All day, and sometimes well into the night, we hear them: the pings of incoming email, the digital birdsong announcing text messages, the chimes of familiar apps.
Even when we’ve silenced our smartphones or tablets, we’re still drawn to our devices like lab mice hitting a reward lever — an analogy that’s more apt than many of us may realize.
All those dings and clicks trigger the brain’s pleasure center, eliciting a reaction that’s pure dopamine. And we get our fix dozens of times a day.
On top of this physiological response, we also experience the psychological effects of living in a constant state of partial attention. Our perpetual accessibility can create a heightened sense of urgency and distraction: always on, always wired, always checking. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, we don’t need to book a digital-detox retreat or consider off-grid living to cultivate a more balanced relationship with communications technology. Instead, we can master the art of using these devices in ways that improve our lives, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a business consultant, former Microsoft Research fellow, and author of The Distraction Addiction.
“There’s value in learning to disconnect, and retreats and detox days have a purpose,” Pang says. “But they don’t emphasize how you can use technology in a more conscious, mindful way, which is what most people really want to learn.”
To help people get the most of what modern communications technology has to offer without losing touch with the material world, Pang suggests we practice “contemplative computing,” a counterintuitive concept that incorporates a blend of philosophy, science, and technological savvy.
“Contemplative computing isn’t a paradox,” he says. “It’s about remaining conscious about the choices that we make around technology, instead of going on autopilot and then suffering from constant distractions because of it. Taking this approach requires some practice, but it’s worth the effort.”
Just Another Tool
The first principle of contemplative computing, says Pang, is to recognize that using technology to extend our physical and cognitive capabilities is part of what makes us human. Though our intensive use of communications technology might seem like a modern phenomenon, humans have embraced other tools and technologies throughout the ages with similar ardor.
Ancient Mycenaean warriors, Pang points out in his book, didn’t merely use their swords in battle. They were so intimately connected with their weapons that they were thought to become human–nonhuman hybrids when armed.
Similarly, today’s master surgeon may consider her scalpel an extension of her hand, or a stunt cyclist might flip a bicycle like he was doing a somersault on the lawn.
Engaging with technology in a purposeful, meaningful way can also bring us to what eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow.”
“Flow is about losing yourself — in a good way,” says Pang. “It helps us to solve problems, create better techniques for concentration, and simply enjoy what we’re doing without distractions.”
Think of the purpose-driven absorption of a programmer tweaking code, or a novelist fully immersed in crafting a scene.
Contemplative computing also entails engaging with the world around you more deeply. When technology — say, your digital camera or your Twitter account — becomes effortless to use, you may find yourself more, not less, attentive to what really matters.
“We should celebrate and embrace all that technology lets us do, instead of seeing it as a hindrance to ‘real life,’” Pang argues. “What can technology provide for you that expands your abilities and makes you happier? Focus on that, instead of aspects that are wasting your time.”
The moment we sit down at our computers or pull out our smartphones, Pang says, we have the opportunity to make choices that keep us centered, on-task, productive, and creative.
Hard to imagine? Consider Buddhist monks who blog. These are people highly trained in the discipline of meditation who use the Internet and social media to reach students. Because they’ve perfected the skill of calm alertness, they can stay present in their online engagement rather than seeing technology as an opportunity to zone out.
Practices like mindfulness (for instance, noticing your state of mind when logging on to Facebook) can help us move beyond merely checking out, and instead direct us toward a state of flow.
“So many people feel bad about the way they use technology, in the same way that they feel guilty they’re not saving more for retirement or doing other virtuous things,” says Pang. “But it’s better to redirect yourself back to being intentional about technology use rather than beat yourself up about getting distracted.”
Being more mindful of how you use your computer, smartphone, and tablet helps lead you to better self-observation and more useful experimentation.
If hours get sucked down the Internet drain every night, ask yourself why. Are you mindlessly surfing sites you don’t really care about? Are you extending your workday by answering email until bedtime?
“Really, it comes down to making conscious choices,” says Pang. “You want to be mindful of your goals and stay present in order to achieve them.”
Breathe. When you log on, notice if you’re holding your breath. Breathing slowly and evenly releases physical tension and helps you be more restful and alert when you engage with information technology.
Simplify. Take advantage of software that helps you avoid disruptions when you want to focus. Some applications turn off email and chat notifications or block time-wasting websites. Consider apps that can help you be more productive and creative.
Meditate. Programs that keep you on task are great, but you’ll benefit most from disciplining your mind. Learning to sit and count your breath is a starting point for noticing your tendency to get distracted and for staying on track.
Experiment. Log how much time you spend with your devices each day. If you would like to refine your usage, experiment with different choices — communicating in person instead of via email or limiting social media to certain times, for example.
Rest. Unplugging altogether (for an evening, day, or week) lets you slow down from the fast pace that technology enables. Return from your “digital sabbath” rested and with a fresh perspective that supports creativity and connection.