Nicky's Corner

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How much time do you spend on your phone, on average, every day? Not sure? Go to your settings app and find “Screen Time” (or your phone’s equivalent) and soak in the data. You may notice an inordinate amount of time allocated to streaming services, social media, games, or other entertainment focused apps. How many times did you pick up your phone or receive notifications? The answer may startle you, and yet this is just for your phone. Who knows how many hours you spend in front of a television or personal computer? As entertainment technology has become ubiquitous in our lives, we find ourselves consuming more of what these devices offer. Unfortunately, our increasingly digital lifestyle is rife with unintended consequences. 

Enter Dr. Robert Lustig out of MIT, who states the issue of smartphones succinctly, “The cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, is in store for the user – the ultimate dopamine rush… But it’s fleeting, and rarely does any happiness come out of it.” We’ve become addicted to our phones, happy for any momentary distraction from the present moment. The cost comes after. Studies are now revealing some nasty findings: amount of time spent on cell phones is positively linked to lower grade point average; changes in white matter and prefrontal cortex impairment are demonstrated in internet addicts; and, sadly, increases in internet and social media use is routinely associated with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and even teen suicide. 

Some less obvious, but equally nefarious, impacts of screen use are described by performance coach Jim Kwik:

  • Digital Deluge. A new experience will generally initiate new neural activity. With downtime, these new neurons make their way from short- to long-term memory storage. More and more research shows how lack of time away from devices is associated with poor memory, mental fog, and fatigue. The sheer volume of inputs prevents our brains from developing simple routines for managing information.
  • Digital Distraction. Modern phones have enabled a new phenomenon: permanent connectedness. The problem? Our brains are wired to become habitually reliant on them. Rather than take a moment to breathe and relax when in line at the grocery store or in an elevator, we reach for our phones, seeking comfort and security. We don’t realize this constant task switching rapidly depletes glucose and micronutrients used by the brain, compromising not just our cognitive abilities but begets further distractibility. 
  • Digital Dementia and Digital Deduction. Just as the body atrophies if you lie in bed all day, so too does the brain’s mental capacities if you don’t exercise them. Neuroscientists like Manfred Spitzer have demonstrated how overuse of technology has eroded short-term memory and critical thinking abilities. I see this all the time – people acting on their first impulse rather than take a few seconds to pause and consider a solution on their own. Over time this leads to reduced probability of committing learned material to long-term memory while amplifying cognitive biases and poor reasoning skills.  

You probably notice a common theme here – reduction of cognitive performance. Worse yet, it’s unlikely you’re aware it’s happening to you. Sleep expert Matthew Walker has publicized how an individual’s subjective sense of cognitive impairment is woefully inaccurate. Over a long enough period, the individual will in fact acclimate to this impaired state as the new normal. I suppose the solution, then, is to destroy all screen-based technology and live in the woods? Well, no. But there are things you can do to combat these negative influences. 

Our phones aren’t going anywhere, nor should they. If we take a reasonable approach to managing our usage, we can liberate our minds from suboptimal performance and regain the happiness we deserve. Below I’ve outlined a system for making your phone distraction proof:

  • Get rid of any apps designed strictly for entertainment
    • For me, this includes social media, YouTube, etc. (they’re still accessible through Safari if necessary)
  • Turn off all notifications (including sounds, banners, and badges)
    • My exception to this rule is for phone calls
  • Use the Do Not Disturb function when working
    • This will prevent calls from interrupting your workflow
  • Consider keeping your phone off limits during the start and end of your day
    • This trains your brain to resist distraction upon awakening and facilitates better sleep at night