It’s been a long time since I got my first cell phone.
14 years, in fact. My first cell phone was one of those squarish Nokia brick phones. It had the snake game, and I paid $40 a month for 200 minutes (a text message counted as a minute). I was 15, and working part time at a Dominoes Pizza by my house, so I could afford it.
Most of my friends didn’t have cell phones, and if they did, they had expensive plans and were only to be used in emergencies. But still, it was really cool to say to someone, “Here’s my cell phone number.” I felt like such a boss. My mom was pretty angry when she found out I’d bought a cell phone - because I hadn’t asked for her permission - but she came around.
Fast forward to 2008. Everyone had cell phones, and we were texting up a storm. The most common phone at the time was the Motorola Razr. Some of the phones had internet capability, but it was expensive and clunky to use. I used the alarm clock and the calendar, but I wasn’t doing much besides working as a short-order cook at a restaurant, so my phone was mostly for keeping in touch with friends.
And Then, The iPhone
I’m proud to say that I was an early adopter of the iPhone. Not the original, but the 3G. I was doing research about “internet” phones at the time, and when I found out that Apple was creating an app store that developers could submit apps to, I knew it was game over. That was the phone I was going to get. I spent the launch day for the iPhone 3G in line at various AT&T stores, but ended up ordering one online.
The iPhone 3G was magical. I could browse the internet (the whole internet!) on a touch screen phone that fit in my pocket. There were all kinds of apps being released every week, each providing useful functionality or some kind of entertainment.
Somewhere along the way, something went wrong. My iPhone stopped being this wonderful device that let me find information anytime I wanted, and started being a delivery mechanism for people and companies who wanted my attention.
Peace and Quiet, Disrupted
Anytime I hear someone’s phone make a sound, I get angry. Is the information you just received really worth disturbing everyone in your vicinity? Put your phone on vibrate, dammit! The text message is still going to be there when you pick up your phone in 30 seconds.
I know this doesn’t apply to some people; those of you with important jobs where you need to be on call, or families that need to be able to get in touch with you. But I’m not talking about those notifications. I’m talking about the little semi-useful bits of information that get pushed to you, sucking up your attention throughout the day with little noises and pop-ups.
How many times a day would you check your phone even if all the sounds were turned off? Does this not strike you as a little bit crazy? Remember when we had real life things to do? When is the last time you gave something 100% of your attention?
Is it just easier to let other people decide what we should be paying attention to?
Focus Means Paying Attention
In the pursuit of focus, I asked myself, “What is more important: the notifications I receive, or the thing I should be giving my full attention to?” I decided that whatever I’ve decided to do at any given moment is the thing that should have my full attention.
That’s worth repeating. “I’ve decided to do this thing. I will give this thing my full, undivided attention for as long as I need to. For as long as I decide to.”
A push notification is nothing more than something trying to convince you that it deserves your attention more than anything else at the moment.
I say NOPE.
It’s my job to decide what I want to give my attention to. If I’m lucky, I have 50 or 60 years of life left. I don’t want to live my life letting other people decide what I do with my time, and what I’m going to pay attention to.
Guarding My Attention
Notification overload sneaks up on you. If you aren’t paying attention, you may not even realize that notifications and emails are piling up, silently fighting for your attention.
Last week, I turned off most notifications on my iPhone. If my phone’s ringer switch is set to on, it will vibrate if someone texts or calls. If the switch is set to silent, it won’t make any noise at all.
I’ve also turned off popup notifications on my Mac, where I do most of my work. I realize that this means that some people will email or text me and not get a response back right away, but I’m ok with that. I still check my messages and email regularly throughout the day, so it’s not like I’ll be spending hours cut-off from the world.
I will now be able to spend chunks of my day without distraction, focusing on doing things I’ve decided to do. Nobody gets to interrupt me anymore, unless I’ve given them prior permission to.