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Mindfulness in Technology: Why The Future Belongs To Those Who Can Tame Their Distractions

“Using technology is a relatively new thing,” said James Victore in 99u’s latest book, Manage Your Day-to-Day.

You can see it everywhere—hunched over, heads down, fingers rapidly moving. So connected, so busy…

When the first iPhone arrived, I don’t think anyone was talking about this issue because the technology was so new and exciting—everyone was too busy looking busy. Now, 6 or however many iPhones later, along with a multitude of different screens and an obvious change in behavior in classrooms, the workplace, and the dinner table, it has become a pervasive problem.

James Victore goes on to say:

It’s omnipresent, dependable (“Can you hear me now?”), and we’re relying on it more and more. But with new technology comes new habits, and as with any habits—good or bad—we need to be conscientious. Just as we watch our intake of caffeine or candy or alcohol lest we become addicted, we need to consciously develop a healthy relationship with our tools—or we will lose perspective and become slaves to them. As Marshall McLuhan theorized, ‘We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.’ We let our tools take the lead because it’s the path of least resistance—the easy way. And the easy way is always a trap.

What, exactly, is the easy way?

I view it as avoiding eye contact, scared to start a conversation, answering a question like “How are you doing?” with honesty, and lastly, the great escape: avoiding to think deeply about ourselves and past or present events.

As mindfulness master Leo Babauta says in the same book, Manage Your Day-to-Day:

Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of solitude because it means you’re facing yourself without distractions. Practice can make solitude less scary, and will help you become comfortable with the prospect of finding it on a regular basis.

Whatever happened to thinking while walking? Instead of analyzing, reflecting, and brainstorming after we leave a classroom or meeting, many of us dive right into our phones, being exposed to irrelevant bits of information. Technology, if curated and managed properly, can be used to facilitate education, to be exposed to brilliant thoughts, articles, and people doing interesting things—or it can be used as a scapegoat, a way to avoid seeing ourselves with an honest lens or an unruly problem in a new light.

But there is a reason for this obsessive compulsive finger-dancing on guerrilla glass. Tiffany Shlain, another contributed for the 99u book, explains it on a primal level, which I think is profoundly important to understand our relationship with technology [emphasis by me]:

All of these forms of communication are extensions of us. Going back to [the visionary philosopher of communication theory] Marshall McLuhan: everything is an extension of our desire for connection. We couldn’t see far enough, we invented the telescope. We wanted to communicate across distances, we invented the telephone. Then, we wanted to connect with everyone and share all these ideas, and we invented the Internet. We’ve created this global brain that is very much an extension of our own brains. And because it’s an extension of us, it’s good and it’s bad—because we’re both good and bad. We’re both focused and distracted. So I think the real problem isn’t the technology. I think we need to evolve to know when to turn it off.

Absolutely brilliant.

In the post about understanding the cultural shifts, shame, and the prevalent desire to self-actualize, I quoted a Time article that targeted one the largest growing groups in the world: the millennials. At 80 million strong, the behavior of millennials reflects how technology can be used for ill purposes, and the possible cause of narcissistic tendencies and laziness. One part of the article says:

Millennials are interacting all day but almost entirely through a screen. You’ve seen them at bars, sitting next to one another and texting. They might look calm, but they’re deeply anxious about missing out on something better. Seventy percent of them check their phones every hour, and many experience phantom pocket-vibration syndrome. ‘They’re doing a behavior to reduce their anxiety,’ says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills and the author of iDisorder. That constant search for a hit of dopamine (“Someone liked my status update!”) reduces creativity.

Alas, I don’t think it’s just the millennials—although they’re the easiest to point out, and that’s what Baby Boomers and Gen X’s do nowadays, blame everyone else—but perhaps it’s pervasive among all age groups.

The last sentence is worth pondering: “That constant search for a hit of dopamine reduces creativity.” Millennials aren’t the only group prone to this—everyone that uses technology is. Many of us have experienced more-than-expected amount of likes, retweets, comments, and emails at one point in our virtual lives; don’t lie, it felt good. You put up a picture on Instagram and—gasp!—over 50 or 100 or 1,000 people liked it. You got an email filled with praise that made your day brighter, only to be unconscious of going back to the inbox obsessively without any (1) calling your name. It’s easy to revert toward this kind of validation because we don’t get it regularly.

Lori Deschene—founder of TinyBuddha—provides an interesting thought on our brain and the messages we receive:

Research shows that we actually get a small rush of endorphins—the same brain chemicals we enjoy after completing an intense exercise—when we receive a new message. Talking about ourselves also triggers the reward center of our brains, making it even more compelling to narrate our daily activities.

The way we use our technology can influence us to be, in a way, narcissistic. Our deep desire for connection and validation is so primal that it overrides rational thoughts like, “Maybe I’ve spent too many hours staring at this thing and nothing has changed.” Many behaviors that make us human are now becoming rare. Kindness and eye contact and a firm handshake is rare. No one answers the question, “So, how are things?” honestly—it is, in fact, seemingly more of an annoying, fake question to pass the time than an actual interest in how our friends/family are doing. Looking a clerk or your waitress in the eyes and genuinely thanking them for their service and effort is like watching an aurora borealis. We say thank you to our screens and find that it’s okay. It’s not okay.

We need to be self-aware on why we actually use 5 different social medias instead of one or two. We need to learn when to disconnect. We need to set boundaries. We need to practice being human and not pretend that it’s something that happens automatically. It’s something that we are, but more importantly, being human is something that we do—and technology doesn’t always facilitate this. It obstructs it.

We need to differentiate what’s urgent versus what’s important.

Seth Godin offers timeless advice on this in his eye-opening book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? [emphasis by me]:

But it’s apparently fine to tweak and update your Facebook account for an hour. That’s ‘connecting to your social graph.’ There’s a big part of our psyche that wants to touch and be touched. We want to be connected, valued, and missed. We want people to know we exist and we don’t want to get bored. Waiting for the daemon can be boring or even frightening. So the resistance encourages us to flee, and where better to go than to the Internet? On a day when the resistance is in charge, I check my e-mail forty-five times. Why? Can’t it wait? Of course it can, but it’s fun. Fun to hear from people I like, fun to answer questions, fun to connect. If I had to be truthful, it’s about resistance. E-mailing is fun, but it rarely changes the world.

James Victore nails it once again [emphasis by me]:

To ‘know thyself’ is hard work. Harder still is to believe that you, with all your flaws, are enough—without checking in, tweeting an update, or sharing a photo as proof of your existence for the approval of your 719 followers. A healthy relationship with your devices is all about taking ownership of your time and making an investment in your life. I’m not calling for any radical, neo-Luddite movement here. Carving out time for yourself is as easy as doing one thing. Walk your dog. Stroll your baby. Go on a date—without your handheld holding your hand. Self-respect, priorities, manners, and good habits are not antiquated ideals to be traded for trends.

Not everyone will be capable of shouldering this task of personal responsibility or of being a good example for their children. But the heroes of the next generation will be those who can calm the buzzing and jigging of outside distraction long enough to listen to the buzzing of their own hearts, those who will follow their own path until they learn to walk erect—not hunched over like a Neanderthal, palm-gazing. Into traffic.

Creativity, education, art, and innovation are some of the most powerful forces that are changing our world: one app, one blog, one service, and one smile at a time. Stuffing our faces with information that serves no greater purpose other than to entertain your fears, manipulate your thoughts, and tell you how you ought to live your life stifles creativity and self-sovereignity—we reserve no time for creating, learning, thinking, brainstorming, and reflecting, but instead, only consuming, criticizing, comparing, and daydreaming.

Want an advantage in life? Learn to let go of your handheld’s hand.