It’s been exactly one year since I wrote Distracted Living. I had no idea that my story of that night, of that feeling of losing the ability to single task, of feeling that slip away from me like water through the drain, would resonate with so many. What was it that we were responding to? How it is that so many men and women across the country saw themselves in that moment? They know this feeling. What was it that was taking over us?
I have revisited this question many times over a long, wonderful, hard, and exhausting year. I believe there were two parts to my story that night. The first, was a desire that I believe resonates with many of us to feel frustration or boredom in the day to day minutiae of parenting and to use our phones as an escape from these hard feelings. The other piece of it was a desire to operate much like our phones, to try to do multiple things at once with increasing efficiency. Perhaps it’s not just that we’re glued to our phones, but rather that we’re becoming them.
I regret that after all this time, I still have more questions than answers. I wonder, are our lives supposed to have a headline, a main story that we could in effect be distracted from? Or are we supposed to be living in multiple places, spaces, and stories at all times? Were we designed that way? Is that preferred? Or are we adapting, literally evolving from an evolutionary place in terms of how we operate, based on these little devices we almost always have in our hands, next to us, in our back packet, in front of our faces, on our nightstands, never more than 2 inches from us.
For me, after much introspection I have come to realize that my desire to multi-task stems from a very human place, not just an overly aggressive attachment or dependency on technology. You see, what I missed in my post to you one year ago was that I pinned the source of this inability to single task, this feeling of chronic distractedness as directly correlated with the rise of smartphones and tablets. It was easy to blame this feeling on something and technology felt like the likely candidate. It doesn’t mean I don’t think there is some truth to that – that there is some sinister underpinning to the increasing scope of this stuff in our lives. But what I undervalued is what drives that increasing scope: you and me. Human desires, struggles, boredom, frustration. I wasn’t just externally distracted by other people and places and things that needed me, I was equally seeking distractions in a very human quest to evade tricky feelings through enough apps and clicks.
Over the past several months, I have taken some steps to increase my comfort level with the role of technology in my life, and to minimize distractions. I have specific moments in my day when phones and tablets are far away. These include: meals, driving, bathing, and bedtime rituals with our children. I have deleted all social media apps from my phone. If I want to check something I need to do so through Internet Explorer which is more cumbersome and less user friendly on a mobile device. This is good because it discourages me from doing so too often throughout the day. Perhaps most importantly, all of my notifications have been disabled. It doesn’t hum or rattle or beep or anything. It just lies there and does nothing, the way it should as a one dimensional piece of plastic.
But this feeling of struggling to single task, I would be outright lying if I said it didn’t still persist. It is hard to be okay with letting things drop: being late, or messy or uncomfortable or letting little ones feel impatient. It is hard to feel that you cannot help them all or do it all. It is a hard truth borne from a slowly evolving realization that doing less can in fact mean more.
I recently read an article detailing a scientific study that people who read books, or who engage in “slow reading,” are more able to retain information than if the same thing is read on an e-reader. The authors write: “As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning.” And this is it exactly. This perfectly sums up this feeling that I continue to struggle with: this feeling of trying to do too much at any one time; this feeling of skimming through life, rather than absorbing the meaning.
Do you know this feeling? It is the difference between sitting at the table versus being at it, or putting them to bed versus tucking them in. It is the difference between eating your food versus tasting it or raising your kids versus enjoying them. Ask yourself, are you truly there in mind and body, or are you skimming?
Honestly, it’s harder than it looks. One year later, I still fight the impulse to avoid hard feelings by looking down instead of turning in, or to just multitask my way through the hours. Each day, I am at war with myself over the misguided and culturally reinforced notion that having it all, in fact means doing it all. It is a truly hard fight. But I continue to wage my own personal and daily struggle with intention. I fight knowing that this life and the people I love are worth it, knowing how much better and brighter it will be to put down a world filled with to-dos and mindless externalities that glow at me from within my phone, to truly stay present in the world I am blessed enough to be in.