Thinking is becoming a lost art, not just worrying, planning, remembering, judging and all of the usual mind fluctuations we cram into the brief moments of respite between tasks and technology but real, deep, purposeful, creative, imaginative thinking. When did you last sit with a cup of coffee and just gaze out the window, allowing your mind to wander off and think for the sake of thinking? Our minds are incredible things but we give them very little freedom, we tie them down to task after task and distraction upon distraction almost constantly and then we are surprised by the way they respond when we finally let them off the lead. We often notice this when we try to go to sleep or sit down to meditate, suddenly this incredibly helpful subservient mind we have put to work all day goes wild and becomes unruly, uncooperative and uncontrollable, like a wild animal escaped from captivity.
As a society we are absolutely addicted to distraction. As soon as we find ourselves alone we immediately reach for our phones, in fact there is a statistic that says the average smartphone user checks their phone an average of 150 times a day! As soon as our friend gets up to use the bathroom in a restaurant, phone check, waiting in a queue, phone check, awkward silence, phone check, on the bus, phone check, walking alone, phone check and, probably the most mental one of all, sitting on the loo, phone check (59% of people as of a survey taken in 2010). Once upon a time these situations would all have left us time to think, time to take in our surroundings, time to process our thoughts, feeling and emotions, time to enter into conversations with those around us.
The more stimulation we receive the more we want, not content with just watching TV anymore now we need to watch TV, whilst sending emails from our laptops and checking our Instagram on our phones. Some schools of thought say that this high-level multi tasking is increasing our ability to take in information but there is research that indicates that this kind of activity can actually decrease our ability to retain information. This research has shown that when you focus on one task at a time and really pay attention, without distraction, the information you take in is stored in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for storing, organising and categorising data, making it easier to recall. However, when you switch between screens and tasks, any information you take in is sent to the striatum, the region of the brain responsible for planning movement and motivation and not storing data, meaning any information received is much harder to recall. If we consistently send data to this area of the brain, it can establish a pattern and reduce our ability to recall information.
I have an absolute love hate relationship with technology. As with many of us, I rely heavily on my computer, phone and the internet for the management and promotion of my music and yoga businesses and some days I am filled with wonder, hope and inspiration that we have these incredible tools available to us but then on other days I am filled with complete dread that we must spend large portions of life staring into screens in order to be successful. The secret to healthy technology use is to approach it as we do any other potentially damaging behaviour… with moderation. Technology doesn’t have to be evil, it is a wonderful creation that has made so many previously unimaginable things possible but used to excess it can be incredibly damaging.
So if we know this behaviour is bad for us, why is it so hard to stop! This question has been plaguing me, so I decided to do some research and my findings have made things so much clearer! The reason this constant over-stimulation is such a tricky habit to break is not only does it become a habitual way of dealing with being alone and without an activity but also because there are some very strong, powerful brain chemicals involved, chemicals that are created for the purpose of seeking (dopamine) and reward (opioids). Dopamine is created in the brain to motivate us to seek out things that we want or need, so in an evolutionary sense this would be seeking out food, sex and shelter but it can also be seeking out information. We are then rewarded with pleasure by our opioid system, making us feel satisfied with our find. The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system, which again from an evolutionary standpoint would make us spend more time hunting, gathering and seeking out a mate than revelling in satisfaction. The problem is that we now have almost instant gratification for our seeking, we pick up our phones to ask Google a question or find someone to talk to and almost instantly we get a response and receive our reward. Dopamine then kicks in again and we’re off seeking the next piece of information or communication. So the more we seek the more we are rewarded and it becomes almost impossible to break the cycle, throwing us into a dopamine-induced loop.
Armed with this new knowledge I became inspired to make some serious life changes. I have been feeling more and more like something in my life needs to change. I would fill with dread as I watched people walk down the street with their eyes down at their phones but then find myself doing the very same thing, somehow separating my behaviour from that of others, making meaningless justifications for why it was ok this time. Every single time I found myself partaking in addictive behaviours relating to technology a voice in my head would scream ‘be the change you want to see’ but I was not ready to listen. As with any addiction, you have to be ready to quit before you can even consider it and two weeks ago I was finally ready. Spurred on by two inspiring podcasts, one about a digital detox summer camp in America called Camp Grounded and another about the importance of Wild Time, I decided that enough was enough and I set myself a challenge. A challenge to go back in time to a time when we could only check our emails at home before we left for school/work and again when we got home, where instant response wasn’t the expectation and where we spent so much more time outside!
Phone on silent, turn off all phone notifications bar texts/calls
Check phone/emails/social media twice a day (3 times if necessary)
Morning (ideally after meditation/yoga/exercise/reading and breakfast) and before dinner for the last time that day
No other phone checking unless you need to text/call someone for practical reasons
When working on laptop/computer stick to task – no internet use unless for research and ideally switch off all technology 2 hours before bed and keep it outside of the room
One of the most shocking things I noticed when first entering into this challenge was the striking similarity between quitting technology and going sober. Even two weeks in I still feel that intense, almost physical, pull to pick up my phone, just as 4 years in I still often feel that pull of escaping into a glass of wine. I have even had to resort to putting my phone in another room to avoid the temptation. Madness! The similarities continue to show up the further down this path I go, for example, I am noticing that I have more time. I can read more, play more banjo, colour in, practice yoga for longer and spend more time talking to Josh as I cook, eat and digest. I remember having this exact same revelation when I stopped drinking. Another incredibly similar experience is the experience of suddenly having your social crutch taken away. The first social situation I found myself in during the challenge, I found that everyone resorted to their phones in moments of social awkwardness, leaving me standing there like a lemon twiddling my thumbs. It felt so much like the first party I went to sober, everyone around you easing their social anxieties with alcohol and me going for a wee every two minutes to escape the pressure. It comes as no surprise to me that I would feel this way, as we all know, once an addict always an addict but I really don’t think I realised how far in I was until I stepped away.
Since starting this challenge, I feel like a different person. I feel so much more engaged with life, so much more present. I am thinking again, really thinking, allowing my mind to wander, ponder, theorise, question, challenge and dream. The first few minutes are the hardest but as my mind lets go of the idea of being distracted it gets to work being interesting again, working through all kind of ideas, troubles and questions, instead of just worrying. I have become more productive with my computer and phone-based tasks and I respond and deal with emails with presence instead of trying to deal with them and continue my normal daily life at the same time. There is also always something to deal with because I haven’t just checked my phone five minutes ago, which makes it interesting and fulfilling again instead of that well known empty feeling, similar to the one where you go back to the fridge over and over, expecting chocolate to will itself in there if you check enough times. The most important change of all has been feeling free, completely alive again and full of possibility. I feel as though I have been released from shackles I didn’t know I was wearing. So I urge you to give it a try, to feel the freedom of being completely present with life and the people and things in it again. And when you feel that pull ask yourself what is so important that can’t wait?
Never pass up a chance to do nothing.