I had one of the first Blackberrys. I don't mean the Blackberry phone–I mean the two way pager. The only other person I knew who had one was my boss. We used to email each other saying things like, "I'm at a red light!"
I also had a cell phone, and a beeper. I wore them all on my belt in holsters, creating a nerdy version of Batman's utility belt. The ability to connect to anyone, anytime was empowering. Freeing even. I never had to fear missing out.
I had no idea the impact this technology would have on our culture. After a few years of constant connection, of constant pings, rings, and dings, I started to fray. My mind was overheating, and I couldn't relax.
My job requires that people can reach me–and for good reason. Important machines sometimes need my attention. But, the never ending barrage was killing me. I've always been a deep sleeper, but I found myself waking to every buzz of my "silent" devices.
I set up a series of disciplines that let me be available in the ways I needed to be, but also gave me the ability to focus and rest. I beat digital addiction and distraction. My life improved.
At least I did until I became Science Mike. Suddenly my phone rings, dings, and pings more than ever. However, now it isn't machines asking to be fixed, but people telling me they like my work. I'm part of this incredible community online of people who see the world much like I do, or at least walk a journey like mine.
So almost every ping brings good news.
Someone liked that post!
Someone retweeted that tweet!
Someone hearted that Instagram!
A bunch of people downloaded that Podcast and now it's in the Top 20!
Someone wants to book you to speak!
Someone whose work you've admired for years wants to talk on the phone!
EVERYTHING WONDERFUL IS HAPPENING ONLINE!!!
Meanwhile, my amazing wife and children see me stare into glowing screens a lot. I don't just mean the necessary stuff–the recording of podcasts or the writing of articles and books. I mean the Addict has returned, and his drug is all that affirmation.
I set up all those boundaries years ago to protect me from stress. Now, I know that's not the only tug. Good things can addict you too.
This pull has dark roots. Fear.
I'm afraid a lot. I'm afraid if I don't reply to your tweets or comments you'll move on and stop supporting my work. I'm scared if some successful industry person gets my voicemail, they'll write me off. I'm scared if I'm not quick on the draw with potential events, they'll slip away.
I know this is nutty in my higher brain. But that Ancient Wolf in the limbic system doesn't trust so easily. It's kill or be killed. It's hunt or starve.
I've stopped practicing what I preach. I am not fully present in many conversations because I'm fascinated with the seemingly sudden success of my public persona.
I'm going to try these tips 2012 me came up with in the coming weeks. If you also wrestle with digital distraction addiction, try them with me.
- Delay connectivity when you wake up. One of the worst things you can do is start your day with email and texting. It's much better to wake up, eat breakfast and get dressed before diving into the digital demands of the day. This is critically important for making a plan of attack for your day instead of turning into an email-firefighter. If you like to read the news on something digital before or during breakfast, feel free. Just stay off social networks, email and SMS.
- Plan working blocks with limited connectivity. When I am working on large projects, I typically silence my cell phone. If I am working on my iPad, I'll often use Airplane mode to stop all distractions. When I am working on my Mac, I will keep email closed and only check it once per hour.
- Put the phone away at meals & meetings. If you are eating alone, avoid the temptation to socialize virtually. If you are eating with friends or coworkers, pretend you don't have a phone at all. This will actually benefit your employer! When you don't allow your mind to disengage a problem during lunch, you often prevent yourself from gaining enough distance and perspective to solve it.
- Make 30 minutes before bed a "no media" zone. If you want good sleep, you have to change your media habits. Social media and email speed up your thoughts, and prevent restful sleep. Television is not a good idea either. The best pre-bed activities are conversation and reading. Keep in mind that reading from a glowing screen is counter productive as you convince your brain it is midday based on lighting.
It was precisely when I felt most confident that I'd beaten smartphone addiction that I fell victim to it once again. This is a common cycle in humans, falling down when we stand most tall, and even our awareness doesn't always prevent it.
If you've got ideas on how to beat the Digital Itch, share them in the comments below.