“All human life, we may say, consists solely of these two activities: (1) bringing one’s activities into harmony with conscience, or (2) hiding from oneself the indications of conscience in order to be able to continue to live as before,” was advice Leo Tolstoy offered on the reasons in which we engage in destructive behaviors. And while he originally penned the essay on the topic of drunkenness, this insightful line readily applies to any of our behaviors that pull us out of the present and into some manner of distracted living.
Tolstoy would go on to attribute all manners of addiction and substance abuse to this need of distraction from our present selves. In his words,
“The cause of the world-wide consumption of hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco, lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience.”
Now, over a century later, Tolstoy’s assessment still captures our tendency to deaden our senses with distraction. And we can use this same reasoning to explain our habit of staring at our phones every other minute.
How Often Do You Check Your Phone?
“The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?”– Tristan Harris
First, let’s all agree that a tendency to while away the hours on our phones is nowhere near comparable to the issues created by drug addiction. Not the same. Not even close.
But just because it’s not a comparable problem, doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem. When we spend the majority of our day staring at our phones, we miss out on actually living our lives. We avoid fully living as a part of this world. And the world is lesser without all of us fully in it.
In a Gallup poll, only 28% of smart phone users admitted to checking their phone fewer than once per hour. Also notable, 89% of users believed others they know check their phones more often than they do.
There’s no doubt that the technology available through our phones has benefits. It provides limitless opportunities to learn and connect with the world. But it also encourages us to watch cat videos and browse social media for hours at a time. And plenty of other activities that leave us feeling empty and regretting our choices.
In one of my favorite quotes of all time, Annie Dillard pointedly reminds us that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So while one day of distraction isn’t a big deal, these days add up and become our lives. In Tim Urban’s tremendous TED talk on procrastination, he described the real impacts of a life ruled by undisciplined distractions,
“Long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator at times in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams, it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.”
So if we’re looking to live fully present lives, we need to address this creeping source of distraction. And it starts with understanding how it influences our behavior.
The Power of Operant Conditioning
“Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” – Norman Cousins
We all know that technology is designed to be addictive. Tristan Harris has made great strides to show us these tactics and explain how it’s so easy to spend the day getting sucked further and further into a social media black hole.
So yes, it’s designed to provide operant conditioning – that tendency to influence behavior through positive and negative reinforcement. We go to a page and we’re inundated with new notifications, likes, whatever that give us an immediate positive consequence. A positive consequence that encourages us to repeat that same behavior next time.
These billion dollar companies have a vested interest in maximizing our time on their site. And reminiscent of an arms race, each competitor continues to develop new methods to manipulate us to support their own goals.
So ignoring for now the depressing fact that some of the best minds of our time are fixated on getting us to spend more time watching cat videos, it’s overwhelming to think about the forces that are set on distracting our attention. It seems as though we’ll need to be on constant guard, stretching our willpower to the max to withstand this unending supply of manipulation tactics. A noble goal, but one that often ends like most resolutions.
Yet there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful. And it starts with a pack of fun-loving rats.
The Power of Environment
“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.” Who else remembers that line from their childhood? As a voiceover accompanied by a clip of a rat drinking from a water bottle laced with cocaine? And the story of a rat that becomes obsessed with the drugged water that it keeps coming back for more? Eventually killing itself.
If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, chances are this commercial helped frame your thoughts on drugs. Telling everyone that drugs are so addictive we’ll all be powerless to resist their power.
The experiment was relatively simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One’s just water, the other is laced with cocaine. The rat then becomes obsessed with the drugged water, continuing to come back for more and more until it eventually kills itself.
Cocaine’s addictive kids. Don’t try it unless you want to end up like this rat.
But there was one other important part of the experiment. The rat was all alone. With nothing to do except experiment with drugs. So Bruce Alexander, a Professor of Psychology in Vancouver, tried to recreate the experiment with this variable changed.
He created Rat Park, a posh hangout for rats with fun toys, good food, and a lively mix of male and female rat friends. Everything a rat could want. The result? The rats didn’t become addicted to drugs. They tried each water bottle, but largely shunned the drug laced one.
The rats, who are by nature social creatures that thrive on contact and communication with other rats, chose the alternative of hanging out with friends and Rat Park amenities over drug addiction. Despite being presented with a physically addictive product, they avoided it in the face of better alternatives.
All of which redefined the concept of addiction. There’s clearly a physical element to it, but Professor Alexander also demonstrated a strong environmental factor as well.
So while tech companies become more adept at manipulating our behavior with physical properties, the answer isn’t to build up more willpower and tolerance. Instead, we need to respond with an environment that offers a better alternative.
What Makes You Forget to Check Your Phone?
“Willpower is for people who are still uncertain about what they want to do.” – Helia
There’s plenty of advice that has us lock away our phones for certain hours of the day. Or give them up for one day a week.
And while I’m sure there’s benefit to these practices, any activity that relies solely on willpower is difficult to sustain.
Instead, think about the times that you’ve forgotten to look at your phone. What were you doing?
We all have those times when we’re so focused on an activity that the idea of checking our phones doesn’t even enter our minds. When was the last time this happened to you? What were you doing?
If our thoughts are constantly filled with checking our phones, maybe it’s because we don’t have anything better to do. Maybe it’s because, like the caged rats, we don’t have better alternatives.
So what if we tried the opposite? What if, instead of constantly resisting our phones, we found an activity where resistance wasn’t needed? Instead of straining our willpower daily, we’d fill our days with activities that encourage us to be fully present.
It’s the same with parenting. Most parents set limits on screen time. But few take the time to consider just why their kids want to spend so much time on their tablets. Maybe the problem isn’t that their apps are too addictive. Maybe the problem is that all their alternatives just suck.
Maybe we just need to do more of those things that make us forget to check our phones. As Bertrand Russell warned us,
“What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?”
Choose a Better Alternative
“Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home… it’s your responsibility to love it, or change it.”– Chuck Palahniuk
It’s easy to fall into the trap of checking our phones every couple minutes. There’s more opportunities than ever to deaden ourselves to the present with constant distractions.
We can try to resist through willpower, constantly fighting the urge to keep one eye on the lookout for social media updates. Or we can spend our time doing things that make this urge obsolete.
Which sounds better to you?
Would you rather spend your time resisting your phone, or would you rather spend your time doing something that makes you forget about it completely?
Choose well. Because how you spend your day is truly how you’ll spend your life.