Chasing the Squirrel: Distraction, iPhones, and Recovery

I recently came across an older Wired article from last year by Katie Hafner that describes something I experienced in the last five years. Katie describes her problem as “episodic partial attention”, something that she brought on herself by allowing electronics (primarily her iPhone) to keep her in a state of constant distraction. This led to larger problems in her life where she wasn’t able to stay focused on a specific task long enough to get it done, even if that task was something as simple as feeding her dog or making the bed:

A typical 45 seconds of living with episodic partial attention: I begin to put the dog’s breakfast in his bowl only to notice a spot on the countertop that must be wiped clean this very second, which leads me across the room to the rag cupboard. During my journey, I hear a text arrive on my phone, which is on the kitchen table, so I do a hairpin turn to check the message, and when I pick up the phone I see a notification of a breaking CNN story. I sit down to read it. I’m two paragraphs into the story when I remember to check the text message and start to respond, which feels like work. Wasn’t I about to make myself a cup of coffee? I get up to do that. But why is the dog staring at me so plaintively?

It sounds like a really wonky problem, but I can relate. There were times in the last three years when I would walk outside to pick up a toy my kids had left in the backyard before leaving to go to my parents’ place for dinner, only to be distracted by a handful of annoying weeds along the house that had to be pulled immediately. Ten minutes later, my wife would come searching for me, only to find me on the other side of the yard, watering a dry spot on the lawn with the garden hose. It was in these moments I realized I had a problem with staying on-task and focused, and I was pretty sure it had something to do with my phone.

Eliminating the Squirrels

So in the past year or so, I’ve been ruthlessly cutting out those “Squirrel” distractions from my smartphone, including removing email entirely, deleting all apps with a feed, banning all games, and most recently experimenting with a blank home screen. After watching this clip from a talk by Simon Sinek, I stopped bringing my phone to work meetings (just due to the disrespect it shows to people to have your phone out in a meeting)1, and I’ve sometimes resorted to leaving it at home when I go to church on Sunday mornings.

There have been other experiments, such as the commitment my wife and I made more than a year ago not to sleep with our phones in our bedroom. Instead, before we go to bed, we both put our phones in the kitchen on a charging stand we call “phone jail”. We use a standalone alarm clock in our room, which works great. Not only has this experiment strengthened our marriage, but it has become a full-scale habit. When I wake up in the morning, I get to see the woman I love and cherish, instead of immediately getting sucked into the endless feed of other people’s photos or the never ending chain of emails from work. The temptation isn’t there. Most mornings, I don’t even grab my phone until after I’m out of bed and I’ve spent 15-30 minutes reading the Bible and chatting with my wife over a cup of tea.

Long Road Ahead

Initially, these exercises were difficult and revealed so much about how addicted I have become to this smartphone thing as a source of mindless entertainment and distraction. I can definitely relate to the author of the Wired article I mentioned above, when she states:

Perhaps because I have fallen so far down the hole of tasks partially finished, climbing back up has been hard. Very hard. This problem was a long time in developing, and it will not be fixed overnight.

I still find myself reaching for the phone as a way to kill a few minutes of dead time before a meal, or to distract from something boring in a meeting. But the dumber I can make my smartphone, the more I’m reminded that it’s simply a tool that I should use as a means to support my larger goals, instead of using it as a drug to “zone out” and distract myself from life. Then comes the somewhat longer journey of retraining my focus so that I can actually stick with a task long enough to get the job done.

  1. One annoying challenge to this commitment is the whole MFA (multi-factor authentication) feature that is now commonly required in office environments. Because my phone is now effectively part of my password, I can’t leave it behind at my desk if I’m bringing my laptop to a presentation.