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Ever tried to ignore your phone when you hear a “ping” or feel a vibration? Smart phones have gone from conveniences to necessities. Most employees now carry pocket computers or smart phones at all times. That’s making it much harder than ever to get away from work. It’s also creating new bad habits: Business managers addicted to texting during meetings and social media have response addiction — all of the trappings of modern existence, and what is it doing to us as people?
Let’s examine the science behind our device addiction and learn 5 key baby steps for becoming a leader that’s less addicted and more conscious.
Some managers cannot resist this temptation. Our smartphones are basically mini dopamine factories. Sometimes we know the notification we are getting could be spam, or unimportant. Yet we still check our phone, unable to resist it when we hear a ping or feel a vibration.
This is because of a chemical in our brain called dopamine. It wants us to feel pleasure and motivates us to pursue actions that are rewarding. Getting “likes” on social media, scrolling through Facebook to shift boredom, and the reward of a notification when responding to an alert, has gradually enslaved us to our dopamine system.
And apparently, the dopamine system doesn’t go “Oh, I’ve had five notifications today. That’s enough.” It’s actually pretty insatiable, so you engage in more and more pleasure-seeking behavior, checking your phone even when you don’t have a notification and even though you just checked it two minutes ago.
The more irrelevant notifications you get, the more magnetic your phone becomes because it's like playing a slot machine – you don’t know when you’re going to hit the jackpot with a “good” notification according to Matt Richtel who wrote, A deadly wandering: A tale of tragedy and redemption in the age of attention.(1) Matt tells the story about how we lost two promising scientists and traumatized a young family for life in what would give rise to the first no texting and driving laws. A good read for adults and teen age drivers.
Ever thought you felt a vibration or heard a ping from your phone, only to check the home screen and… nothing? I have. It’s called “phantom smartphone buzzing”. It’s very unsettling yet it woke me up to just how powerful my addiction to my smartphone was.(2) Our phone demands our attention even when we’re not using it or thinking about it.(3) Even if it’s switched off or out of sight.(4)
Before I realized my own addiction, my phone was the first thing I reached for when I woke up in the morning and it was the last thing I touched at night. How about you? I once forgot my phone and left home without it. I was in panic and felt completely helpless for the whole day without it. Who wouldn’t be?
Think about it: Smartphones help to run our everyday lives. It allows us to stay in touch with people, and the world around us. But strangely enough, while being allured into all of our new apps, our brains are slowly re-wiring.
Yup, new neural tracks are being laid. We are starting to get addicted to our phones, unable to ignore the alerts, vibrations and chimes. We are trained to react as soon as one of these happen, just like “Pavlov’s dogs.” According to Dr. Erik Peper (San Francisco State University Professor of Health Education), smartphone addiction forms neurological connections in our brains similar to how people develop an addiction for pain killers with opioid – gradually.(8) We hear much about opioid addiction but what impact is addiction to our Smartphone having on us and those around us?
It’s not just the social media apps that we are addicted to. It’s the overall smartphone experience. When I’ve had too many glasses of wine and the dinner bill arrives, I really appreciate my calculator app on my iPhone when calculating the tip! Simple math, remembering phone numbers and dates, sense of direction – we turn to our smartphone for all of that these days.(9) Things that we once actively tried to engage our cognitive skills on. Things our brain is now un-learning. Using your phone to calculate 10% of $100 or pulling out Google Maps before you try to figure out routes on your own may not really sound like a big deal.
But the truth is, these simple skills are actually part of deeper and more complex cognitive skills such as innovation, creativity and problem solving. Almost 10% of Internet users are so addicted to the big “I” that it has rippled across their family life, marriage, work life and set them all on decline.(10) To add fuel to the fire, many tech and social media companies are researching exactly how your addiction can be their profit. Which means the numbers and potentially, your cognition, could get a lot worse.(11)
Smartphone use is causing you to lose your focus.(12) To begin with, our brains are not wired to multi-task. They are just switching between tasks quickly. And even though focus is how we absorb information at an in-depth level, our focus is fragile thanks to years of evolution and survival instinct.(13)
A classic example to show how bad our focus is having to do with texting while driving. You can cover the lengths of a football field with no recollection or awareness because you are texting, or you are distracted from the text you just sent.(14) Texting while driving is as bad as drunk driving.
The system of notifications has trained you to prioritize the pseudo-urgent over the important. Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang described his experience with UC Berkeley psychologist Megan Jones on switching between tasks as follows.(15) When Megan Jones asked him to count from 0 to 10 as quickly as possible, it took him 1.5 seconds. When she asked him to recite the alphabet from ato j, he did so in 1.5 seconds yet again. Then she asked him to alternate between the two: “one, a, two, b, three, c…” It took him a staggering and fumbling 9.5 seconds. This is exactlywhat it means for your brain when you are working on something, check your notifications, go back to your work, check your notifications again, repeating the pattern for the rest of the day.
Studies suggest that it takes anywhere from 22 minutes to 2 hoursfor an individual to return to the original task when interrupted by email. It goes without saying that an important quality for a leader is to tune into the problem at hand, solve it and not miss any detail. Now, factor in a phone that’s constantly buzzing. Chaos.
As a leader we can choose “response-ability,” where we are conscious and selective when we respond, rather than simply reacting. Reacting is an automatic behavior like a dog salivating once a cookie treat is visible. When we are giving ourselvesthe ability to respond, we are choosing thoughtfully and consciously our next action, this is called leading with “responsibility.”
In order to have the ability to respond consciously we must first become the observer of that space between our thought and our impulse which leads to our actions. You become expert at observing your thoughts. The chance for control is between the thought and the action.
The mostvital skill leaders need, perhaps, is communication. The true mark of emotional intelligence. The ability to motivate and inspire your clients and your co-workers. The ability to make them feel heard and give them individualized experiences when communicating as a leader. But in a smartphone world of emails, text messages and keeping things short and simple, these skills tend to get rusty. Add these with your diminishing abilities to focus, problem solve and innovate. Not the best leadership, right?
As a leader, your words have a huge impact. Bigger than what you think. Your employees can be motivated and satisfied at work, your current client could choose to cut ties with you and your organization.(16) All by your words and the power they hold. Consider it for a minute. What could be the difference between communicating with robotic, impersonal emails from you and an automated system that troubleshoots problems for you? Inadequate, impersonal words show that you don’t care.(17) And when a leader doesn’t care, why should anyone?
The good news is you can wean off your smartphone just like any addiction. Here are some tips to help you do just that:
At the end of the day, you don’t have to completely put away your phone and have your ears to the ground 24/7. Just be mindful of your smartphone habits.(18)
Social media and smartphones can be a great way for you to rise as a truly great leader in your organization. You can use them to show gratitude, post thought-provoking content, share inspiring stories, show yourself as a grounded leader and exercise effective internal communication. Examples of all the qualities that define a conscious leader who is open, transparent yet still personally engaged.