I’m old enough to remember a time when most of our current technology was simply a fantasy. Over the years, technological advancements have crashed upon us like waves on a beach. Nowadays, it happens so quickly we’re fine to accept new technology without a second thought.
I remember my nephew visiting my apartment on campus in the early 2000’s. He was three years old and absolutely fascinated by the strange curly cord attached to my telephone. Fast forward and now I have a three year-old of my own who’s never seen a curly phone cord and is awestruck by things like a busy signal. “What, why can’t they just answer the other line? Can’t they see we are calling? Where’s the video?”
While as an adult you may recall how things used to be, I imagine you’re as accustomed to the convenience of our current resources as any child. I know if I had to revert back to dial-up internet my patience would definitely be tested. In fact, working on this book with my editor would probably be next-to-impossible, or simply not worth the hassle. We’re so used to having information at our fingertips that we take it for granted. Really, why wouldn’t we? Whether it’s to connect with someone, to check in with “Dr. Google” to assess all our aches and pains, or to solve important problems like “what was that book again?” or “was the actor who played Captain America the same guy from She’s All That?” (Yes, yes it was.) We don’t sit with ourselves or with others for more than a few moments before we grab our device to ‘research’ the answers to our most recent and pressing inquiries. Our attention spans and ability to tolerate the unknown is being seriously called into question.
Have you ever found yourself in the kitchen with the fridge door open and wondered to yourself ‘what was I getting again?’ It took thirty seconds, maybe a few minutes max, for you to actually get to your refrigerator, so what happened to the thought? Same thing happens with your personal connection to technology. Most of us grab our device with some type of pre-determined purpose, say sending one email. But the moment that gadget is in our hand we go into autopilot routine… you complete one task, then you check an app, then another, perhaps a third… you race around this path in the same order, often multiple times. Each time I pick up my phone I find myself circling through and checking each of my email accounts even if I had just checked them moments earlier. Sometimes - ok all the time - I end up lost and thinking ‘what was I doing again?’
So, in the moment when the device is in your hand and you start the cycle through all your apps, ask yourself: who’s in charge - you or your device? How much time do you lose in this struggle with technology and your own patterns of behaviour?
In their 2015 song Spirits, the Strumbellas croon “...and I don’t want a never ending life, I just want to be alive while I’m here.” Sure, this is a small dose of irony considering most people use the internet to listen to the majority of their music these days. But this book is all about irony!
The point is that plugging into the world wide web and our devices means we’re often not present to what’s right in front of us in the real world. Real life is visceral, tangible, and it’s happening to you this moment. Are you really living while you’re here? And what did I want from the fridge anyway?!
Mindful Connection & the Switch Cost
Recent research shows people spend nearly 50% of their waking hours thinking of something other than what they are doing. This mind-wandering often makes them unhappy. Consider for a moment: are you good at imagining things? If you’re like the majority of adults I chat with, you may believe that imagining ends with childhood play. But what if I asked if you’re good at worrying? Guess what, same deal - you’re just imagining the worst!
Let’s consider this reality in relation to social media. You may argue that while scrolling through Facebook you’re truly thinking about scrolling through Facebook, but in reality you’re likely caught tumbling down a digital rabbit hole hungry for the next chunk of useless information. And it’s likely little to none of what you are taking in is directly relevant to your life or improving your happiness.
There are many definitions of mindfulness, but for now, let’s use the one proposed by John Kabat-Zinn who says “mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.” Many of us feel like we don’t have time to be mindful, which is a depressing thought when you think about it. With long to-do lists and the sense of being pulled in multiple directions, who wants to add one more task? If mindfulness was a seated meditation practice requiring specific amounts of time, I may agree. But it isn’t. For many people, the word mindfulness itself conjures images of yogis sitting on mats or practicing in ashrams on the other side of the world. Yet as a practice mindfulness is something that can be applied to anything, even reading these words. As you read, you may notice your mind wander, floating throughout your day, solving problems for a second time before fluttering back down into your present consciousness.
So stick with me.
A wandering mind is a simple product of human nature, and yet we increasingly know the benefits of being able to stay on task and think deeply about a topic. Georgetown University professor Cal Newport flips the focus from distraction to the ability to focus intensely on cognitively demanding tasks; a skill he calls “deep work.” He states it’s “one of the most valuable skills in our economy [and] is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill, you’ll achieve extraordinary results.” Of course your work will benefit, but your personal life will too - heck, wouldn’t your partner like it if you actually had heard what they were sharing instead of zoning out into the void of your phone?
So if the choice is between moving through life being mindless or mindful, I’d imagine you’d pick the latter every time. We’ve all been in those mindless moments where we drive somewhere and realize we aren’t sure how we arrived. The route may be so ingrained that we simply went through the motions. Literally. Yet, in those moments of autopilot, we lose out on what is actually happening in front of us: a smile from someone at the coffee shop, noticing a work opportunity, or worse, perhaps racing through a red light. Mindless living is not a new thing. I imagine even our ancient ancestors had moments where they zoned out during wooly mammoth hunts. Dangerous!
What’s 1 + 1?
If you were with me in a workshop, after some awkward silence, somebody would pipe up and say “two, obviously.” This brave participant would be stating what we all would be thinking, because when we’re presented with something we think we know, we don’t pay attention.
But what if we decided to be curious and engaged instead of running on autopilot. Being mindful, present, and in the moment, allows us to add context to the information we’re absorbing. In this example, what are we adding? People? Apples? Piles of leaves? Because if you add one pile of leaves to another pile of leaves, do you know what you end up with?
Precisely one (1) pile of leaves. So, 1 + 1 actually = 1!
When you think you know what’s going on, you don’t look. And when you don’t look, you don’t see. And if you don’t look or see, you’re not thriving.
Today, in the bright era of a technologically-powered future, it’s imperative we learn how to navigate the mindless manners we use to engage with technology and social media.
The digital age has us bouncing from task to task checking in on everything from which we can absorb information. While multitasking is something in which many of us find great pride, the reality is that switching tasks is difficult for our brains to manage. Our engine (our brain) is only meant to handle so much while performing at optimal levels. Our mental juggling may seem like a powerful skill on the surface but it comes with an associated ‘switch cost’. This cost results in increased errors and decreased productivity. This is especially important during complicated tasks. So, while I may feel confident that I can talk on the phone, check my email, consult social media feeds, and make dinner, the likelihood is that I should not do all those things if the discussion on the phone is important or requires heightened attention.
At the very least, juggling these tasks will probably result in one or more being completed less than adequately. Think of it like being a digital jack-of-all-trades, yet a master of none.
Over-cooking dinner or not listening to the voice on the other end of the phone isn’t necessarily dangerous, but as I’m sure we can all appreciate, being distracted in the wrong situation could have drastic consequences. For instance, losing just a half second of time to task switching can make a life-or-death difference for a driver on a cell phone traveling at 30 MPH. This switch cost is dear indeed.
What does it all mean? Once again, back to mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to practice the skill of committing to and being present in the moment.
Think of mindfulness as something you can apply to things you’re already doing. In other words, it might not be that you’re too busy to be mindful, but rather, you have too much going on not to be mindful.
Further Research & Sources
Bradt, S. (November, 11, 2010). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York, United States of America: Hyperion.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world. Lebanon, United States of America: Grand Central Publishing: Hachette Book Group.
American Psychological Association. (March 20, 2006). Multitasking: Switching Costs. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx