This Expert Agrees with Me: Smartphones Aren’t Ruining Social Lives. We Are. (Be Nice to Yourself Anyway.)

Reading Indistractable by Nir Eyal gave me a whole slew of reactions.

I never owned a smartphone. Therefore, I know firsthand that I can get distracted all over the place without a mobile device. Even in the most boring place in the universe, I’ll distract myself with daydreams. I only feel bored when I’m compelled to do something tedious which doesn’t allow me to daydream.

“Smartphones are a BANE PLAGUING SOCIETY, oh no the kids” articles leave me nonplussed because, from the outside, smartphones don’t seem that powerful. When these articles are written by tech insiders, I assume they want to exaggerate their own influence. They’d rather believe they are ruining the world than believe that they don’t matter. Seeing someone as well-informed as Nir Eyal confirm with research that “OH NO SMARTPHONES RUIN HUMANITY” articles are overblown or even outright wrong is refreshing.

Yes, I’ve been on the wrong end of phubbing (a word I learned from this book). However, if I were to make a list of the top ten social problems in my life, phubbing would not appear.

Nir Eyal’s thesis is that smartphones and other distracting technology are only a proximate cause of excessive distraction, and that it’s not possible to get distraction under control without addressing the deeper causes. This makes sense. My phone is too stupid to distract me, but some deeper causes of excessive distraction still get to me.

Some of Nir Eyal’s suggestions are difficult to implement, such as rigorous timeboxing, or introspection into the sources of our discomfort. If they were easy, everyone would already do them, and nobody would read this book.

I also already follow some of his recommendations. For example, I’ve kept this blog regularly updated for years because it is part of my identity. Also, many of his recommendations, such as practicing self-compassion, mirror things I encountered as I reduced my calorie intake. And that’s before getting to the ways this book’s recommendations dovetail with the KonMari method.

Also, this section:

Jobs where employees encounter high expectations and low control have been shown to lead to symptoms of depression.

YES. I have been in that kind of job. Psychological safety was low. Turnover was high.

I can’t blame tech overuse because that workplace had strong/effective norms against using tech (smartphones/desktops/etc.) in a distracting way. If you were caught using a smartphone during work hours, you got asked questions. Supervisors looked at desktop screens, and if what they displayed it wasn’t work related… it would be bad.

In retrospect, I realize the supervisors at that workplace gaslighted us. They often blamed us for things which were out of our control. When my supervisor made a mistake, her first impulse was to blame me, even though I had no control over whether she made mistakes. When I pointed out her mistakes and she could no longer plausibly claim I was at fault, she would brush them off as if they were no big deal (whereas when she claimed I was responsible they were a big deal). The thing was, she was a decent person. I saw how her own supervisors treated her. She had no malice; she was just emulating them. Perhaps she had never had a good supervisor as a role model.

Psychological safety was so low at that workplace. During the last meeting I attended, I was 95% certain I was going to quit, so was fearless. Everything I said was professional and relevant to the manner at hand. My co-workers later told me I seemed like a star employee at that meeting simply because I was willing to speak up to share good thoughts which others were too scared to mention. People were scared of making professional and relevant comments. That’s a dysfunctional workplace. It confirmed that quitting was the right choice.

I’m grateful that workplace had such strong norms against distracting technology. Because we couldn’t escape our workplace through distraction, the only escape was quitting. Which I did. A week later someone else quit, and I heard that a few months later yet another co-worker had quit. When I quit, another co-worker said, ‘I wish I could quit too, but I have to support three children.’ This example proves that Nir Eyal is right. Technology is not the bad guy. Toxic workplace culture is to blame.

This book offers much more food for thought than this blog post touches on. I recommend it. Because some techniques described in the book are hard, I can’t guarantee it will make you indistractable. But it offers a feast for thought.

2 thoughts on “This Expert Agrees with Me: Smartphones Aren’t Ruining Social Lives. We Are. (Be Nice to Yourself Anyway.)

  1. I won’t claim to having read that book – but if I get distracted from work by my smartphone, that’s because I chose to keep it in easy reach. And if it wasn’t some Facebook or e-mail notification, then I bet you the birds outside my window were to blame … or something else. Basically, since my work environment is pretty nice, most of my distraction happens when I’m either bored or avoiding something by procrastination. (Not that my self-awareness about this leads to full-time non-distraction, heh.)

    • Yes, the book says that the underlying cause of distraction is discomfort i.e. we seek distractions from whatever is making us uncomfortable. He says becoming aware of which discomforts lead to distraction is the first step towards managing distractions better. This is necessary because internal triggers (such as anxiety) require different actions than external triggers (a colleague who constantly interrupts you).

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