Being Present in a World of Cell Phones and Social Media

So much of the time I’m not completely present. I’m thinking of what else I need to be doing, or somewhere else I would rather be. I don’t think I’m alone, either. I sometimes sense that others are half-present, suffering from what one person has called continuous partial attention. We can end up skimming through life, ministry, and relationships.

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One of the culprits, to be honest, is technology. I find myself checking Twitter and Facebook more often than I’d like to admit. I sometimes suffer from phantom vibrations of my cell phone. I forgot my cell phone one evening at a concert and felt a little lost. I also felt strangely judgmental towards others at the concert who spent the evening looking at glowing screens rather than at the artist who was right in front of them.

And that’s the point: we miss what is right in front of us — stunning, average, or even negative — because we are plugged into screens that are roughly 8-10 square inches.

What’s hard to believe is how new a problem this is. I remember seeing the first iPhone from a friend who is a tech journalist, and it was only seven years ago. When I sent my first round of Facebook friend requests in 2007, I received this puzzled response from a university professor:

I have no idea what "Facebook" is. I'll have to ask my boys...I suspect that they know what this is. Do let me know what you have in mind with this.

When I joined Twitter in 2007 (the same year as I joined Facebook and saw the first iPhone), it wasn’t the time suck that it is today. My first tweet, by the way, was a lame and only one word long:

In his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris observes that this is all so new that we haven’t even stopped to consider what we’ve lost when we’re always connected. “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet,” he says.

Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives— a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted— but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance.

We went camping this summer, and were completely unplugged (no cell phone signal, no Internet, no power) for two weeks. By the time I came back, I found that I had no desire to immerse myself in social media again. Since then, I’ve drastically cut back on the number of blogs I follow, and the number of tweets I read. (I follow over 2,700 people but make use of lists to help me manage that number.) It took a complete break from social media for me to be ready to make drastic changes. And yes, I’ve thought about going back to a dumb phone, although that may be a little too drastic. (See David Wells, though, on six ways that cell phones are changing us. The article is definitely worth careful thought).

There’s no going back, but there are some steps we can take. I’ve found these ones helpful:

  • Consider a digital fast. It is hard to be aware of how deeply we are immersed in technology until we take a break from it. Take a break as an experiment to see how you feel.
  • Make it a little bit harder to pull out your cell phone when you’re bored. At least you will be aware of when you pull it out absent-mindedly to pass the time, when you could instead be alone with your thoughts or the people around you. (Surprisingly, some people would rather be shocked than to be alone with their thoughts.)
  • Turn off the screens at a certain time of the day. We’ve tried to start putting our screens (except for the Kindle) away at 8:00 at night. It’s made my evenings a lot more enjoyable.
  • Cut back. Stop reading so many blogs and tweets. Separate the essential few from the trivial many. (Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is helpful here.)

I continue to live both online and off, but I want to be deliberate about where I am choosing to focus. This will no doubt be an ongoing struggle, but I want my life back. I want to be present.

I’m guessing that you do too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you are managing your life so that you are present despite the new technologies that can capture us before we even think.

Be There

I’ve experienced it. I’ve been talking to someone important, and felt that they are completely present with me. They are not thinking of what they are going to say while I’m talking; they are not in a rush to get to the next appointment. They are completely present. It’s such a rare thing to experience that it’s almost unsettling.

In his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin reflects on a time that he met Jimmy Carter when he was campaigning for president.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there.

The secret? In Carter’s case, and also in the case of famous musicians Levitin mentions, it’s assistants who handle distractions so that you can “narrow your attentional filter to that which is right before you, happening right now.”

For those of us without executive assistants, he writes, we need to rely on our own wits in making decisions so that whatever is in front of us is the most important thing we can be doing right now, so that we can let go of the rest. Easier said than done!

I want to reflect on this a little, though, because it’s so important. I want to unpack a few ideas over the next week or so:

  • the importance of being present for ministry;
  • the power of being present compared to the tragedy of being continually distracted;
  • some practical ways to make this happen, and
  • the implications of a God who is always present with us.

I am blogging about this because I need to think about it as much as anyone. Stay tuned, and let me know what you think as I try to unpack some of my thoughts on this important topic.

Random Reflections from Three Weeks Away

Some random reflections from three weeks away:

I am way too connected. Maybe you are too. We camped for two weeks in Restoule, Ontario, where there is no cell phone coverage from my cell phone company — although, to my disgust, their competitor has just installed a tower. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to get away from email and social media. I’ve barely read a blog post or tweet in a month, and I’ve enjoyed it.

Now that I’m back, I’m beginning to engage with social media again. I’ve cut back a lot, though, in what I’m going to read. Because…

A diet of blogs and tweets can lead to shallow thinking. I agree with Tim Sanders, who writes in Love is the Killer App about the importance of digesting books (full meals) rather than magazine articles and blogs (between-meal snacks or “Ideas Lite”), never mind news media (“candy and soda: fun to eat, but hardly appropriate to live on”). I need fewer snacks and soda (blogs, tweets, and articles), and more room to think and read in substantial ways.

It’s fine to read for pleasure. While on holiday, I indulged in a book by one of my favorite authors: A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan. I wouldn’t normally read this type of book, except on vacation, because it has no utilitarian value. As is normally the case, books that lack utility often end up being more useful and though-provoking than ones that set out to be useful. I’m beginning to add books to my reading list for the sheer joy of reading. Its making my reading habits a lot more enjoyable than before.

Vacations give needed perspective. I find that vacation allows time to take a step back and think about the issues that have been begging for attention. I took time to think through our ministry, some key relationships, and my use of time, all without setting out to do so. I came home with a lot greater clarity than when I began our vacation.

I needed to experience grace. I’m going to write more about this on Thursday.

A Year of Precision Nutrition

Charlene and I have been clients of Precision Nutrition's coaching program over the past year. Charlene actually qualified as a finalist. I wasn't a finalist, but I experienced some great changes.

I didn't start off impressed - in fact I was fairly cynical about this program when I first heard about it. Charlene joined PN in a support role, which didn't make me any less suspicious. I was wrong: I'm now impressed.

Some things I've been learning over the past year:

  • I love working out with my wife. It's a marriage builder. Why didn't I start years ago?
  • Restriction doesn't work. Not only isn't it fun, but it backfires. So much for most of the approaches to weight loss out there!
  • There's a lot more to this subject than eating and exercise. There's a huge emotional and cognitive component. Health is about more than food. It's about mindset.
  • Food is a gift. I think we eat less food overall, but much better food, and we're also more thankful for it.
  • Habit-based approaches, using small habits, work a lot better than trying to change through willpower or by making sweeping changes.
  • Common grace is amazing. We have lots to learn from others.

The program caps off with an optional photo session. We were surprised how much we enjoyed it. Here's a sample of one of the over 500 (!) pictures we had taken.

This isn't an ad; I get nothing for it. But I am grateful that we went through their coaching. I highly recommend the program, or something like it. It's been good for our marriage and our health. Check it out if you're interested.

If you want to do something on your own without signing up for their coaching program, you can check out their Precision Nutrition System (a book) for a fairly low cost. I also found a few other books helpful in the past year as well:  Foodist and two Michael Pollan books (The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules).