Try a simple exercise for a few days. Make a point of noticing what others are doing when they have some moments alone. Perhaps a person is waiting for an elevator, standing on a street corner looking for their ride, sitting in a classroom waiting for a session to begin, or standing on a magnificent beach at the “golden hour” just before sunset. The question can always be the same: are these folks in a temporary lull looking for a way out of the moment? Do they need the distraction of a digital fix?
The answer is often yes. We exist to be busy, or at least to do something that passes for it. Showing that we have something to do seems to validate our sense of importance. But there is truth in the idea that we would be better off if we were doing less and thinking more.
We almost always seek an exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads.
There may be a little bit of confirmation bias working here, but I’m struck with how even a moment of solitude needs to be broken by attention to unknown and usually unimportant messages on a phone. The sunset and our own internal thoughts will have to wait. We usually seek any exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads. We’d rather be “checking:” the label now attached to a state of near constant digital distraction.
That’s unfortunate, because our inner selves probably have some useful things to tell us. The linear thinking that makes creativity possible requires sustained attention. The ordering of pressing priorities needs concerted mental effort. Seemingly “doing nothing” as we gaze into the distance without the sedative of digital doping can actually be productive. We certainly understand this with regard to children. Being on a task for a long period is not what they need. In fact, like the rest of us, they must have generous amounts of time to be in the moment: time to daydream and, as they grow up, time to make decisions about what matters and what comes next. These are the rudiments of consciousness. And because much of our interior thinking is language based, it takes time to “listen” to ideas and emerging formulations that we should want to know better.
In addition, there is always an outside world worth a closer look. A typical moment may not quite live up to a sunset over the ocean. More prosaically, it may be the wind making tall trees dance, the beauty of a sudden stillness, or it may be the sight of a child utterly alive in a moment of play.
Face it: most of us are stuck with the same unproductive behavior repeated with a frequency that would make an obsessive blush. Phone checking is now a recognized addictive behavior. Some folks can’t go more than a few minutes before checking it for messages. Some sleep with their devices. Most use phones as alternate sources of stimulation in meetings and classes, and even during meals with friends and family. It’s become a kind of faux-consciousness that is, frankly, intellectually impoverished. We use our devices to avoid listening to what can be useful chatter from inside. The only ways some of us get back in touch with ourselves is sometimes to make a show of it, such as sitting on a yoga mat where studio rules require that digital devices stay outside.
You might be surprised at the novel and productive ideas your inner self is ready to share.
Socrates gave us the overused by valuable reminder that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He meant something quite cosmic by it. But we can scale it down to be a simple prescription for the few precious minutes we can capture here and there to maintain a sense of centeredness. We might be surprised at the ideas our inner selves are ready to share.