A few weeks ago, my family and I spent the weekend in the mountains and we left our screens behind. It was one of the best weekends of my life.
You don’t need me to tell you that we all spend too much time staring at screens. According to the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans say they could not live without their smartphones for a single day. We crave constant access to information and we build our lives in a way where we become dependent on it, and in turn, that need for information begins to manifest in physical ways. For example, research that was recently conducted by Dscout shows that the average cell phone user touches their phone 2,617 times per day. Finally, the dependence on devices manifests in changes to the way we think. Studies performed at the Korea University in Seoul showed that smartphone addiction alters the chemical composition of the brain, leading to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and drowsiness.
For my fellow software engineers, the picture is even bleaker. The industry-wide move from shrink-wrapped software to online services coupled with the DevOps movement has resulted in engineers going on-call to respond to issues 24×7. Further, the transition from email and it’s implied “reply to me soon” SLA to chat tools like Slack that come with a more aggressive implicit “reply to me at all times” SLA has made it virtually impossible for engineers to ditch their devices, even when they aren’t on-call (side note: it’s shocking to me that almost all companies have opted into this regression).
Ironically, this sea-change of screen staring behavior has landed at the worst possible time. The gap between trivially repeatable jobs and demanding creative jobs continues to widen. The former kind of job is being rapidly automated while demand for the latter continues to increase. But doing creative work depends on the ability to go deep and focus for long periods of time, and the notification laden apps that populate our screens fuel a context switching mindset that is anathema to focusing.
A constantly context switching mindset is a killer for two reasons. First, it makes us less productive. Research by Dr. David Meyer, a psychologist who has devoted much of his research to cognitive focus and the impacts of multitasking, concluded that even brief context switching can reduce the total amount of productive time by up to 40%. Second, it prevents our brain from entering a state where it can engage with an idea deeply for a long period of time, which is necessary for everything from inventing something novel to carrying on a good conversation. Cal Newport covers this phenomenon in depth in his excellent novel Deep Work and concludes that “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
How did we all become addicted to a technology that is so destructive to us? It certainly wasn’t an accident. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how habits are composed of a three-part loop: a trigger, the resulting action (or program) that we follow, and the reward. The original trigger for the smartphone habit loop was a need for information. You want to know the weather forecast, the name of a song, what your friends are doing, or what your social media followers think of a particular post, so you pull out your phone to get the information and enjoy a brief dopamine surge from the information gleaned. That trigger still exists today, but it’s been mostly superseded by a new trigger that was created when Research In Motion first deployed email push notifications to Blackberry devices back in 2003. Smartphone users now invite applications to interrupt their lives at will through notifications of all sorts. Notifications create the ultimate habit loop: your phone buzzes or beeps in your pocket and your body can sense the impending glee that will come with finding out that your friend liked your latest social media post, making it almost impossible to not check the notification instantly.
It’s a grim picture, but our weekend in the wilderness convinced me that there is hope. My own personal journey to rid my brain of screen dependence started back at the start of the year. My wife and I have started a January tradition of sitting down, vanilla lattes in hand, to discuss our new year’s resolutions for the year and settling on a couple of shared resolutions for our family. This year, we set the goal of taking the at least one screen-free trip as a family. A bit of planning and a car ride into the Cascade Mountains later, we found ourselves in the middle of our own little social experiment.
The impact of not having screens to pull us away was obvious almost immediately. Conversations were deeper because we were listening to each other instead of fidgeting with our phones in our pockets or pausing to check a notification. My wife and I both read hundreds of pages (from physical books!) that would have taken us days or weeks to get through in the fragmented schedule of our multitasking lives. We played games together, drank coffee together, ate amazing meals together, and were genuinely present. It was incredible how quickly I could feel my brain adapting to screen-less life, in a good way.
We’ve already begun planning our unplugged weekend for next year, but I’ve also spent the weeks since our trip thinking about how to bring unplugged ideas into my daily life. First, I’m looking at ways to pare back all notifications that aren’t absolutely essential or to restrict the time windows when I can receive notifications. Second, I’m looking at ways to unbundle the functionality that my phone currently provides so I can leave it behind more often. For example, I’m migrating back to physical books for reading, my Mighty for listening to music, and my trusty Canon 60D for taking photos. I’m toying with the idea of going back to a physical pager for work on-call escalation and I’m exploring options for maps and navigation (another side note: it turns out that maps, not calls, is the killer app for smartphones!).
Unplugging in an on-call world isn’t easy, but it is doable and it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s also a great way to identify tactical changes that you can bring back into daily life to reclaim your brain and improve your ability to focus.