I am watching House Of Cards when it starts.
Francis and Claire are having an argument when the phone hisses with the sound of my inbox updating. My right-hand grabs it up almost without any conscious thought. Now I am holding my phone when I didn’t even want to be. Suddenly I am typing an email I didn’t set out to write. A notification drops into my screen from one of the 14 active (hyperactive really) WhatsApp groups on my phone. I follow the message away from the email and into a message containing a clip from YouTube. I watch the clip which sends me on a deep Google tangent which covers such wide-ranging topics as what to eat for a flatter stomach (yawn) to what Kevin Spacey’s first film role was. I notice I barely finish reading each article before I am being drawn on to the next one. I finally look up to the House of Cards credits rolling. What happened?
FOMO, the fear of missing out is well documented at this stage and FOBO, the fear of burnout is clearly on the rise among a generation that is living at breakneck speeds. I find am not even enjoying the endless updates but to not check them is seemingly not an option. Similarly even while writing this article, I am flicking constantly between 14 different tabs I have open in my browser. I am suffering from something that feels like brain nausea.
As columnist Thomas Friedman outlines in his latest book, Thank You For Being Late, we have entered an age of acceleration, everything we consume is instantaneous, meaning our attention span is famously hitting an all-time low of 8-seconds – last year Microsoft released this finding after surveying media consumption in Canada. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had a bleak pronouncement on the future: “The true scarce commodity will be “human attention.” Friedman maintains that in order to cope with this new unfamiliar and constantly evolving landscape “nations and individuals must learn to be fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise and accessing their deepest values).”
Attention span is basically giving something focus for a significant amount of time but I feel, at this point, as though I am only really aware of this on an academic level because really it is basically impossible for me to relax for any length of time without itching to snatch up my smartphone.
It is a compulsion. A compulsion that is making us actually sick. Dr. Richard Graham, a psychologist specialising in technology addiction at Nightingale Hospital told The Telegraph that our devices are creating huge anxiety for users who spend between 10-15 hours a day on average engaged with a screen through which we are bombarded with notifications, updates and heavily curated representations of the lives of those around us. “There’s the terrible feeling that the person is ignoring you,” he says. “Young people have to manage feeling excluded by people that are very important to them.” We are even sleeping with our phones and studies have shown that exposure to our screens is sabotaging our sleep by depressing melatonin levels. One study by the American Psychological Association suggests that the “mere presence” of a smartphone is reducing our ability to concentrate.
Of course, we’ve heard all about how the digital noise is affecting our well-being but that hasn’t stopped us, has it? I have tried to make an effort to not be on my phone in front of my children. However, this strategy has lead to my hiding on the phone in the kitchen, in the car, in the toilet. You know who else hides problem behaviours? Addicts, that’s who. Living Slow is one way to attempt to fight the addiction, advocates advise unplugging from your device by turning off notifications or keeping the phone on airplane mode when you are not using it, but when are we not using them?!
I went deep-internet (where else) in search of a new strategy and came across the writing of author, Cal Newport (Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World) who advocates digital minimalism, basically a Marie Kondo approach for the technological engagement that is apparently so unavoidable in the accelerated age.
Newport describes ‘reshaping Facebook’ as a strategy to push back against the platform which Newton describes as “a source of engineered distraction sprinkled with injections of social inadequacy and annoyance”.
“Facebook pushes the mobile application mainly because it allows them to monetize your time and attention in places that advertisers previously could not reach — standing in line, bored in a meeting, waiting for the metro. This is great news for Facebook investors, but bad news for those trying to maintain some autonomy over their time and attention,” Newport writes.
I took this approach a few months ago and removed Facebook from my phone and while it was a pleasant break from the app, it hasn’t stopped me endlessly checking my Twitter and Insta feeds.
Many die-hard digi-minimalists have gone one further and swapped their smartphones for the old-school Nokia in a bid to wrest back their focus but I don’t think this is realistic for many of us who need smartphones for work. Instead, I’m going to ‘park’ my phone in the hall at night when I get home from work and experiment with having my hands and my attention back to myself.
Do you struggle with digital bombardment? What kind of strategies do you employ to combat the digital noise?