Paying attention to where I place my attention

Old habits die hard; thankfully, old friendships do too.

I started writing this week’s newsletter by hand, which was slightly unusual for me. I worked on it while eating lunch at a restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. It was an especially Instagrammable meal, in an especially cute space, overlooking an especially well-known street, but I didn’t document it. I kept my phone firmly tucked away in my purse. That was even more unusual for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about attention; more specifically, about how many things are competing for our attention at any given moment. These days, fully focusing my attention on a single thing for more than a handful of minutes feels like a luxury—one that’s increasingly difficult to achieve. It’s rare for me to not be jumping between tasks, thinking about multiple projects at once, or trying to juggle simultaneous chores.

My phone is easily the biggest attention-grabbing culprit in my life. Between the buzzing of texts and news notifications; easy access to email, Slack, and Messenger; and the ever-present pull of social media, my phone is like a bossy, demanding temptress who loudly reminds me that she’s around, in case I’d forgotten. More often than not, her reminders work.

I spent last weekend, also in New Orleans, with a group of old friends and former coworkers I’ve known for a decade. It was a significant reunion: it had been at least four years since we’d all been together, and we traveled from four different states to make it happen. While we enjoyed plenty of fulfilling moments together—time spent laughing, wandering the French Quarter, reminiscing about old stories, drinking fancy drinks and eating delicious food, and catching up on life—I couldn’t help but notice that we also spent a significant amount of time on our phones. Sometimes our phones would emerge whenever conversation lulled; sometimes, they’d appear as we received various texts and news notifications; and sometimes they offered us some quiet separation from the group.

I can’t fault anyone for this. I was just as culpable of looking at my phone and getting sucked into its attention-grabbing pull. But it did make me kind of sad. It took us four years to make this reunion happen! One core member of our group is no longer alive! We were in a beautiful and vibrant city! We had so much conversation territory to cover! And yet, despite everything in front of us, we still felt the need to make sure we weren’t missing out on whatever was happening in our virtual worlds.

I recently finished Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. It’s a dense book, one that I promptly decided to reread because, fittingly, I wanted to pay closer attention to some of the lessons I may have missed. Odell’s book isn’t about laziness; it’s about consciously choosing the things we focus on, instead of letting technology dictate where we place our attention. In her opening chapter, Odell makes the case for doing nothing, while also acknowledging how difficult that is to do:

In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing.’ It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.

To me, How to Do Nothing is more of an explanation of why we should be doing less and paying attention more, instead of an instructional text. There’s also a chance that, in my time- and attention-starved life, I missed the subtle hows. 

The whys, though, were incredibly compelling, especially when it came to how much time and attention we’re giving to things like social media. One of the sections that stuck with me most was from ethicist James Williams:

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting.’ But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want.’ Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

Are our phones keeping us from living the lives we want to live? Are we slowly but surely reducing our capacities for reflection and self-regulation? I can only speak for myself, but I worry that those answers are a resounding yes.

There were moments during our reunion weekend when we’d comment on how annoyingly addictive our phones had become, only to sneak peeks at them a few minutes later. I noticed how my buddy Ken would instinctively pick up his phone only to slam it back down on the table in protest. Instagram distracted me, Twitter lured Katherine in, and football updates seduced Manav and Kyle. Some of us are more addicted to different apps and sites than others, but at some point during our time together we each, subconsciously or not, chose to pay more attention to our phones than our friends. 

My friends departed New Orleans on Sunday, leaving me for a few days in the city solo before I attend a hyperconnected journalism conference where being on your phone and social media is practically a requirement. It was the perfect time to break away from my screen and enjoy some introspective moments while visiting a city so special to me, but even that was hard to do. 

When I’m traveling alone, I feel compelled to document and share my journeys—to prove that I am, indeed, having fun—which unfortunately tends to dull my actual experience. And when I open social media to check in on what everyone else is doing in their lives? That can effectively take me out of whatever I’m currently doing. So, just like I did during that lunch on Magazine Street, I tried to spend my alone time in NOLA deliberately keeping my phone out of sight, forcing myself to focus instead on my surroundings. 

So what’s the solution to this compulsive need to distract myself from actually living my life? As much as I daydream about quitting social media, thereby curing my phone addition, I don’t think that’s a realistic solution. For better or worse, I rely on social media to stay connected to friends and professional contacts, and it can be a source of valuable information, fulfillment and fun. The answer, I think, is to use my phone in moderation, and the key to moderation is awareness.

In mindfulness meditation, the goal is to let thoughts and feelings pass without judgment, allowing the mind to refocus on the present moment. Meditation is something that I’m admittedly not great at, but in the times I’ve gotten into a solid meditation routine, I’ve found myself much less distracted throughout the day. Like anything else, it’s a practice you have to hone—one that becomes easier with time and effort.

I’m aiming to take a similar approach with my phone. Instead of immediately giving into the urge to open Instagram, I’m hoping to take note of that urge, and refocus my attention to whatever I was doing. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and feeling sad or left out from all the happy updates, I could use that time to reach out directly to friends, getting a more realistic update on their lives. And when I do feel compelled to share updates or my latest travel photos on social media, I want to do it because I want to, not because I feel the need to.

Doing this—and getting better at it—will take time and patience, but I’m looking forward to the benefits I’ll gain from spending less time staring at my phone. It’s no surprise that I’m at my most content when I’m fully immersed in a task, like coloring an intricate pattern, hiking a difficult trail, or having a deep conversation. Those times are when my sweet dumb brain is happiest, when I feel effortlessly at peace. By giving in to various distractions vying for my attention, I rob myself of precious moments like these.

The best times during our reunion weekend were when we all devoted our attention to what was going on in that given moment. When all nine of us noticed the same interesting building, swayed to the same song, or cracked up at the same joke, it felt a bit like magic. On our last night together, we played a ridiculous and ridiculously fun card game that we’d invented years ago. It demanded everyone’s full attention, and we had a blast revisiting it. We played until the wee hours of the morning, laughed until our sides hurt, and successfully ignored our phones. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.



Good job, brain

I'm reading: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. If every book was this engrossing, I probably wouldn’t be struggling with phone addiction so much! Highly recommend, even though I feel like I’m the last person to read this book!

I’m inspired by: The lovely, lovely group of friends I got to see, and the fact that we all made an effort to make our NOLA reunion happen. I’m very grateful.

I'm aiming to: Stay. Off. My. Phone.

Additional resources

For your sweet dumb brain

What’s your phone distracting you from? I’ve noticed that I tend to spend more time on my phone when I’m feeling especially tired or sad. Think about the times when you are most often on your phone. What could you do instead that might help you address or examine how you’re feeling? 

Bonus points: If you have any tips on how to spend less time on your phone and social media, or thoughts on phone use in general, I’d love to read them! I may include some of your replies in a future issue.

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who also wants to be more intentional with screen time.