You don't really need a study to tell you smartphones distract you -- but the research is definitely there. Hearing a notification on your device can ruin your focus, to say nothing of the brain-fizzling that happens when you pick up your phone, fiddle with it and turn your attention back to whatever you were doing to begin with.
But just because we understand how absorbing our devices can be doesn't mean we have the tools to break free. Our smart devices provide so many conveniences that we naturally don't want to get rid of them, even in the moments that we should.
To learn more about getting a bit of peace and quiet away from our devices, The Huffington Post spoke with Rachel Macy Stafford, author of the new book Hands Free Life: 9 Habits For Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, And Loving More.
To start with, why did you write this book? Why is now the moment for people to think about overcoming distraction and living a better life?
During a late-night chat with my younger daughter when she was sick, Avery said something that moved me deeply. I’d just miscalculated my mother’s age, and my daughter lifted her hands in front of her face. She spread her small fingers as far as they could go and said, “I’m keeping track of life.”
It was such a beautiful term that became almost magical given the way she extended her two free hands. But what made the hairs stand straight up on my arms was the fact that I knew exactly what it meant. Keeping track of life is being at peace with who you are and how you are living. It’s placing your head on the pillow at night knowing you’ve connected with someone or something that made your heart come alive. It’s living life rather than merely surviving or barely managing life.
Living a hands-free life is more profound than putting down the phone or burning the to-do list. It’s about deep, lasting, permanent change. The moment my child said, “I am keeping track of life,” I knew I needed to share what I’ve discovered with the world.
We are so tied to our devices and our need to be “busy” that we have forgotten how to be still, how to be alone with our thoughts, what to do if our hands are empty. But the hands-free approach to life provides practical, doable ways to overcome it.
People are hungry to live more present and contented lives because knowing how does not come instinctively nor easily in this culture of overwhelm.
There's an idea in the book that people should learn to embrace "connective silence," or the moments in our life that may seem boring or unimportant, but aren't. In a sense, I wonder if the popular technology of our era -- smartphones and now wearable devices like the Apple Watch -- eliminate these "dull" moments because they always give us something to pay attention to. Can you speak to me a bit about that tension and how an individual might overcome it?
I absolutely agree that the popular technology of our era has crippled our ability to simply be -- to let our thoughts wonder, to make conversation with the person next to us, to be alone with ourselves. The ease, abundance and accessibility of technology feeds into that inherent pressure most people have to be productive, to do it now instead of later.
It is possible to overcome. When I want to be fully present in a particular moment or time period, I imagine physically removing a heavy clock from around my neck. As I give myself permission to be in one place and one place only, I feel a weight being lifted. I reminded myself these sacred pockets of time are the spaces where real living happens, creativity flourishes and I can catch my breath.
When I take off the ticking clock, I don’t check out, don’t reach for the phone, the TV remote or a few pages of unfinished work. If we can resist the urge to fill every minute with noise, excess and activity, we open the opportunity for inner peace and contentment to come in.
In the "Establish Boundaries" section of the book, you write, "Stepping away from technology just feels good." What is it about our devices that can make them seem like a burden, or something we yearn to escape from?
When I was taking a hard look at the cost of my overly distracted life, it occurred to me that work, technology and life were all bleeding into each other to the point that there were no longer any protected areas. Daily distraction was being invited into the sacred spaces of my life. It didn’t matter if it was a moving vehicle, the bedroom, Saturday mornings, family vacations or even the middle of the night -- my devices and multi-tasking ways were a constant in every area of my life. I hear this from many friends, neighbors and readers of my blog.
Furthermore, I think the interactive aspect of technology can be exhausting. The notifications, the comments, the videos, the onslaught of information easily depletes you to the point when shutting it all down feels refreshing. Like you can be in your own world and you don't have to worry about what’s going on in everyone else’s world.
It's so easy to micromanage everything now. A lot of us probably feel like we need to respond to every email, every tweet, every text message the moment we can, even if that's not really the case. How can people find it within themselves to "surrender control" and embrace carefree moments?
Early on in my journey to live more presently and more joyfully, I designated hands-free times. This meant temporarily pushing aside the phone, the computer, the to-do list to be all there with someone or something meaningful in my life.
The times that were most conducive for me to be hands-free were right after school, at dinnertime and at bedtime. It helped tremendously to turn off all notifications on my phone so there was no temptation to check. At first, it was difficult not to be tethered to my devices or checking something off the to-do list. That is why I began with small time increments. However, the time I spent being engaging in real-life moments and experience were so fulfilling that I was encouraged to lengthen the time increments.
As my readership and writing responsibilities have grown over the years, I have faithfully stuck to my designated hands-free times, and now it has become a habit -- "OK, time to turn things off."
Having set boundaries on when I work and when I live are critical for my well-being, as well as my ability to bond with my family. Such strident boundaries between tech and life may not be necessary for others, but having hands-free daily rituals is very helpful to me. Those connective time periods give you something to count on and fall back on when life gets overwhelming or you face a challenging time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.