Updated: Dec 30, 2020
About ten years ago I recall meeting a student of mine for lunch on campus. He was standing outside the dining hall and looking at his phone when I arrived. We greeted and proceeded inside to order lunch. He purchased his meal before me and found a seat. As I approached the table he was looking at his phone again. I asked him if everything was okay and he said, “Yes, I’m fine.” I told him I asked because he seemed really focused on his phone. His response prompted the beginning of an informal observational experiment I’ve been conducting ever since.
The student told me he would look at his phone as a distraction. That information, by itself, doesn’t seem surprising today. But when we dove a bit deeper he told me he took out his phone because he thought it would look strange if he wasn’t doing anything.
Not having come of age with a cell phone, it occurred to me that being alone with his thoughts was something he hadn’t considered. For a decade now, I’ve observed this same behavior everywhere. When I know someone well enough to ask about why, many will quietly admit that they want to appear busy or that they don’t know what else to do. No demographic is immune from this problem; this summer I had a retired friend of mine admit he checks the stock market to appear busy when he has idle time in public places. By relying on our phones to constantly entertain us we miss opportunities for self-reflection.
What would someone find if they observed your relationship with your phone today? And more importantly, what are the ramifications of mindless phone use?
It seems like we could be slowly losing the ability to think deeply.
Looking at your phone isn’t bad, but the need for constant distraction is. Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, acknowledges the benefits of technology, but points out the risk that arises when reaching for your phone becomes so habitual that a day or days go by and you haven’t engaged in self-reflection.
Being alone with your thoughts has many benefits. It can increase your ability to think critically - to think through problems on your own without constant input from others. Giving your mind time to wonder can improve your creativity. And perhaps most importantly, it can give you time to better understand yourself. What do you value? What kind of person do you want to be? What’s going well? What’s not? Newport says this process is critical to building a good life.
Self-reflection leads to greater self-awareness.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review found “leaders at the highest levels tend to have better self-awareness than leaders lower in the hierarchy.” A separate study by Harvard researchers found employees who spend 15 minutes a day reflecting on their day feel more competent and effective.
How do you get started?
This won’t be easy. We find it more enjoyable to play on our phones than think, but studies show we understand that spending time thinking is more worthwhile. We can begin by reducing our consumption.
The next time you have an urge to scroll through your social media feed, go for a walk and observe nature. Instead of reading the latest breaking news, think about the person you want to be. Rather than playing a game on your phone, consider what it’s like to be in a relationship with you. And the next time you reach for your phone before you get out of bed, ask a question that Steve Jobs asked himself every day: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?” Then think about the answer.
If none of these approaches work for you, schedule a time to do nothing but think. And, if you like, let me know how it works out.