Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 42s.
Last week my fiancée and I hopped on an impulsive, last-minute flight to Prague. We did a bunch of fun things there: drank cheap wine while people-watching from sidewalk cafes, visited a few spas (including this beer and wine spa), read and played cards in the park, and disconnected from the internet for days at a time. We also took in an opera performance (my first) near the end of our trip. That inspired this article.
While at the opera, my attention wandered to the people in the theater. It was the theater’s off-season, and the seats were half-full with mostly tourists like us. I noticed something odd when observing the other audience members: nearly half of the people alternated between soaking in the music and mindlessly using their phones. There were no pre-performance warnings reminding people to silence their devices—and many people took advantage of the theater’s free wifi. When these people weren’t bouncing around apps, they were taking pictures of the opera to share on social media when they again picked up their phone.
Take the couple sitting in front of us. While the husband posted pictures on Instagram (to presumably humblebrag about being at an opera), his wife tapped around on her phone, checking their Airbnb reservation, Snapchat messages, and even refreshing a couple of news websites. Instead of savoring the performance, they chopped their opera experience into tiny, one to two-minute chunks, alternating between periods of checking their phones and potentially enjoying the performance.
Seeing this bummed me out in a way I find difficult to articulate. It’s impossible to savor something when we’re not paying attention to it. If we’re using our phone at the opera, or while having a conversation with someone, or while playing cards in the park, we might as well not even be there. Experiences we don’t pay attention to might as well not be happening. Even when we do pay attention to something meaningful, continually shifting our attention—between an opera and an app, for example—leaves attentional residue from our last thing of focus.1 This attentional residue makes us want to pick up our phone to resume that distracting task, and prevents us from becoming wholly immersed in the meaningful experience in front of us.
On top of this, it’s more difficult to remember experiences when we chop them into tiny bits. We can only remember what we pay attention to in the first place. This is how studying works—we focus on and process the same information multiple times. This is also why we remember theater movies better than movies we watch on Netflix with our phones nearby—theater flicks are less likely to be chopped into smaller blocks of time. We pay attention to them for longer, which helps us to process them more deeply and find more meaning. Our attention is so powerful for this reason.
As I’ve written in my new book, Hyperfocus, research suggests our attention is naturally drawn to anything that’s pleasurable, threatening, or novel. Our smartphone provides a steady stream of all three, which makes paying attention to it effortless and enticing. Even though other objects of attention can provide far more meaning—operas, conversations, and games of cards included—our attention will always be drawn to whatever is the most stimulating. It’s imperative that we get ahead of this impulse by taming smartphone and other distractions ahead of time.
We regain a bit of control over our attention whenever we tame distractions—this lets us experience and savor moments longer. Every moment has a certain flavor that is worth taking in. For me, the opera had periods of relaxation, grace, and power, punctuated by smaller episodes of restlessness and the occasional bout of mind wandering. In writing this article, I’ve experienced moments of frustration, nostalgia, and excitement. In a quiet elevator ride, there is a beautiful, short-lived discomfort. In sipping a glass of wine at a street-side cafe in Prague, there are feelings of relaxation, calmness, and curiosity in the people walking by—and maybe if you’re lucky, feelings of love for the person by your side.
Devices like our phones often chop our lives into smaller, less meaningful bits, and this prevents us from fully experiencing the best moments.
Our tech devices are incredibly stimulating, and this makes them an easy and attractive item of focus—but be careful. This stimulation comes at a steep cost.
Fascinating study on this: Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. ↩