by | Nov 6, 2010

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/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. T--

    Could we look into the relationship between the oversaturation of parents’ lives with telecommunications, electronic scheduling, distractions, and other parts of daily, hourly experience which are incomprehensible to a child’s brain’s natural and normal methods of assimilating experience and learning through understandable and developing paradigms or models for cognition– and the dramatic rise in autism? Perhaps the child’s brain comes up with ersatz models through which to interpret their experiences and their parents’ reality. In other words, their brains can’t assimilate 21st-century reality because their parents and schools have no model for a form of mentation that makes sense to children’s developing minds. The children’s brains do the best they can– given the fundamentally incomprehensible lives of telecommunicating adults.

    Thus, we need a model of mentation that fits young children’s mental development and yet can assimilate the uncertain, not necessarily true, bricolage of the information which any given telecommunication participant receives.

    I would second the notion that imaginative, intuitional, and poetic/prophetic reasoning might provide a more useful form of mentation.” Stressing the values which nurture wisdom and imagination are what we adults must do ourselves, if we are to raise children who can flourish with the yet-to-be methodized forms of mentation.

    I think it was Frank Zappa who said that one should watch television asking one’s self, “How much is that person on the screen being paid to say that?

    “The Imagination is the Real Man.”
    William Blake (1757-1827)

    • Joel Friedlander

      T, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. Respect for the life of the imagination, cultivating and nurturing the imaginative lives of children and seeing how much we need our world to intersect with the imaginal world are all crucial topics, and I’m glad you brought them into the discussion.

      • Denisa

        Excellent Richard. I’m pleased you like Top Three. Tell your freinds! It is bloody hard, and I think this is why most to-do software is so complicated much more satisfying, in the short-run at least, to complete lots of inconsequential little tasks than to be constantly reminded of the much smaller list of important stuff.

    • Dana

      Just wondering where that Blake quote is from? It is so perfect.

  2. Charlotte Rains Dixon

    This post really hits home this morning. I made a commitment to spend some time working on a writing project, and what have I been doing? Farting around on the internet and reading email. Of course that farting around led me to you and your great blog, so there’s a bright spot. But I’m not heading off to do my work. PS. I’m way too addicted to my Iphone, even if it is currently slower than molasses.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Writers know something about distraction, don’t we? There’s always something nearby, always one more thing I’m going to do before I get started. Even recovering part of that time might make a big difference. Thanks for stopping by on your travels, Charlotte.

  3. Christy Pinheiro

    My husband practically sleeps with his Crackberry. We’ve had fights about it. It’s for work, I know, but it’s still drives me crazy.

    • Joel Friedlander

      He sleeps with it, huh? I got called on that also, but I don’t do it any more. The addiction is being connected all the time, it’s like an IV drip.

  4. Howard Jones

    But Joel, now that you’ve given away the secret everyone will be writing! Who’ll be reading?

    But joking aside, I think you’ve spotted the crux of everything: imagination. Even the everyday world is a product of what we surmise out of a unique flux of sensory impressions. At the root of the conscious universe is imagining. As Carl Jung put it, “At bottom, the psyche is world and the world, psyche.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Maybe other writers will read what we’re writing?

      Love that Jung quote, Howard, thanks very much for bringing him into the conversation.

  5. Jason

    Great article on a very important topic. There’s actually a word for the compulsion people have to find ways to distract themselves: sensory addiction.

    It has to do with how much we can focus our attention and maintain being present. Sadly, we don’t even need devices to distract us, as I’m sure most writers have spaced out at their desks with thoughts of anything else for long periods of time. Certainly something we all could work on.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Jason, thanks for that, I hadn’t heard the term “sensory addiction” before but it makes sense. And yes, there’s no need for any devices, but they sure make it seem like you’re actually doing something when what you’re doing is getting away from doing anything at all.



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