POSTED ON Nov 6, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Smartphones are becoming more and more popular, and now account for 25% of all cell phones in use in the U.S..

Looking around, it seems that about 1 out of every 4 people do own a smartphone. And why not? Email, web browsing, downloadable books, apps, music and video. What’s not to like?

Mobile Distractions for a Mobile Life

You might be in your car and need to find a dry cleaner, or the nearest Starbucks. Your smartphone can tell you, no problem.

Maybe you’re in line at the bank and there’s going to be a wait because there seems to be a shortage of staff today. How about getting out your Blackberry and checking in? It beats watching the ads running on a loop on the TVs above the teller stations.

Interruptions are commonplace in day to day life. But with your smartphone, you don’t mind so much. Maybe just enough time to do a sudoku while you wait for your order to arrive at the table. Maybe time for 2?

Let’s say you’re waiting for the bus to arrive and you’re meeting someone. No need to be bored or lonely, just whip out that iPhone and check your Twitter feed.

I was visiting friends recently, after a long absence. After a while I realized they were looking at me a little strangely. It turns out they were trying to figure out how to have a conversation without my devices being a constant companion. You mean my iPad? or the iPhone? Both?

But Distraction is Bigger than a Phone, Even a Smart One

Interruptions come in all flavors. Yesterday I was sitting at a red light and noticed the fellow next to me punching buttons on a smartphone. It didn’t really seem like we were going to be there long enough to actually get anything done.

Distraction is an interesting phenomenon, often associated with waiting. I was in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting. Lots of magazines, in case you need to distract yourself. And seriously, suppose you walked into a doctor’s waiting room and saw someone sitting there, just . . . waiting. Wouldn’t that seem odd?

At one time we took my son to a fancy dentist for kids. He had an whole room full of distractions for the little ones, including a bank of video game consoles, toys and a TV. We teach children at a young age how to distract themselves to combat loneliness, or to stay out of the way, or for when they get upset. We learned that lesson.

Because the problem is the boredom, not the distraction. The problem is we’re not comfortable doing nothing. The problem is we’re not that intested in our own company.

Do You Want to Hang With You?

Do you find yourself interesting? Interesting enough to spend a half hour with while you wait for your dentist / car repair / bank line / red light? Oh really?

Or maybe we’ve stopped seeing the world. I mean, look around. Isn’t there anything you’re curious about within sight? Isn’t there a thought you’ve been wanting to noodle at when you “have the time”?

I had a friend years ago who would travel with a stack of crossword puzzles in his briefcase. The ones he hadn’t had time to do. And he was generous with them. “Want one?” he would ask, like somebody sharing their cigarettes with another inmate. He probably has a smartphone now. With the crossword puzzle app.

Do you know what happens when you do nothing instead of distracting yourself? When you’re just being with yourself? Sounds boring, doesn’t it?

The Secret That Writers Know

But writers know different. They know there’s another world we’re connected to whenever we choose to be—imagination. And imagination might just be the most valuable resource humanity possesses. No, wait, let me say that differently: Imagination is our most valuable resource of all.

Distraction is the thief. He steals the things that are most precious to us: our time and attention. Sure, the things we distract ourselves with are usually pretty benign, even innocent. Watching football, playing Warcraft, computer solitaire, The Biggest Loser, you know what I mean.

The result is anything but benign.

So here’s my idea. Do you want to know yourself better? Do you want to feel more a part of the world? Do you want to catch up on those things that are actually important to you, the things you think about when the lights are out and you realize another day has passed by?

Then watch how you distract yourself. Some day count up all the minutes you spend just finding something to “keep you occupied” while the wife tries on shoes, or the kid is at his guitar lesson, or you’re “too tired” to do anything else.

The thought of having our distractions taken away is very frightening. It’s the entryway to a world we don’t know, and that’s scary. But I think we can do it.

Look with interest at the world. Pick something out and try to figure out who invented it, or how it’s made, or what will happen to it when it decays and falls apart. Who thought of indoor plumbing? Making creme brulee? Eating an oyster? Putting heaters in the sidewalks? It just goes on and on.

Curiousity is the active use of our ability to observe the world connected to the limitless expanse of our own imagination. That’s what’s going to save our lives. Yes, I mean save your life from yourself.

When you stop just finding stuff to distract you from your own life, you take ownership of it. And isn’t that exactly what we say we want?

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Ed Yourdon, https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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