On Distraction | Day 73 of 100

4min read

I was recently recommended a new series of podcasts, embedded below. The topic of the episode I listened to today was 'distraction', which sparked my own thoughts and connections to previous thoughts adjacent to the topic. The podcast, hosted by Niall Breslin, explores a range of topics from a mindfulness angle.

This episode talks about smartphones, as a key weapon of the attention economy, and the barrage of distracting notifications they bring. Continuing by examining the impact on our cognitive load by spreading ourselves thin through distraction. There are a range of guests including Prof. Charles Spence, an Oxford University experimental psychologist. Charles talks a bit about his work, including the control people do/do not have over their smartphones.

A comparison Prof. Spence made was between smartphones and other addictive technologies, inferring that smartphones are more addictive than the television for example because they are much closer to us and in our personal space. We can take them with us rather than walk away from it like the TV. Being a sensory psychologist focusing on how we perceive the world, we can understand his point of view. Personally, I agree with him and in the last year have habitually put physical distance between myself and my phone to avoid distraction. This offers a very clear cut solution to our distracting phone checking habit by removing the cue. But as we know from Atomic habits there is more to habits than just the cue.

Complexities come into play for our distracting smartphone habit in the craving and reward sections of our Cue >> Craving >> Response >> Reward loop of habits. Smartphones are now more than just a physical distraction that we touch and watch and listen to. They now have the ability to embody ourselves in the virtual world. The key difference for me between a smartphone and a TV is that a TV is a one-way stream of information. On the other hand, the smartphone has the ability to take a bit of us as well, making it a two-way stream. The articles we like, posts we comment on, and emails we send all become fragments of our lives which we have given up in order to digest and give back. We have now invested effort in our smartphones, given something to it in which we expect something in return.

The reality of the trade is deeper than transactional. Our smartphones can now hold virtual representations of ourselves in the form of carefully curated Instagram pages, fondly shared Facebook posts and the social balancing acts of group chats. We now have the burden of nurturing and caring for a second life for ourselves, where the repercussions can manifest IRL. We are more than just physically attached, we are now emotionally and socially attached too. Something that Prof. Spence doesn't quite appreciate as he has never owned a smartphone himself.

Often with habits, controlling the cue controls the action. But in the case of smartphones, I think the craving and response play more poignant roles than most other cases. That being said, the only way I removed the distractions, the FOMO and the emotional attachment was to make the attention sapping culprits distant in the physical realm. Deleting apps and accounts, setting usage timers and leaving my phone far out of reach at night. In doing this, as with any break-up, the divide begins to solidify, your focus begins to shift, and time heals the wounds.