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How Morality, Technology, and a Vocation Can Help Us Disconnect

Recent research shows that people want a digital detox. What solutions are available to us if we want to improve our relationship with our devices?

Shot of a businesswoman using her mobile phone during a conference
Shot of a businesswoman using her mobile phone during a conference
Credit: PeopleImages/E+/Getty

This piece is part of a week-long series on how to battle distraction, co-edited by Nir Eyal, the author of the new book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

InIn The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s last novel before his death in 1982, the narrator imagines lying in bed trying to remember if he turned his car lights off. Eventually, he goes outside to check. The lights are off, but back in bed he imagines being caught in an eternal loop between the driveway and the bedroom, never really sure if the lights are on or off.

The passage can be read as a parable about self-control and the urge to check. In a recent survey conducted by the consulting company Deloitte involving 2,000 respondents, Americans were found to check their smartphones about 52 times a day. This growing impulse to reach for our phones reflects a deep cultural wound. Caught in a cycle of endlessly updating feeds, we are trapped in a perpetual state of checking.

So how do we heal?

For some, the trick might mean developing a whole new set of beliefs around self-control and moral responsibility.

Religious rituals are filled with tests of self-regulation such as fasting, meditation, sleep deprivation, long periods of prayer, and giving money to charity. These instances of self sacrifice are training you to do the right thing; they function like a wildfire burning the weeds to help the forest survive. Although they might seem unappealing or irrational from the perspective of the modern culture of self-maximizing, they exist within fully formed moral frameworks, designed to help their participants achieve self-control. These frameworks would be perfect for reigning in our digital habits, and perhaps their general decline is part of the problem.

Another way forward may involve adopting new tools. The popular app Forest has users plant a virtual tree which they can “feed” by not clicking away from the app and into the rest of their phones. The more time users feed the tree, the more virtual coins they earn, which they can eventually use to plant real trees around the world. A reviewer on the technology website said that she felt “transformed” after using the app for just a few days.

For some, the trick might mean developing a whole new set of beliefs around self-control and moral responsibility.

The market for apps aimed at helping us stay on task is booming. OFFTIME, which has been downloaded over 1 million times, gives users the power to lock themselves out of their phones. Tide includes meditation tasks and nature sounds designed to help users sleep and stay focused. It has an average rating of 4.9 (out of 5) on iTunes based on nearly four thousand reviews.

These apps can be part of the solution to the trap we’re in, but I’m skeptical that they have the ability to “transform” our behavior. Too often, these apps harness the same addictive properties as the products they’re meant to save us from. As one commentator on a Reddit thread said, “It seems a little ironic to use an app that would in essence help you use apps less.”

Others may want to pick up physical hobbies or even vocations that are more intellectually satisfying, and keep them detached from their devices. After Matthew B. Crawford received a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, he got a job at a think tank in Washington D.C. where he had to summarize 28 scientific papers each day. He noticed that he could write each summary quicker if he spent less time scrutinizing the details of each paper. Years later, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford wrote that his job demanded that he “project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.”

In graduate school, Crawford met a man named Fred Cousins who managed a repair shop in Chicago. When he brought his motorcycle to Cousin’s shop for a repair, he watched Cousins meticulously work through a list of potential problems before identifying the right one. Cousins, a mechanic, was scholarly about his work, whereas Crawford’s job at the think tank required him to reason in reverse, “from desired conclusion to suitable premise.”

Crawford ditched the career he had trained for, and today owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia, and is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He writes books about attention and the self with a focus on skilled practices, urging readers to “reclaim the real over manufactured experiences.” When a skilled practitioner is focused on a task, Crawford says, the urge to give into distraction disappears, along with the burden of self-regulation.

It’s a battle that rages on in all of us: our goals vs. our distractions. Which one will win?

Crawford says our crisis of attention is not about attention at all, but rather about the nature of our work, and what we value. The concept of the “knowledge worker” — which management theorist Peter Drucker defined in opposition to people who, like Cousins, primarily work with their hands — is far more intellectually bankrupt than we think. To really use your mind is to become so deeply involved in a task that the mental “ding” pushing you to reach for your phone loses its irresistible pull.

“The mind, as a living, growing entity has died. And yet, the person, in a sense, continues on,” the narrator says in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, describing how imaginary problems infiltrate the mind and control it. It’s a provocative image — the mind battling against an intruder only to lose and cede power.

It’s a battle that rages on in all of us: our goals vs. our distractions. Which one will win?

Principal — Behavioral Science and Analytics at Flamingo Group. Bylines @sciam @washingtonpost @misbehavingblog

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