I was on a date recently when something terrible happened.
To be honest, my expectations probably shouldn’t have been so high. We live in the days of Tinder when first dates are a dime a dozen.
But this felt different. We quickly skipped through the small talk and she shared her fascination with psychology and Noam Chomsky, my two favorite topics to talk about. For the first time in a long time, it felt like I was deeply connecting with someone.
Then something seemingly innocuous happened that killed the vibe. Her phone started buzzing with message notifications.
She’s a lawyer and let me know she needed to keep an eye on her phone as she was working on a big case. She kept on checking her phone throughout the date.
Try as we might, we couldn’t get back into the flow of the conversation that was taking us on mind bending topics like human nature, whether humans have an instinct for freedom and what “collective consciousness” really meant.
The intimacy was gone, and I knew the culprit. It didn’t matter that she was working on a case. She could just as easily have been checking in on her friends and loved ones.
The problem was her smartphone, and it destroyed our first date.
Attention is everything, and smartphone notifications take it away
When you think about it, your attention is everything and it’s the one thing you should have control of. Your body may deteriorate. Your relationship may fail. Your emotional state may change with the wind. But throughout all of these changes, you always have a choice of what to focus on.
Unfortunately, today’s technology is pulling attention in more directions than ever before. This is making it difficult for us to have the freedom to choose what to give our attention to.
The other day I wrote an article about what makes Warren Buffett so productive. The key difference between Buffett and others is that he’s able to focus on a limited set of goals and ignores everything else.
We can take it further. The most important skill for succeeding in the information age is the ability to focus deeply on a single project, idea or task for long periods of time.
Indeed, having the ability of this kind of focus may even be the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. After all, when you’re feeling scatterbrained and out of control of what’s happening – are you happy in these times of your life?
I think this is what triggered me on my recent first date. Building a connection with someone requires the same kind of focus and attention. Yet smartphone notifications are always demanding our attention and it’s becoming too easy to allow ourselves to be distracted.
How often have you been in meetings with someone where they’re always checking their phone? Perhaps you automatically do this yourself out of fear of becoming bored. This is what happens to me.
Yet there’s something more insidious going on. Technology is taking over our brains, and they’re doing it by continually sending us smartphone notifications.
How technology hijacks your mind
Tristan Harris is an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities in order to make more money. He spent the last 3 years working as a design ethicist at Google focusing on how to design technology in ways that prevent billions of people’s minds from being hijacked by technology.
Rather than focus optimistically on all the good things that technology does for us, he seeks instead to answer this question:
Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?
Harris learned to think this way as a magician, always looking for people’s blind spots so he could influence them without them realizing it.
This is exactly what the product designers do at Google, Facebook and many of the other technology companies.
The average person checks their phone 150 times per day. The major technology companies design notifications for this, making sure that we receive “intermittent rewards” like we do from slot machines. They know that if we only sometimes find something of value, we’ll be conditioned to keep on coming back for more. They also actively seek to induce the “fear of missing out”, ensuring the only way we can find out what’s going on with our friends is by continually checking for notifications.
Technology companies are heightening our sense of urgency and interrupting us from living the moment. They’re taking control of our minds, and smartphone notifications are the culprit.
What can we do about it?
I want to live in a world without the constant interruptions of smartphone notifications. I want to go on a date and give my attention solely to my partner and receive the same in return. I want to have a business meeting and focus completely on whatever our shared objective is without constant interruptions.
This is what I want, but Google, Facebook and the other perpetrators of smartphone notifications aren’t going to give it to me. They’re not going to make it easy for you to take control back over your attention.
As with anything in life, change needs to begin with you. It’s time to take control back over your attention.
Today, put your smarphone in airplane mode for one hour and enjoy spending time with whoever you’re with, or even take the time just to be present and observe your surroundings.
One hour is a small step forward, but it will create the seed of change to take control back over your attention and stop letting smartphone notifications control your life.
As Lao Tzu once said, “The journey of one thousand miles begins with one step.”