Just about everyone has observed that smartphones have come to take up a lot of space in our lives. An increasingly common complaint I hear from clients, colleagues, and friends revolve around the unintended costs of not only giving these devices our attention, but allowing our attention to be reshaped by them.
What's Happening to Me?
You've probably seen articles, news blurbs, or even a documentary about how smartphones are designed not only to grab our attention, but to influence our thought and behavior patterns. You may have been alarmed by that "weekly screen time report", or noticed that it's difficult to get lost in a good book like you used to, or sit through a movie and just watch the movie--not have it on in the background while you scroll.
It can be puzzling that we still feel the fear of missing out (FOMO) even when we realize that there's nothing left to do on that little device--even when we want to be able to put it down and walk away.
We're not actually convinced we're missing anything--our brain's processes have simply adjusted to the constant stimuli of the digital world.
It's important to understand how your brain prioritizes its tasks. By default, it considers new information the most important. Survival demands it; remember that your body's autonomic systems aren't really aware that you live in an advanced society with dependable shelter, plentiful food, and no predators (of the food chain variety).
Therefore, if there is a steady flow of new information coming in, your mind will skip the next step of more deeply processing the info you just gave it and instead attend to the shiny new data. When this system interacts with an uninterrupted, limitless stream of short-lived stimuli, its world starts to change.
Your brain spends all its time in alert mode, almost none in process mode. This is why you lose track of time while scrolling TikToks. We take in the new stimuli, react to it, and move on to the next in a flash without processing what just happened. Your brain isn't fully processing anything, it's just focused on taking in the new stuff every few seconds. Hours can pass without us feeling it.
Your brain becomes conditioned to expect the constant flow of new information. This explains your lost motivation to read or difficulty staying present during a movie, classroom lecture, or even a conversation with a friend. Your brain is wondering where the fast flow of data is. Remember: that's what's most important to it. If it gets used to something new every six seconds, then when it comes time to sit and attend at a slower pace, it may think something's wrong.
Win Back Your Attention
Be grateful for neuroplasticity--your brain's lifelong ability to change its functions and even its structure to adapt to new situations. While this trait of your amazing brain is partly why you've been affected so much by smartphones, it's also what can get you back to a pace where rest and peace and meaningful attention are normal again.
And there is so much you can do to help it. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Turn on your phone's weekly screen time report. While it may produce some uncomfortable feelings, being aware of just how much space our phone is taking can be good motivation to act--and it can help us set goals. See if you can get your average down by half an our this week.
Designate phone-free spaces in your home. Make a comfy chair or even a whole room off-limits for your smartphone. It's okay to be strict about it! Your brain responds when you cultivate the idea that something is forbidden. I have a "library" where my phone is never allowed--only books. I feel tangible relief just going there. If you want some serious results, make your bed--or better: your bedroom--a no-phone zone.
Pick a time-wasting app to delete. If you're like everybody, you've got several go-to time-killers sitting on your home screen. Choose one to delete as an experiment. See how much you actually miss it. If you can go a month without it, I bet you could delete another one.
Place put-off reading in spaces where you tend to scroll. Put that forgotten novel on your nightstand, print out articles that piqued your interest, or bring back the bathroom magazine rack. Give yourself options in tempting spots.
Practice embracing those little moments of boredom. We've forgotten how to stand in line at the store, sit at a red light, even go to the bathroom without distracting ourselves. It's time to relearn that it's okay to be bored. In fact our brains could probably use the break. When you notice yourself reaching for the phone to pass an empty moment, choose to be in the emptiness instead. Notice everything about it, even the discomfort. Remind yourself that it doesn't need to be avoided or 'cured'. Say "I'm relearning how to just be" or "I want some mental freedom."
Explore what you may be avoiding. Untended and painful emotions can make us more susceptible to build consuming or addictive habits. If you're going through depression, grief, or any thing emotionally difficult, distraction is a valid way to cope--as long as it is leaving room for some intentional self-care.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a professional counselor and the owner of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.