Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Distracted Living: One Year Later

It’s been exactly one year since I wrote Distracted Living. In that piece, I described a night when I left my daughter alone in the tub while I went to start the shower for her brother. I stopped to look at an e-mail. It was just two minutes, but it could have been a lifetime. She had fallen asleep in the bathtub. I could have lost her.

I had no idea that my story of that night 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? What was taking over all of us?

I regret that after all this time, I still have more questions than answers. Are our lives supposed to have a headline that we could be distracted from? Or are we supposed to be living in multiple places, spaces, and stories at all times? Were we designed that way? Or are we literally evolving, from an evolutionary place in terms of how we operate, based on these little devices we almost always have in our hands, in our back pocket, in front of our faces, on our nightstands, never more than two inches from us.

Over time, I have come to realize that my desire to multi-task stems from a very human place, not just a dependency on technology. You see, what I missed in my post 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. 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, 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. Perhaps most importantly, all of my notifications have been disabled. It doesn’t hum or rattle or beep. It just lies there and does nothing, the way a piece of plastic should.

But this feeling of struggling to single task, I would be 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.” This perfectly sums up this feeling that I continue to struggle with: 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. 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, 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 hard fight. But I continue to wage my own daily struggle with intention.


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