Who doesn't remember waiting for college acceptance letters in the mail? For what seemed like the longest months of my life, the mailbox became a preoccupying thought and an after-school center of gravity, as I waited for a letter to arrive and change my life. I was hooked on mail.
Waiting for a letter is a classic example of what's called random reinforcement, where one is rewarded haphazardly for opening the mailbox. The acceptance (or rejection) letters could arrive any day, so checking the box became a dig for gold. Mercifully, the U.S. Postal Service delivers mail once a day, so I could at least limit my anxiety.
This is the miracle of communications technology. At any moment, we can learn of something fascinating, elating, shocking or life-changing. The smartphone allows us to carry all of this possibility around with us, all the time! This is hugely convenient and often fun, but we have to acknowledge that it's really a machine for constant random reinforcement. As Dr. Andrew Weil wrote about recently, this type of feedback can be incredibly tough to control.
At any time, I can open my inbox and discover an important business note, or an interesting article from a friend. The possibility of novelty puts the banality of the daily grind to shame. Why wouldn't I be on it all the time?
This problem isn't limited to the smartphone. The telephone, email, and instant messaging, while making communication incredibly easy, all confronted us with the problem of how to get away.
The saving grace has always been new technologies that help us to avoid communication.
The answering machine and caller ID allowed us to screen calls when we weren't in the mood, and the out of office auto-reply did the same for email. Growing up, my friends and I perfected the art of the AIM away message. This was really the perfect avoidance technology, because it allowed us to see incoming communication, but feel no pressure to respond immediately.
Unfortunately, technology doesn't yet exist to allow us to avoid the smartphone itself. I can put up an email auto-reply and screen all of my calls, but my friends still won't know why I'm avoiding them or what I'm doing. As I discussed in a piece a few weeks ago, we could certainly use an "isolation button" to put space between us and our smartphones.
Just like the email out-of-office response lends us peace while on vacation, an away message for the smartphone could allow us to carve out private bursts of time: to work, to play, or just to enjoy our lives without interruption. I like to call it digital intimacy.
I've found that checking out, taking time away from my phone rather than burying myself in it, has given me a new ability to focus on one thing at a time. I'm finally free from the urge to infinitely scroll through Facebook, digging for gold that almost certainly doesn't exist. It's easy to dismiss the idea of focusing on the present as a yoga teacher's talking point, but recent research suggests it may be the key to happiness.
While at Harvard, Matt Killingsworth conducted a behavioral study using an iPhone app called Track Your Happiness. He found that the strongest predictor of happiness was focus on the present activity, regardless of what that activity was. Even at work, people were happier when working than when daydreaming about the upcoming weekend. This doesn't mean mind-wandering to a tropical beach causes angst. Rather, the happiness upside from focusing on the task at hand outweighs any gain from daydreaming.
To me, this means that focusing on both the world in front of us and the world on our phones isn't a formula for long-term happiness. Thinking about a text I just received while writing this piece isn't just unproductive. It's unsatisfying. Checking out of my phone, letting my friends know I'm unavailable, gives me the private time I need to focus and enjoy myself. Just as we use voicemail and out-of-office messages to free ourselves, we can adapt similarly to the smartphone for a happier and more focused life.
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For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.