By Catherine Price
If I spent two hours a day practising the piano, I’d be able to accomplish my long-standing goal of learning to sight-read music within a couple of months. If I spent two hours a day studying Spanish, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be able to have a basic conversation.
Our brains respond powerfully to repetition and practice so when studies reveal we spend, on average, two hours a day on our phones, it’s well worth investigating what skills the hours we’re spending on our phones each day might be training us to develop—and at what cost.
Most of the hours we spend on our smartphones are not spent in concentrated thought. Instead, we’re picking up our phones for minutes or seconds at a time. Even when we’re on them for longer stretches, we’re not engrossed in one activity. We’re scrolling and swiping between screens.
And even when we stay within one app—say, a news app or social media—we’re usually still not focusing on anything for more than a few moments. Every tweet, message, profile and post pulls our brains in a different direction. We end up acting like water bugs, skittering on the surface without ever diving in.
But that’s not to say that we only casually focus our attention on our phones. On the contrary, they completely absorb us. The result is a frame of mind that seemingly should be an oxymoron: an intensely focused state of distraction.
As it turns out, this type of frequent, focused distraction isn’t just capable of creating long-lasting changes in our brains; it is particularly good at doing so. If you wanted to invent a device that could rewire our minds, if you wanted to create a society of people who were perpetually distracted, isolated and overtired, if you wanted to weaken our memories and damage our capacity for focus and deep thought, if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption and redraw the lines of social etiquette, you’d likely end up with a smartphone.
How do we protect our brains? One way is to start practising something that’s simultaneously simple and hard: being still. We tend to think of stillness as being synonymous with boredom, and it’s true that we often use both words to describe the same state of mind. But while the word boredom carries with it an element of feeling trapped, stillness offers an opportunity for peace.
As Pema Chödrön writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times: “If we immediately entertain ourselves by talking, by acting, by thinking—if there’s never any pause—we will never be able to relax. We will always be speeding through our lives.”
Stillness also gives your mind the space it needs to be creative and come up with new ideas. So let’s experiment with deliberately making time to be still.
First, identify several situations in which you regularly find yourself reaching for your phone to kill a little bit of time (by “little bit” I mean anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes). For example: while our children play at the park, using the bathroom, just before we go to bed.
Next, choose two or three of those situations—ideally ones that you know you’ll encounter today—and commit to being still. Tomorrow, choose a few more and do the same thing. Try to make small doses of stillness a regular part of your day.
There are many ways to be still. Stare at the ceiling. Notice the people around you. Taste what you’re eating. Look out of a window at the sky. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you don’t reach for a distraction.
At first you’re likely to feel physically and emotionally twitchy, as if your brain is banging on a door that usually opens and panicking when it realises that it’s locked. But after a few minutes—or even seconds—your brain will tire itself out. It will stop pounding on the door and start noticing the room that it’s already in. And who knows? It might decide that it likes it there.
Catherine Price is an author and science journalist who graduated from Yale and Berkeley universities. Her website is phonebreakup.com.
This is an edited extract from How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $27.99.