It’s 6:34 am. The sound of your smartphone alarm startles you awake. (Actually, it’s the sound of the fifth alarm you’ve set because you’ve gotten so used to snoozing them that it now takes several to finally get you out of bed.) You instinctively reach to grab your phone from the nightstand and perform your morning ritual of checking email, Twitter, Instagram, and then email one more time without even thinking. After about 15 minutes of scrolling endless feeds, liking a few posts, and freaking out about the work that is waiting for you when you get to the office, you finally manage to drag yourself out of bed and start your day. You take a quick shower, grab coffee and a Kind bar (who has time to eat a real breakfast?) and hop in your car, listening to your favorite podcast as you make your way to the office.
For many people, this is a normal morning. A morning lived by default.
The smartphone is an incredible device. With it, we can connect with family members around the globe using tools like FaceTime that allow us to share special moments even when we can’t be in the same location. You can use it develop a mindfulness habit with a meditation app like Calm or Headspace, keep a digital journal that includes audio and video clips in Day One, or track your habits using Productive. In short, the smartphone has the power to significantly impact your life for the better, but it can also work the opposite way too, causing us to not be present when spending time with the people who mean the most to us.
Unfortunately, the latter has become the default .
Don’t believe me? Next time you are out to dinner or getting coffee with your significant other, count the number of couples where at least one of them is looking at their smartphone. Even more powerful, if you’re out with a group of friends, have everyone put their phones in the middle of the table. The first person to receive a notification has to buy (it’ll probably be less than five minutes).
We are constantly connected to the slab of glass in our pocket. The irresistible allure of the infinity pools is more than most people can stand. And this siren song usually translates into failure for almost any progress metric that’s really worth measuring.
But it doesn’t have to end in disaster.
Our Psychological Default Problem
Humans are lazy.
Like a moth to the flame, we naturally gravitate toward the path of least resistance.
We are also easily distracted by new shiny objects. We’re driven by FOMO (the fear of missing out) and suckers for what Cal Newport terms the any benefit approach. As long as the new and shiny provides some benefit, we’ll happily chase it. Instead of stopping to ask if this is the best thing to be doing right now, we plod along because (at least at some level) it feels good . There might be something worthwhile in your email since you last checked it. There might be a bunch of people who liked your recent post. That variable reward scenario (where sometimes we receive what we’re looking for, but not always) causes our brains to release the pleasure chemical simply in anticipation of what might be there. We have to check it. We are wired to constantly chase the next dopamine hit, which is often triggered by a social media like or an email notification.
Tech companies know this, and they design their services and products to reenforce this dopamine-fueled pursuit of the any-benefit approach because the person or thing that it really benefits is them .
My moment of clarity came when I was working on a software development project with a team that was all over the world. At first, I thought it was great — I could lay the framework and answer any questions the team needed during my work day, then leave the office and there’d be something to look at by the time I got in the next morning.
It felt magical .
But over time, I realized that I had trouble disconnecting when I left the office. I found myself responding to emails from the development team while I was at home. When we hit a snag in the development process, I found myself getting upset as I thumbed out my responses on my iPhone when I wanted to be spending time with my family. Sometimes, I couldn’t sleep. I would sit in bed and think about all the problems the project was facing, which really didn’t help anything and just made the next day even more difficult because I hadn’t been able to rest.
Finally, I’d had enough.
I realized that I had constructed this mental prison that I was living in one after-work email at a time. I immediately set up some boundaries to start winning back the time and space I so desperately needed.
I started changing the defaults.
Intentionality & Defaults
My boundaries all revolved around my smartphone. By simply putting my phone on the kitchen counter as soon as I walked in the door and not having it on my person for the rest of the evening, I had eliminated the compulsion (and the ability) to check my email and feed that any-benefit-driven monster I so desperately wanted to avoid.
The key question to ask is this:
Can I honestly say I am acting with intentionality right now?
I challenge you to set a recurring reminder on your phone that asks you this question. Set it so it goes off every hour, and answer yourself with a simple “yes” or “no.” If you answer no more than you answer yes, it’s time to change your defaults.
Note that the important thing here is the intention , not the activity. If you’ve intentionally chosen to browse Facebook when your reminder goes off, that’s fine! Just make sure that you keep the main thing the main thing. For me, I wanted spending time with my family to be my main thing. And when I realized that my dopamine-driven, any-benefit seeking approach was hurting the people that I cared most about, that was enough for me to implement some changes.
There are two possible ways you can make these positive habit changes:
You can make positive behaviors easier
You can make negative behaviors harder
In my example, I added intentional friction to make checking my work email from my phone at home harder. To be honest, it wasn’t all that difficult. I didn’t have to come up with a complicated plan to change my default – I just needed to remove the constant temptation to check my email.
You can take the same approach to how you set up your smartphone in the first place, but even if you decide not to set up a distraction-free phone , there are two questions worth considering:
How do you want to spend your time?
How do you actually spend your time?
I challenge you to take an honest and objective look at the difference. You can define for yourself what a positive use of technology looks like, but to change your defaults you must know what you want to change and what you want to do instead.
You can apply this concept not just to your technology, but to every area of your life. Intentionality and mindfulness can provide clarity and calm in every area of your life. Technology is just the easy driver of the any-benefit approach because we carry the entirety of the internet around in our pockets 24/7 on a small slab of glass.
The goal is to live your life by design, not by default. And if your current defaults are not in alignment with your vision and values, then it’s time to make some changes. Want to write more? Put Ulysses on your home screen so you see it every time you unlock your iPhone. Want to start a journaling habit? Put Day One in your dock. Define for yourself what you’d like to make the default, then make it as easy as possible.
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