the time, the first thing I did was pick up my phone and check my email. And then my instagram. And then my facebook. And then my messages. And then the weather app. And then back to Facebook…and in a flash of insight I could see outside of myself and realized that I was ill. That this was the ‘Devil’ that was sapping me of energy and perspective and preventing me from progressing on so many levels.
We have entered a new world. It is characterized by the flow of and instantaneous access to an almost unimaginable amount of information. With this comes immense opportunity but also severe pitfalls.
The masters of this new world will not be those who are able to process the highest volume of this information or parse it the most quickly. It will be those who are most able to block it out.
Everything useful, admirable and aspirational in the human world was created by people who were able to channel their attention and direct it towards worthy tasks for sustained periods of time. And as a species we are rapidly losing that ability.
All of our infrastructure, all of our inspired art, all of the systems that have allowed us to prosper and for civilization to emerge - every single one of them was, without exception, created by men and women who were able to focus for long periods. They were not made by people glued to Candy Crush Saga or checking instagram sixty times per day.
Your attention is arguably your most precious asset - just as valuable as your health and even more so than your time. Your ability to focus this attention is inextricably linked to your ability to achieve the goals and dreams you have for your life. Here’s a truth: You will not write that book, build that business or master that skill without it. It just won’t happen.
But this attention is a finite and fragile resource. It must be carefully cultivated and then well-guarded. Because the world we currently inhabit is set up to steal it from you at every turn.
There are millions of attention parasites, constantly reaching their tendrils towards your psyche. The constant onslaught of advertising, the demands of the workplace and career, the endless variables and complexities of modern life - from the minute you set foot outside you are assaulted by them relentlessly.
Your home used to be the natural refuge from these attention thieves. With the exception of the television and it’s incessant noise and distraction, it was a place where you could find a degree of peace in an increasingly rushed world. But now the thieves have been invited in to our homes. They sit next to our beds, ready to feed off our mental energy from the moment we open our eyes until the moment we close them.
Eventually you cannot appreciate the depth of anything because you spend most of your waking time looking at something with literally no depth - a 2-dimensional imitation of life.
But most of us can’t see it. We can’t see that looking at a screen for hours and hours each day is a compulsion. We cannot explore the depth of anything because we are always swimming in the shallows of the novelty of comments, likes and status updates. Their chimes and red icons and are the drug to which we are addicted. And make no bones about it, we are utterly addicted.
If we plot human endeavors on a spectrum on one end we have activities which cultivate our powers of attention and enable us to enter into a flow-state. These are usually challenging and include things like meditation, creative work or playing a musical instrument. To do any of them properly requires total absorption and immersion in the task at hand.
On the other end of the spectrum we have activities that offer no challenge, splinter our focus and leave us feeling hollow and unfulfilled. Examples of these are slot machines, soap-operas and tabloid newspapers. Where do you think cycling through social media apps on a mobile phone falls?
If what I’ve said hasn’t convinced you of the need to get a handle on this, you should know that the addiction also hurts others. When you look at your phone when you’re with people, you are sending a very clear message to them: “Whatever or whoever I am interacting with on this screen is more important to me than your company with me here right now.” Instead of truly listening to them and taking in all the subtleties of the interaction, you give the majority of your presence to your lifeless electronic shackle and the living being in front of you gets the dregs.
You think will miss out on something if you are not constantly checking your friends feeds. But the truth is you miss out on something by checking them. You miss out on life. Life isn’t happening inside that little beeping brick. What you see on that screen is an abstraction of life, vastly inferior and pale in comparison to the real thing.
Can’t you see the insanity of it? This tiny device has been allowed to dictate your behavior and monopolize your attention for years. When it ‘calls’ with a beep or a ring, you answer. You might not always pick up, but you engage with it and placate it in some way or another. With the exception of your children, spouse and in some (unhealthy) cases your boss, who or what else has that kind of power over you?
There was a point, not too long ago, where you didn’t have a smart phone. And yet everything still got done. You moved through life with your head held high, looking at the world - noticing things and people and nature. You got the information you needed by asking others or using your senses. If you wanted to know if it was cold day you went outside and felt the air against your skin - instead of checking a number in the weather app.
Am I saying you should get rid of your smart phone? Of course not. I’m not a luddite by any means - in all honesty I’m a technology freak. I love electronics and gadgets more than just about anyone. I know that these devices are astoundingly useful and give us access to abilities that a hundred years ago would be classed as wizardry. You cannot function at your peak potential in the modern world without them. But remember - it is your tool. And when it compromises your relationships, your awareness of the present moment and your ability to concentrate, it’s no longer serving you.
If any of this resonates with you, you might want to consider practicing what I call ‘Conscious Disconnection’.
Consciously disconnecting just means reclaiming parts of your day from your phone, by going without it.
Start with little things. Don’t take it with you sometimes when you leave the house. Or turn it off at certain time in the evening until the next morning. Or make an agreement with yourself that you won’t turn it on until at least 30 minutes after you have woken up. When you’re with others don’t place it on the table in the front of you. Put it on airplane mode and hide it in your pocket or your bag. And make a commitment that you won’t touch it until your time with them is finished.
“But what will I do without my phone? What if someone has to contact me in an emergency? I need Google Maps to get around. How will I see the news?”
Guess what. It’s almost never, ever an emergency. You can get around by using your senses and exerting the mental effort required to take note of landmarks or plan your route in advance. Just like your ancestors did who mapped the world using only the stars. And don’t even get me started on the news. It’s generally toxic, sensationalist bullshit that has almost no bearing on your life - you’re better off without it.
What it ultimately comes down to is this: The more time you spend staring at your mobile phone, the less happy you will be. It really is that simple.
Since I realized the extent of my addiction several months ago, I’ve made a sustained effort to gain control over my phone usage and I’ve drastically cut down on my screen time.
I can tell you wholeheartedly that almost every single part of my human experience has improved since doing so and that I’m absolutely certain it’ll be the same for you. I’m not trying to take something away from you. I just want to give you something back. There’s a whole world happening out there. Don’t miss it.