There’s a Louis C.K. video that has been making the Internet rounds recently. As a guest on Conan, the comedian begins by telling Conan O’Brien that he’s not getting his daughters cell phones. “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,” C.K. says, “They don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy.” C.K. goes on to talk about how our technologies distract us from the true range of feelings: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied with your product. And then you die.”
C.K.’s technological musings sound like they could have been a riff on Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s new book The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. Though Pang is more pro-tech than C.K.–he believes that our current technologies can extend our natural abilities and increase our engagement with the world–he’s concerned that we’re letting the Internet and its many diversions control us, rather than the other way around. Like C.K., Pang cautions against the “sybaritic pleasures” of distracting yourself with an off-hand Tweet or a Facebook binge, because the highest levels of happiness come from people who are “absorbed in difficult tasks.”
Pang gives lots of useful tips to those of us experiencing technological overload. Here are his four best suggestions for living a high-tech, non-stress, super productive life. Pang sums his methods up succinctly: “Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”
It’s easy with social media to forget that there are real, live people behind those goofy Twitter avatars. “The fact that you’re interacting through technical intermediaries should not distract you from their humanity,” Pang notes. To make sure you’re reminded of the humans behind Twitter and Facebook’s cheerful blue design schemes, Pang suggests “mindful” engagement with social media. Pang writes, “Tweeting mindfully means knowing your intentions, knowing why you’re online right now and asking yourself if you’re on for the right reasons … As a practical matter, this means that if you read something and your first impulse is to post a sarcastic comment or to blather on, stop and consider why this is the case.”
While it might get you a bunch of retweets to write something nasty about Lena Dunham’s Emmy dress, it’s better, Pang would argue, to think about your motivations for doing so–and perhaps picturing Dunham herself reading it–before hitting the tweet button.
Pang argues that true multitasking has gotten a bum rap. Multitasking is not trying to watch a YouTube video while also writing an email and trying to carry on a conversation with a coworker. That is switch-tasking, as each of those activities has a different goal. True multitasking is switching your mind between different parts of a process that all have the same goal. For example: Dicing tomatoes, then sautéing onions, then making a marinade, all with the goal of making a delicious meal. A more tech-based analogy would be toggling between a Word doc, a PDF, and a Google search while writing a researched-based essay or article. You’re multitasking, but for a singular purpose.
It’s unrealistic to expect any modern worker to avoid email entirely. But Pang has great suggestions for cutting down on unnecessary email checking. He outlines an experiment where, over the course of a few days, you make note of the number of times you check mail, how many times you get a new mail alert, and where you check your mail. You should also tabulate the amount of time you spend reading, answering and writing emails, how many “truly important messages you get in a day” and “your attention level and emotional state before and after you check mail.”
After you’ve collected all this data, start with the way your email makes you feel. “Are there times of day when it feels most satisfying to check your mail? If there’s a pattern, your first step is clear. Try a few days where you check your mail only at those times and no others.” Pang also suggests checking your email on one machine only–say, your desktop rather than your iPhone or iPad. That way you’ll cut down on dashed-off responses.
Pang acknowledges that this approach might not work if you have a job that requires immediate responses to lots of emails. But for many of us, there will be no blow back from not looking at our phones while we’re online at the grocery store, or, more importantly, from not looking at our phones while we’re with our friends or family.
One of the most upsetting terms Pang’s book introduced me to is “email apnea.” Pang interviews a technology consultant who discovered that most people hold their breath when they check their email. Holding our breath, Pang explains, “reflects the anxiety many of us feel as we check for new messages in our inbox, not knowing what new fires we’ll have to put out or what problems we’ll have to solve.” It also shows how our minds, bodies, and computers are very, very deeply entangled. Like a lot of other problems Pang describes, email apnea can be improved by being mindful of one’s breath, meditating, and taking breaks from your screens from time to time. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, like a lot of the Internet detoxers tend to preach. But it can go a lot further in improving your daily quality of life.