the distraction in your pocket

Published on April 2, 2020

Comparatively speaking, I was late to the phone game.

When I was in high school, I was often the only one (or at the very least one of a select few) who did not have a phone in my class. Everyone else would use their phone for research, while I would have to rely on good old-fashioned textbooks.

To start, I said to people that I had a phone and I did not bring it to school, because I felt guilty for not having invested in one. But I had a good reason not to own a phone: I did not need one. If there was ever an emergency, there would likely be someone nearby who could help. I certainly didn’t need a phone to do research in class for assignments.

I made the decision late last year to buy a phone, after leaving high school and “graduating” into the real world. It felt to me as though having a phone was an adult thing that people had. I would need a phone to catch up with my professional communications. I would need a phone to stay in the loop with all my friends.

Based on my experience over the last few months, I would say that having a phone has provided me with tangible benefits. As I travelled before the coronavirus crisis, I used maps to help me get around. I used text messages to stay in touch with friends and family when nobody I knew was around. I can name a few other situations where my phone has been useful, too.

However, there has also been a major drawback to owning a phone: the phone has become a distraction in my pocket. Whenever I am looking for something in which I can seek comfort, I only need to take my phone out of my pocket.

As soon as I do so, I am greeted by the blue light and enticed by all the pending notifications, or the prospects of a notification coming soon. I am excited by the fact that I can scroll through Twitter endlessly, and respond to all my work messages in the evenings so that, when I wake up, I’ll have less work to do.

My phone has become less of a tool and more of a way for me to seek distractions. I don’t need to browse Twitter in the evenings, nor check my Slack unless I have been told to do so. I do it because my phone is close by.

I am now starting to rethink how I spend time with technology, and reflecting on the value my phone can bring is an important part of this process. I spend a lot of time with my phone, and ever since I have been in quarantine I have found myself using my phone even more.

I love having a phone. It’s not something I am going to throw away on account of being a source of distraction. The maps utility, phone functions, texting, alarm, and many other features are (or at least have been) crucial parts of my life, and I am not sure what I would do without them.

However, owning a phone does not mean I need to give into its distractions. The position I am in right now is that I see my phone as something that takes away time from my life that I could be investing doing something else. The five minutes I spend scrolling through Twitter could be used to engage in a conversation with my family. Or I could use that time to do some extra cleaning and do my future self a favor.

Having a phone that can so easily distract me has made me beholden to its forces in some ways. When I am seeking a distraction from the world -- from anything -- I can just take my phone out of my pocket. I can indulge in the red and blue colors of notifications. I can check all the apps that I have already checked so many times today.

The way that I intend to resolve this problem is to think of my phone more as a utility than a source of distraction. The way I am going to do this is to ask myself: what essential functions can my phone provide? First and foremost, my phone can act as an alarm. It can also act as a GPS, and a communication system for when I am outside my house (even though I cannot travel far away).

These are functions for which owning a phone is justified, so I am happy to keep my phone around as long as I use it for these purposes. What about Twitter and all the apps that I scroll through? Those provide very limited value to me. While scrolling through Twitter for a minute each day may be helpful -- it keeps me up to date with the latest goings on -- there is a point of diminishing returns which I continue to pass because it’s hard to regulate the time I spend on Twitter.

This has been on my mind a lot as I consider what matters most to me. One thing that has become evident over the last few weeks is the importance of family in my life, and I have started to notice that having a phone has interfered with a few of my interactions. If I get bored, it’s too easy for me to just take my phone out my pocket and go looking for a distraction. That makes it more difficult for me to embrace the moments with my family.

I am thinking of reducing the number of distractions available to me as an investment in my future. I can see all the time I’ll be able to free up merely by turning off my phone when I don’t need it on. That makes all of this worth it for me.

To hold me accountable, here are the changes I am going to make:

When someone is talking, my phone should not be in front of me. I should only use my phone for essential activities. These include responding to urgent messages, keeping in touch with family when I am outside, and setting my alarms and timers.

I know I could probably go further with this -- for example, I could disable the color feature on my phone -- but I do not want to take too many steps too fast. This is all about making actionable progress toward unlocking more time in my schedule.

No push notification should be able to take away my spare time, nor should it distract me from what is going on in the moment. The distraction in my pocket should not be allowed to have such an impact on my life.

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