Nov 282022
 

reducing_smartphone_useAccording to a mobile phone ownership survey in the UK, 74% of the population owns a smartphone – a percentage that is steadily increasing. The same study also found that millennials and younger adults spend “too much” time using their phones and that most of them feel anxious when separated from their gadgets. This alarming finding indicates the growing dependence of UK residents (amongst others) on digital devices. Technology is undoubtedly beneficial in making lives easier, but it can also have significant detrimental effects when used frequently and inappropriately, and this can negatively affect our mental state. One such destructive effect, for which there is some evidence, is the reduction in our ability to focus effectively.  This mental “muscle” is what enables us to direct attention, and hence to think and be present, rather than just react.

How is Technology Affecting The Way We Focus?

In his article on ‘Being in the Moment‘, Han-Son shared how one of the downsides of using technology is that it keeps us distracted from what’s important to us. For instance, even if we go out for drinks with friends, we can’t fully spend quality time together because we’re distracted by our phones instead of catching up with each other. As a result, technology is taking away our ability to focus on what’s in front of us, as well as our precious time with family and friends.

Technology is changing not only the way we use our time but also how our minds function. Several studies have shown that the frequent use of technology also impacts many functions of our brain, from our attention span to working memory. A study from Science Daily claimed that because we are bombarded with notifications and messages from the internet, we are constantly encouraged to divide our attention from one piece of information to another. This significantly decreases our capacity to maintain our focus on a single task, and our mental energy becomes fragmented. Similarly, a research article from Rachel Lara and Rebecca Bokoch explained that because different media platforms compete for our attention, our ability to maintain focused attention and use our working memory efficiently declines.

All is not yet lost, however, as it’s never too late to change our habits and eliminate our dependence on technology. In the next section, I will share some methods you could apply to reclaim your focus from these distractors.

How Can You Reclaim Your Focus From Technology?

We know that breaking old habits can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. A podcast episode entitled The Science of Making and Breaking Habits from Huberman Lab explains that our brains have an innate ability to change and adapt to new habits. Because the nervous system has the ability to change its activity in response to inner or outer stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, and  connections, this “neuroplasticity” helps us eliminate old behaviours and create new ones. One very practical method the podcast suggests is the helpful 21-day habit formation and consolidation technique. It has been found that to develop a new and better habit, we must faithfully commit to the practice for 21 days, so a new pattern of behaviour can become established to supplant the habit we wish to change. It follows that if we want to lessen our technology usage, we should limit our screen time for at least 21 consecutive days. Through this approach, as long as we’re committed to changing our actions, we can reshape the tech-related habits that have affected our focus.

Another way to lessen our use of technology is to utilise screen time applications. For instance, recent Samsung phones have a built-in screen time tracker and limiter called Digital Wellbeing. Using this application, you can select modes such as ‘Me Time’ or ‘Work Time’, allowing you to limit the applications you can use when these modes are enabled. If you choose ‘Work Time’, you can restrict applications like Facebook and Instagram to reduce the number of possible distractors. You can also limit distractions by simply putting your phone on mute so that you won’t be interrupted while working. This handy feature is available on iOS as well.

We can also practise other indirect ways of reclaiming our focus from our devices. We can help our mind by taking regular breaks, (45 minutes concentration, followed by 15 minutes rest are good intervals), taking a full week’s break from any screen use; purposely move to ‘manual’ methods where we are using our physical senses more (coloured pens, mind-maps, drawing, handwritten notes).

I’m sure you could come up with other creative methods that will work for you – those I’ve shared show that reclaiming your focus from technology doesn’t mean you have to give it up entirely. Instead, it’s more about learning to control tech use to avoid infringing on things that matter. Through these simple steps, I hope you can develop mind management skills to let you have a more peaceful and balanced life.

Katherine Caldwell
Katherine is a freelance writer and mental health enthusiast. She enjoys writing articles about mental wellness to help others live more peaceful and happier lives. Currently, she’s learning about mindfulness meditation and is on her journey to reduce her dependence on technology.

 

Mar 212020
 

woman_blindfold_public_domain

Dreams and reality

People can be unreliable, untrustworthy, self-serving, incapable and more besides. When things go wrong in ways they shouldn’t have – people’s behaviours are often the true causes. But it’s worse than that. After any one such situation ask the people involved and they’ll have good reasons to “explain away” their less than helpful behaviours… and as often as not they believe their own explanations, despite all evidence to the contrary. This time it was different; it wasn’t their fault;  they were busy in ways they didn’t expect; etc. In their own minds it’s all good. But to everyone else looking in: no, it’s the same as last time, and the time before that, going back years.

Why is there a difference between how we see ourselves (and are convinced our view is accurate) and what others see who experience  our actual repeated behaviour? Darwin noted that when he heard criticism of his work his mind would expunge the detail of the criticism within 20 minutes. He found that he had to write it down quickly if he really wanted to learn from people telling him home-truths about his work, yet he wanted to learn so he could make his work better. A rare person. We have an image of ourselves. If our behaviours don’t match that, most of us are skilled at the mental gymnastics of explaining why what we did was perfectly good. If others point out flaws in our story, then like Darwin, the details are lost and we’re just left with an impression that other’s don’t quite get it. It works with groups too. It’s why after government and other fiascoes, we’re told “lessons have been learnt“, when demonstrably they haven’t -  nothing changes, the same sorry episodes repeat. But work was done – inside the group to justify why they were in fact right, and why the external criticism is naive and misplaced. That was the real effort and learning – learning how to explain it away. And so nothing changes, no matter how obvious the shortcomings are, measurably, by evidence and clear fact, to the rest of the world. It’s why politicians can’t hear facts they don’t like, they can only hear them as “meaningless waffle”. It’s a real talent.

VR, AR, AI – are not new inventions

These virtual worlds of our own rightness have been with us since the dawn of time. We’re masters of illusion. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence.. are not new inventions. It’s why other people can seem superficially rational, yet we become aware that they seem to be living in some dream world of their own. Easy to see in others.  So VR isn’t new, What would be new would be “Reality” – to see it how it actually is, rather than our own satisfying dream fantasies of why we’re right. Then it would be possible to learn. Then it would be possible to move forward, instead of some groundhog-day where the same obvious mistakes repeat, and we explain why this time it was different, this  time there were good reasons why it wasn’t our fault… and then forget (like Darwin) the ‘this time’, lose it in the fantasy world of our imagined past where we’re always good and right,  and repeat again with the ‘next time’.  VR isn’t a new invention. Reality would be.

Mind power

Where did we get these talents? And how do we persistently mislead ourselves, largely unknowingly, in ways that in the long term, are  to our cost?  The mind is a fabulous instrument after all, clearly capable of wondrous achievements.

Laptops and NASA

And that’s the point. A modern smart phone is similarly impressive – you have more computing power then every computer used in NASA’s  Apollo computers combined. But how do you use it? Do you learn a few ways of getting by? Do you use it just to rant on social media, then get angry when you can’t figure out how to send an email, or get the printer to work? Are you stuck at your desk cursing because you never bothered to figure out how to make page numbers work properly? Again. Did the astronauts throw their hands up in despair because they pressed the wrong button again to separate the module? No. They put effort in to learn what had to be learnt to use the technology they needed to use. You may have good reasons for not learning how to use your computer – but if you’re getting the same thing wrong year after year, and it’s a big part of your daily work… don’t you think you should put some effort into learning how to do it properly, and then mastering that?

head_in_sand

Simulation

The mind is the same. Skilled experts don’t solve problems by coming up with lots of options and then mathematically assessing each to get the optimal solution. For most situations there isn’t time to do that for everything that’s important – think of people who make decisions for fire crews. Instead, experts see situations and their training and experience causes them to recognise what’s going on.  Then they “simulate” in their minds the course of action that recognition brings to mind. If that simulation reveals some problem, then a way around it comes to mind, they simulate that, and if it looks good, they act. That’s how Captain ‘Sully’ can make decisions that save his aeroplane and passengers in seconds (ref: landing a plane in the Hudson river) – all of his life experience comes into play at lightning speed.

Recognise → Simulate → Act.(What expertise gives you)

That’s the high-powered instrument you’re in the driving seat of. You have a choice. You can use your experience and cleverness to find an interpretation where you’re right – and simulate the scenarios to prove it to yourself – just as you search with your smartphone for the opinions and groups that already think like you do.

Or you can force yourself to learn to use the tool responsibly, in a way that actually works with reality (again, like Darwin). Where you can learn lessons, and get better by testing against reality, rather than how well the fit is with your own fantasy. That’s not easy. Like learning to use your office computer to the level you actually need to do your job, rather than repeatedly complaining about how hard it is to do simple things. Which button separates the landing module again?

Actors

The task then is to get closer to reality and the truth, rather than build our own fantasies. So obvious it’s cliche. Yet so uncommon for people to behave that way, as to be worthless to point it out.

Sages have wrestled with this whole thing. The Buddha, clearer than most, saw his life’s task as getting closer to truth and reality, rather than clinging to the mind’s fantasies. And he discovered it was was really hard work to do that.  That’s why he wasn’t keen on actors. They are training and encouraging people to do the opposite – to escape further into fictions.

But he did come up with a key observation.

“To know, is to act accordingly”.

If you really knew something, then you’d act accordingly.  Lessons would actually have been learnt.  It’s not easy for most of us brought up in fantasy-loving, responsibility evading society. Why is it a problem? If you’re unknowingly living in your own dream world, necessary in order that you’re “right”, then you are in some sense sticking your head in the sand. As Ricardo Semler says, the problem with that isn’t just that your vision is unlikely to be accurate, but that it makes your rear end such a big target. So learn to see what there is, not what you think there is. Especially about yourself.

Dr. Adrian J. West: A write up following a breakfast time discussion with Sophie J. Brown.

 

Photo Credit: “I Can’t See You…” by Peter at https://www.flickr.com/photos/12023825@N04/2898021822. Copyright (CC BY-SA 2.0) at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Feb 172014
 

New Year Resolutions

Life is way too short to spend another day at war with yourself – Jillian Michaels.

Christmas is a special time, always in my family a sacrosanct holiday reserved for family, a time of celebration, of eating until you’re sick, of indigestion remedies – a colourful time of year, enjoyed and relished by many people.   New Year is often different, it brings a different vibe and I find it a time of reflection.  We often feel that this is our chance, we can start anew, and we can truly be the people we have always wanted to be.  We have fresh hope and promise of what a new year might bring.  So with the death of a dear friend on New Year’s Eve 2013 I wanted to explore what it is like to start a new year afresh and why we so often fail to achieve the promise we so often crave at this time of year.  Continue reading »

Oct 032013
 
"Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

It is almost a truism that we, ourselves, are our own worst enemies when it comes to understanding ourselves and thinking clearly. Without investigating the pioneering psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, I would like to take a simple model of a conscious/unconscious mind and see how that might help us understand ourselves a little better and help us think more clearly.

Why we do things is often quite mysterious. I want to explore how accessing the less accessible parts of our minds and personality enable us to think more clearly and make decisions that are more in tune with our whole personality rather than based on purely rational factors.

Let’s look at some history of the idea of “outside influencers” within the human mind, some modern examples of the shadow self and how this might work in practice when it comes to making decisions and sticking to them. Continue reading »

Jun 172013
 
 Posted by  Change Tagged with: , ,

stop-trying-to-change-yourself

It seems we really do desire to be clearer, more in control, more organised. Even if we find ways to do that, we’ll surely need to change ourselves if there is to be any real difference. But changing people, especially ourselves, is hard. Mustering all our will power often results in only modest success – if you are like me, then in all honesty a lifetime personal best for self-change is “eating slightly fewer cheesy snacks” [1]. Continue reading »