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You have my (un)divided attention

Setting the scene(s)

  1. You walk into your 09:30 meeting and greet your co-workers. As you sit down, you pull your phone out of your pocket and place it on the table in front of you.

  2. You walk into one of your favorite after work bars to meet up with a couple friends. You exchange some pleasantries, handshakes/hugs and sit down, pull your phone out and place it on the table or bar-top in front of you.

All too often anymore, professional and social gatherings begin with a step in the process that didn't exist before. You've taken the time to get together with your [best friend], just the two of you... and your two smartphones. Something I learned a little more than a year ago has been hard to forget. MIT researcher Sherry Turkle is able to showing that when you place a phone out in the open during a conversation, even if you're not using it, you decrease the empathy during that exchange. Because in a way what we're saying, "just in case something more important than this conversation comes up." It of course decreases even more if you actually use it.

Since learning this and observing it day-to-day, its become hard to not find myself asking myself when someone looks down at it, "is that really more important?" And I'm far from absolving myself. While I never place my phone out in the open anymore, there are still times I feel a vibration in my pocket and I find myself reflexively checking it to see what I need to know. Most of the time its someone informing me they're running five minutes late or something funny but not crucial to know in the moment.

I think its time we work to turn down the distractions and get back to what's in front of us. But where do we start?

  • Turn off all/most of the notifications on your phone. Do we really need to know every time someone comments on a social media post or our favorite team scores in a game? Does every email warrant an update on your home screen?

  • When you head out to meet friends, leave your phone in your car or shift it to "do not disturb". "But what if they're running late?", we might think. Message them prior and say, "looking forward to seeing you at [insert time here]. If you're running a few minutes late, no big deal."

  • The next time you're in line at the grocery store, waiting for someone to meet you at a coffee shop or someone you're with checks their phone and you feel yourself reach for yours.... take a breath and don't check it. Everybody LOVES to talk about "mindfulness" these days. If you want to practice it, this is an easy way.

Questions to ask yourself today and in the future

  • When was the last time my phone went off during a meeting or social gathering and it was something that required immediate attention? Was the thing we learned or responded to important or did we elevate it to that status?

  • When you're out with friends or you're talking to a co-worker and they're staring at their phone, do you feel like they're prioritizing their phone over you? Are you now looking at your phone because they're looking at theirs?

  • We like to bemoan the next generation as lacking social skills but aren't we modeling this behavior for them through our own actions?

Final thought

Panic sets in when we begin to think, "well what if my friend/parent texts me and its an emergency?" While this is possible, its a rarity. The other thing to remember is we've allowed text messaging and notification to become an instant feedback loop. "How can [Sarah] not have looked at their phone in the last 30 minutes?! I mean come on!" A while back I was surveying friends and family for quotes that had inspired them. My mother's friend Debbie Van Horn said to me her is, "we teach other people how to treat us." What she meant by that is, if we're the person who always responds to texts in 30 seconds, that's what our friends will expect. But if we choose to change our behavior, our friends and family's expectations of that will slowly change too. Especially if you inform everyone of the change, "hey guys I'm trying to be less dependent on my phone. If you need me urgently get in touch with me [this way]."

I'm not calling for removal of these devices. Only that we honor the time we spend with others by showing them respect and teaching ourselves the discipline of delaying the instant gratification offered by Facebook like and text message pings.

Go Forth Boldly

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