Our Phones Are Stressing Us Out… Even When They’re Turned Off

Our phones are making just a little bit anxious, all the time. We can’t help but be aware that our boss or significant other can reach us at any time… and may be trying to reach us at this very minute. If someone isn’t trying to reach us, then we’re trying to reach out – staying in touch with the latest news story or collecting likes from a perfectly framed instagram post or a pithy tweet. And our phones do their part, sending us notifications of messages both urgent and trivial, beeping and buzzing until they are forcefully silenced.

All of this constant background noise is taking a toll. According to a recent study published by The University of Chicago Press, the mere presence of your smartphone can adversely affect mental abilities. To be precise, the study demonstrated a decrease in “available working memory” and “functional fluid intelligence” when smartphones were in view, even if they were turned off. Basically, our phones are a distraction even when we are not using them. This study was appropriately titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”

Smartphones are distracting us. We’ve all seen this in our own lives. It’s the coffee date where a friend leaves the table to take a call, the company meeting where employees are glancing at their notifications, or the less-than-enthused moviegoer who is instead texting during the film.

Sometimes this is because the real action is happening through our phones. Whatever is happening on Slack or Twitter or in my DMs may very well be more interesting and important than the party or movie or meeting. And for me, that’s the problem.
The expansion of computers from desktop to laptop to small devices on our person at all times has come quickly, and brought with it significant social changes. Those social changes have happened faster than we can adapt to them.

I’m not concerned about the use of social media or messaging apps to replace in-person conversations. I actually think that’s wonderful, especially for people who aren’t always able to leave their house or town to join the action. But I am concerned about the ways that our work lives have spilled over into the rest of our life. We are always reachable, and so, like it or not, many of us are always on call.

I take off Friday nights and Saturdays as part of my spiritual practice. It’s difficult for me to step away from my Slack and Twitter and Facebook, and instead try to read a book cover to cover. Sometimes I visit with friends. But the most difficult thing is telling my colleagues that I won’t be reachable. It’s not automatically assumed that Saturdays are a day off. It requires a special effort to make myself offline.

I haven’t always had such understanding colleagues. I remember planning an elaborate vacation to Cabo, Mexico. I was going with someone very special to me, and was looking forward to truly personal time away from work. I had taken vacation days, and was in another country with limited reception. None of this mattered. I still heard from my boss and my colleagues every few hours, with emergencies both real and imagined. Needless to say, I did not enjoy my vacation – and my companion was not pleased as well.

I have some old photos of my grandparents, on a similarly elaborate vacation. There is my grandmother in front of an Al Italia airplane, carrying a sturdy purse and smiling for the camera. My grandfather stands at the Western Wall in one photo, posing in front of a camel in another. They both look so relaxed. Absent from these photos are smartphones and laptops. When my grandfather went on vacation from Hudson Pulp and Paper, he was truly on vacation. He was present. Wherever I am, wherever I go, I know that I am reachable. There is a meaningful difference.

Several of my favorite journalists took the last week off for vacation. They still jumped on Twitter to offer their hot takes on this or that trending story. Even when we aren’t being summoned, it’s so hard to let go.

It takes a conscious effort to be fully present. It’s like doing a yoga pose or a meditation or a prayer. I used to be a yoga teacher. I used to meditate daily. It took effort, but I could achieve a certain zen. It takes that same effort now for me to simply be present, at the movies or dinner or at a party. I can do it, I can focus, but it’s like stretching into the most challenging asana. I tell myself that it’s good for me and that I can go just a moment longer but the pain is in my fingertips and I don’t know how much longer I can hold still.

I love my Twitter friends and I love my work and I love that I’ve found work that I want to do almost all the time. But I do want some boundaries, and I also don’t want my only friends to be on the internet.

I did something different tonight. I left my laptop at home, put my phone in my purse, and went to a party. There was food and wine and Charles Mingus played in the background. I got bored, or maybe it was just confused, and I took out pen and paper. The other partygoers would ask me what I was writing, and we would have little conversations. At some point in the evening, something magical happened. I relaxed.

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