Learning to place yourself in airplane mode

#06 An antidote to distraction


Happy Christmas. I hope you're enjoying the festive break.

Today's piece is part two of my series Screen tech: weapons of mass distraction.

If you're playing catch up, you can read part one - Stone Age brains v God-like technology here.

While this weekly newsletter has recieved lots of positive feedback, some comments have suggested it’s too long. With that in mind, I’ve made today's piece much shorter than previous posts.

I’ll try to continue in this vain.🤞


Learning to place yourself in airplane mode

Reading time: 4 minutes

Look within; within is the fountain of all good. 

Marcus Aure1lius

Willy’s waning willpower

William is struggling to form a new habit.  He longs to reduce his smartphone addiction and focus on getting fit.

After a promising start however, his willpower waned and he found himself becoming more easily distracted. To keep up, he matched his struggle with evermore desperate methods:

  • He turned his screen grayscale (think how appealing a sweet shop would be without colourful candy!) but found his shiny display no less stimulating.  

  • He tried a digital detox but longed for podcasts and googlemaps.

Screen technology, as I argued in my previous post is designed to prey on our Stone Age instincts - our need for social validation, the allure of a reward, our lack of self control.

But, maybe it is not all technologies’s fault.

It's yours?

Human psychological vulnerabities are hardly the fault of technology.

What if it turned out the most common source of distraction, are our internal triggers - those uncomfortable emotional states we seek to escape everyday?

If we’re lonely, we check Facebook.

If we’re uncertain, we google.

If we’re bored, we check the news.

In the words of Nir Eyal: “Being indistractable…necessitates reining ourselves in.”

And how about our monkey mind - the master procrastinator?  Desperate to minimise discomfort and maximise convenience and pleasure, the monkey mind's favourite method of procrastination is distraction.

This is inherent in all of us - always has been.  

Even the Ancients knew all about it. Fifth century Buddhist texts refer to the “monkey mind”. One thousand years earlier, Hippocrates (the Oath guy!) wrote about his patients' hyperactive attention span.

Just like William, even if you flushed your smartphone down the toilet, you would still procrastinate.  Addictive technologies like the smartphone, simply emphasise this basic human trait.

If smartphone addiction really is about personal responsibilty, an antidote to the problem of distraction, is mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters


Mindfulness is the training of attention.  It is developing the ability to directly observe your mental and physical experiences, in the present moment, without judgement, so you can focus on what you can control. It teaches us that the quality and nature of your attention has a direct impact on your wellbeing. It expands space for better decision-making.

On the eve of his wedding day, author Rohan Gunatillake crushed his legs between his car and a wall.  He forgot to pull the handbrake and his car rolled into him, trapping his legs. Alone and in the middle of nowhere, it would be hours before help arrived.  

In those initial moments of pain, Gunatillake's head spun out of control. He wondered, would he be able to walk down the aisle? Would he be able to walk at all? What would his wife say?  How would his parents react? Would the cricket pitch be set up in time for the post-wedding game? 

Instead of allowing his mind to continue to spiral and stimulate more panic, Gunatillake turned to mindfulness.  

By placing his awareness on the physical sensations in his body, the pressure on his thighs, the feeling of the brickwork, he was able to focus on remaining calm, control negative thoughts and cope with the pain, until help arrived.

This extreme scenario shows mindfulness can be an important tool for returning our sense of agency and control.

This makes it especially useful when counteracting distraction by smartphone. But don't worry, you don't need to completely turn off your phone and live a monk-like existence to be mindful.

Digital Dualism

The digital detox model is ill-concieved. Mindfulness and technology do not sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Digital technololgy is part of us, physically and mentally.

This digital duality of being online or offline is a relic of the past. We are all online, all of the time. Whether glued to our phone over dinner or tech-free on a silent retreat in the middle of nowhere, those same digital technologies underpin our economy and way of life.

In cognitive science, the "extended mind", demonstrates how we outsource bits and pieces of our mind to technology - a hearing aid, GPS, Google Translate - the list is endless.

If the smartphone is a physical and mental extension of our bodies, maybe it's time to think of it as such?  Guntillake calls this "Cyborg Sense."

Screen-based technology is an attentional technology.  It is therefore also a wellbeing technology.  We need to treat it as such and incorporate it into a mindful practice, alongside the physical and mental sensations of the body.

Klobber head

"A movement to be post digital will emerge in 2020. We will start to realise that being chained to your mobile phone is a low-status behaviour, similar to smoking"

Bj Fogg

In a society where information is infinite and abundant, attention is a precious commodity.  Our attention is undoubtedly manipulated and farmed for commercial gain, but digital technologies are not toxic in and of themselves. They are a neutral tool, designed in a way that preys on our psychological vulnerabilities.

If you klobber someone with a hammer, the klobberer gets the blame, not the tool. On the other hand if the hammer was designed as a leathal weapon, with all of its other productive and positive functions ignored - the tech industry would be this hammer.  

Society cannot hold its breath and wait for companies to make their hammers less lethal - aka their products less addictive. Nor can it wait for Governments to compel industry to behave more ethically.  To do so would mean suffocation.

It's time to invest in our "inner life".  Unlike the "outer life" of our smartphones and the material world, our inner life, the source of so many of life's ills, can be nurtured as we wish.

As William, continues to struggle with good habit formation, I can't help but feel his efforts would be better served, accompanied by the emotional armoury of mindfulness.

To learn how to practice mindfulness, check out some fantastic books here, here and here.

That’s it until the year 2020!

In the meantime, you’ll Find me on Twitter or my website.

Take care,