After a long and tiring day at the office you pick up your smartphone to listen to your favorite song and unwind a bit. But a red circle captures your attention: you have a new message. Could it be Bob? You have to read the message, and yes, it’s Bob. You reply back. While you wait for Bob to respond, you cast a cursory glance on your social media feeds. Hey, Melissa shared a link to a video that looks interesting. It leads you to a related video. And another one. Twenty-two minutes and thirty-seven clicks later, you’re watching a video of a cat making funny sounds as it takes a bite from a juicy slice of watermelon.

Wait, how did I end up here? I picked up my phone to listen to a song, not to watch a cat eat watermelon!

Unless you are a supernatural being with unlimited self-control, you probably recognize this everyday example in one form or another. 

In the age of digital distraction, we regularly pick up our smartphone to do one thing, only to end up doing something else.

"In the age of digital distraction, we regularly pick up our smartphone to do one thing, only to end up doing something else."

By now, it has been well documented how some of the most popular apps today were engineered to hijack your attention and keep you hooked. They are addictive by design. 

You can almost feel their gravity pulling you toward them as you navigate the digital universe – an irresistible force that makes you forget where you were going in the first place.

Once these apps have lured you in, the gravitational force of endless feedback loops and personalized content recommendations sucks you further into a rabbit hole of distraction. 

Another hour of your life: gone.

It happened to me more often than I liked to admit.

With a highly sensitive and curious brain that is particularly vulnerable to distraction, it felt like my mind was constantly drawn into a million directions whenever I picked up my smartphone. I tried to resist. But I often failed.

The smartphone and the internet have opened our world to millions of opportunities – yet they have made it infinitely harder to focus on a single one of them. 

"The smartphone and the internet have opened our world to millions of opportunities - yet they have made it infinitely harder to focus on a single one of them."

To be everywhere is to be nowhere

Centuries ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca already warned us about the consequences when he wrote that “to be everywhere, is to be nowhere.”

Althought the scientific evidence is still inconclusive, a growing number of studies paints a worrying picture of the effects of smartphone use on our mental wellbeing and functioning. Perhaps most disturbingly, a 2017 study found that the mere presence of your smartphone – even if it’s powered off – can hamper your ability to concentrate; a phenomenon the researchers termed ‘brain drain’.

There seems to be a growing awareness that we need to regain control over our smartphones, rather than letting ourselves be controlled by them.  

Why is it so hard to stay focused in the presence of your smartphone?

As I started confronting my own smartphone habits some time ago, I realized it was not just the addictiveness of certain apps that I was struggling with.

There may be an even deeper problem with our smartphone use – a problem you cannot escape entirely by turning off all notifications or removing the most addictive apps from your phone (although this certainly helps). 

To understand this problem, we need to go back in time.

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The self-delusion that our smartphone instills in us

When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in 2007, its main selling point was that it was three devices in one: a device for playing music, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device.

No longer did you need to carry around different devices – all you needed to do was pull out your smartphone. Its convenience was revolutionary. And we eagerly embraced it.

We now use our smartphone for everything from sending work emails to recording videos of family get-togethers. 

We have moved from single-purpose tools – a music player, a camera, a phone – to the smartphone as a multi-purpose tool that integrates all these functions into one device.

"We have moved from single-purpose tools - a music player, a camera, a phone - to the smartphone as a multi-purpose tool that integrates all these functions into one device."

The problem is this, however: because we now carry a multi-purpose tool everywhere we go, we are tempted into thinking that we actually can and should be performing many tasks at the same time. 

The reality is, however, that we are not very good at multitasking. Even when we like to believe we are. Our mind works best when it can focus on one task in any given moment. Not when it is lured into switching between tasks every few seconds or minutes.

Worse yet: our attempts to multitask wreak havoc with our minds. In 2009, Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass found that heavy multitaskers performed more poorly in distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information. In their constant mental frenzy, they lost sight of the essence.

In hindsight, maybe we need to acknowledge that the multi-purpose nature of the smartphone is both its biggest strength and its biggest flaw. Its convenience is undeniable. But it has also fooled us into believing that we are capable multitaskers when we are not.

This self-delusion is exacerbated by the so-called Zeigarnik effect: because the presence of your smartphone constantly reminds you that you could be performing other tasks you haven’t finished yet, they linger in your mind – tiring you down subconsciously. 

To echo Seneca, if we let our tiny screens constantly scatter out attention, we risk ending up everywhere and nowhere.

Is their a remedy? 

My own search for answers led me to an unexpected conclusion.

Break your phone into pieces

It first dawned on me when I bought a watch a few years ago. 

I hadn’t worn a watch in half a decade. I used to pick up my phone to check the time when I was on the move. It seemed so efficient and convenient then. But as I walked out of a watch store and attached my new analog accessory to my wrist, I felt a calmness come over me: I realized that, from that moment on, I would be able to check the time again without having to resist the urge to check my email or social media. No apps vying for my attention. Just a timepiece that was happy being a timepiece, and nothing else.

A few weeks later I bought an alarm clock. I no longer wanted my smartphone anywhere near me in my bedroom. My phone used to offer an easy escape whenever I felt lonely or craved stimulation. But I had to confront that it was taking a toll on my sleep – and that it was not a healthy way of dealing with my feelings. 

Inspired by my newfound peace of mind, I dusted off my old (wifi-less!) iPod. I started going for walks while leaving my smartphone at home. I rejoiced in the ability to listen to music and fully take in my surroundings, without feeling my mind wander off in a million directions.

A strategy emerged, which I had not originally planned for.

I was essentially uncoupling the different functionalities of my smartphone – reverting to single-purpose tools. And I realized that these single-purpose tools often served me better, because they encouraged mindfulness over multitasking.

"I realized that single-purpose tools often served me better, because they encourage mindfulness over multitasking."

The ultimate choice

I have since implemented this strategy more consciously – and if there’s one area in my life where I treasure it most dearly, it’s in my photography. 

The biggest benefit of photographing with a clunky camera is not that you get better quality pictures than with a smartphone. The biggest benefit is that it’s a single-purpose tool. 

A camera, unlike a smartphone, invites you to focus on taking pictures at the exclusion of everything else.

"A camera, unlike a smartphone, invites you to focus on taking pictures at the exclusion of everything else."

I can easily spend one to two hours in the same spot with my camera, waiting for one moment of magic to strike. A beautiful cloud, a touch of color in the sky. All the while, I will leave my smartphone switched off and out of sight, tucked away in my bag. 

Would I be able to take the same photo with my phone? In many cases, yes, I could probably get close. But would I be able to maintain the same level of concentration for one or two hours? Absolutely not.

My point is not to be anti-smartphone. In fact, I would get hopelessly lost if I didn’t have my navigation app to guide me to places of interest while I’m out exploring with my camera. 

My point is to think more purposefully about the tool you select in any given moment.

What makes one tool superior to another in a particular moment is not how many things it allows you to do. It’s how well it helps you achieve the thing that’s most important to you in that moment.

"What makes one tool superior to another in a particular moment is not how many things it allows you to do. It’s how well it helps you achieve the thing that’s most important to you in that moment."

Sometimes your smartphone may be your best option. But more often than you think, it could be a tool that helps you do one thing – and one thing only.

What this choice may ultimately come down to is the difference between being fully present in the moment, versus being everywhere and nowhere.

I don’t know about you, but I know where I’d rather be.

If you have any tips for keeping your smartphone habits in check, feel free to share them in the comment section below so others can learn from them.

P.S. One other question: my old iPod broke down soon after I started reusing it. If you have any recommendations for a decent portable music player without wifi, I’d be much obliged. Thank you!

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