How many times a day do you check your phone?
Is it 20 times? Or is it more like 30?
A study done by Dscout last year dug in to find the answer.
They tracked the phone usage of 94 people over a 5 day period to see just how frequently people used their phones.
The experiment uncovered some shocking results.
They found that average users had 76 separate phone sessions per day.
While that alone is staggering, they also found that the heavy users checked their phones on average 132 times!
To take it one step further, the researchers concluded that, on average, the people “tapped, typed, swiped, and clicked” 2617 times a day.
Believe it or not but chances are that you and I probably fit somewhere in the middle.
The worrying part isn’t checking our phones themselves, what’s troublesome is that we are stopping what we are currently doing in order to check them.
Dr. Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of five books about becoming a top performer. In addition, he has a blog dedicated to topics about deepening focus and being more productive. My kind of guy!
As Dr. Newport says in his Ted Talk, our ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare and therefore more valuable.
The reason for this, he says, is that today we are being trained to break up our attention.
Just like the people in the experiment, it is becoming more common to stop what we are doing to “take a quick glance” at our emails, “just check” our Facebook, or “take a quick peek” at our Instagram.
These little interruptions seem harmless but they are causing more damage than we realize.
Every ping, notification, and text we get makes us stop what we are doing, switch our attention, and then try to come back to what we were doing before.
As Dr. Newport continues, “If you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention, this can permanently reduced your capacity for concentration.”
What he is saying is that the more often we break up our attention between multiple things, the harder it will become to focus on any one thing.
This reduction in concentration can affect both our success and our happiness.
Our ability to complete the challenging work required for our success is affected when we can’t put our undivided attention to it. In addition, we lose time in the process. It can take up to 20 minutes to re-focus after being distracted. Checking those emails mid-task ends up costing you more than you realized.
Aside from our professional lives, a reduction in focus can take away from our happiness.
We can’t even listen to our family and friends finish a story before checking our phones in the middle of the conversation.
Not only that, but other things we enjoy get affected also.
This hit me when I realized I had a shorter attention span during something I love, reading.
After only ten minutes of reading, I would feel my focus shifting to other thoughts or an urge to check my phone and see if anything was going on. It was almost as though the act of reading wasn’t stimulating enough.
Our reduction in focus is a real problem that can affect our lives in more ways than we think.
A Simple Act or an Addicting Habit?
Is our tendency to reach for technology a simple act or something more?
Ari Banayan, a friend and well-respected writer with almost 1.5 million views on the question and answer website Quora, makes a great point when saying “the phone is the first thing we reach for in the morning and the last thing we touch before we go to bed.”
Something that pulls our attention so intensely seems more like an addiction.
And you’d be right to call it so.
Dr. Newport explains that today’s social media platforms are actually developed to be addicting.
He says there are real people called “attention engineers” who are hired to use the same principles from casinos to make social media addicting.
This could explain why we feel an urge to immediately check our phones when they light up or ping with a notification.
To make matters worse, phones don’t just pull our attention, they keep it.
As Ari and I talked, he continued by saying, “Notifications have trained us to come back over and over, and feeds urge us to stay forever.”
Think about when you’re on Facebook, Instagram, or other feed-based social media…it’s incredibly difficult to get off.
These platforms are designed with no clear end points, specifically to make it difficult to stop. Most other activities have clear end points. Books have chapters and TV has commercials, but social media doesn’t.
Considering these companies make their money off our personal data and attention, it’s no surprise they use these tactics to consume us.
How to Break Free?
So how do we free ourselves from needing constant mental stimulation?
While I’m not suggesting we need to completely quit social media like Dr. Newport, we do need to find ways to protect the quality and integrity of our attention.
In a recent podcast featuring Dr. Newport, he gives us a couple tips to help combat these problems.
Prenote: These three tips are SIMPLE, but not EASY. Remember, we are literally breaking an addiction.
1. Embrace the boredom
The first tip Cal has is to embrace boredom more. I’ll take his tip and expand it by changing the word “boredom” to “presence.”
What he is saying is to embrace those times when your reaction is to pull your phone out for a distraction.
In line at the grocery, waiting for a class to start, or in the elevator are all times when we can choose to leave the phone alone and allow ourselves to be present for a little.
It really isn’t that bad to just look around for a couple minutes. Shoot, you may even have one of those things from the past called conversations!
By taking these times to be present, we are giving our brain a rest from constant stimulation.
Basically, think of these times as training your brain to build back it’s focus.
2. Pre-scheduled Usage
The next tip Dr. Newport gives is to pre-schedule a set period of time to check email and social media.
Instead of being able to pop in throughout the day, set one or two specific periods devoted to checking your socials and email. This will free up the rest of your time and actually let your brain off the hook during the other times.
Think of these set times like cheat meals in fitness. It’s easier to be good when you know you have a cheat meal coming soon.
If you think the world will end because you aren’t checking your emails every five minutes, refer to Tim Ferriss’ article for a word for word autoresponder you can use to save your sanity.
3. Productive Meditation
The final tip is known as “productive meditation” and is my favorite.
In formal meditation you sit still and focus on your breathing. When your mind begins to wander, you simply bring your attention back to your breath. Over time this works on your awareness and ability to stay centered on the breath longer.
In “productive meditation”, your goal is to take a walk and keep your focus on one topic.
You chose a particular idea, thought, or business problem to focus on during the walk and try to keep your mind on it. As your mind wanders, you bring your awareness back to the topic at hand.
You will find this to be very difficult at first, but over time it will build back your ability to focus on one thing longer and more deeply.
Putting Them to Work
It’s time to practice what I preach.
One of my goals with this blog is to only share things I’ve actually tried, not just give a bunch of stuff that sound good but don’t work.
Therefore, I will apply the three principles mentioned above for a two-week experiment and record my thoughts and results.
Here are my guidelines for my experiment. I will:
- Only check email once before 10 a.m. and once at 3:00 p.m.
- Be allowed to post to social media but must immediately get off.
- Only listen to podcasts in the car.
- Only use social media and the internet for entertainment on the shuttle to work, from 12-1 pm and for 30 minutes when I get home from work.
- Do a productive meditation walk for every other day.
Click here to see my results and findings.
Join me in this challenge!