Conscious communication and your digital device

"Technological advancements have completely transformed the working world: the pace is faster, the stakes are higher and we are no longer limited by continents, cultures or time zones. Our digital devices save time, money and…"

Part 1: Let’s talk about texts baby…

Technological advancements have completely transformed the working world: the pace is faster, the stakes are higher and we are no longer limited by continents, cultures or time zones. Our digital devices save time, money and offer us instant access to a worldwide community. This global network is shrinking space, time and is not only transforming how we work, but where we work: we can dial into conference calls from a remote retreat in Cambodia and facilitate online leadership development programmes from a small village in Turkey (both of which have been just another day at the office for members of the 4D team!) Never before has the old adage, ‘it’s a small world’ felt more appropriate. Yet, I wonder how much this 24/7, instant gratification culture is affecting the way we connect and communicate with each other, human-to-human? Technology is getting smaller, smarter and is seamlessly integrating itself into our everyday lives. An intimate weaving of man and machine that’s progressively influencing the way we interact with the world whilst becoming ever more invisible. So, this month we are talking about consciously communicating in a digital world. This isn’t about returning to the ‘dark days’ of landlines and looking up information in libraries. It’s about heightening our awareness to the technology operating all around us, all the time, so that we can stop it from digitally ‘hijacking’ us. If you often find yourself distracted at the dinner table because of your digital device, then read on…It’s time to talk about texts baby.


1. Give and take attention

The other day I did the unthinkable: I left my phone at home. And I’m ashamed to admit that I felt quite lost without it. I didn’t desperately need it and yet I still found myself feeling incredibly disconnected and out of the loop. However, what really shocked me, was the way my hand still moved to my phone pocket, as if programmed to check its status at 5-minutes intervals. My hand was unconsciously moving in the way it always does, except today there was no mobile, and so I became conscious. Conscious of this autonomous response that was definitely not my doing. Of course, subconscious reactions and responses aren’t always a bad thing. Imagine having to consciously think about walking: with each and every step you’d have to consciously activate the muscles involved and make the joints move. That would be a lot of effort. However, when unconscious choice is being controlled by our mobile phones we must question how else our devices might be affecting us. Could I be rolling and reaching for it in my sleep? It’s a scary thought because then the mobile really is the master.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”

-Simone Weil

Yet, this lack of impulse control around our digital devices isn’t entirely our fault. Many tech companies have deliberately designed technology to leverage- and arguably exploit- our brains’ habit-forming abilities. Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook who resigned from the company in 2005, recently admitted that the fundamental aim of the social network wasn’t about connection but rather, distraction: “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Every time we get a notification we get a ‘hit’ of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for ’seeking.’ And as you might have experienced, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a dopamine-induced loop with our digital devices: dopamine starts you seeking, you get rewarded in the form of a message or comment, and then dopamine restarts the cycle and has you looking for more. It doesn’t matter who the comment is from or what it’s about, as it’s the notification itself that creates this viscous cycle. Think about how many times you are stimulated to reach for your phone only to find it’s a random piece of junk mail or a pointless Twitter notification: ‘John Smith just commented on Linda Brown’s photo of her poodle eating a jam sandwich.’That’s 10 seconds of your life you’re never going to get back. And over time the brain becomes desensitised, needing even more notifications to get the same feel good hit. So, an innocent habit, such as checking emails, can all too easily spiral into an unhealthy and- often unconscious- addiction that distracts and directs your attention and has made seemingly simple tasks- like reading, writing and having a conversation- much more difficult. And according to a study by Microsoft the average human attention span has fallen to 8 seconds- which is less than a goldfish!  


So tip number 1 is about becoming conscious of your attention: what are you giving your attention to and what is taking it away? Simone Weil wrote that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” and over a century later, whole industries have built up around this basic human need. They grab our attention though a personalised pop-up or Instagram advert and before we know it, we’ve wasted 20 minutes of writing time watching videos of dogs interrupting yoga practices! Therefore, if we can become more conscious of where our attention is going, we can take back control over this rare commodity. Attention is one of the greatest gifts we can offer ourself and others and in today’s digital age, it is becoming ever more scarce. According to William James, one of founding fathers of American Psychology, attention awareness is the ultimate measure of one’s genius: “When we come down to the root of the matter, we see that [geniuses] differ from ordinary men less in the character of their attention than in the nature of the objects upon which it is successively bestowed.” Essentially, if you can consciously choose to focus your attention on the book you’re studying- as opposed to the flashing light on your phone, the sound of next door’s radio, the buzz from your smart watch and the bleep telling you that the washing machine is finished- then your learning will be much more efficient and effective. But as the following example demonstrates, this is much harder to do in a world characterised by buzz, bleep and ping. So, what should you do if you can’t ignore the distraction? Tip number 2: Remove the distraction.

2. Out of sight, out of mind

Aristotle said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” He didn’t say, “knowing your phone is the beginning of all wisdom.” But which one are you connecting with first thing in the morning?

Constant distraction from our digital devices is making conscious living ever more challenging. Smart Phone addiction now has a clinical name: ‘nomophobia’ (no-mobile-phobia), or the fear of being without a mobile phone. And you might be surprised to hear that you too are suffering from this addiction. Do you wake up needing to check your phone? If you answered yes then you’re not alone. According to a study conducted by the Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey of 2017, checking phones is one of the most common things we do first and last in a day, with 55% looking at their phone within 15 minutes of waking. Now you may not be surprised or even concerned by these statistics because Smartphone’s help us to navigate and organise our daily lives, interwoven into almost every aspect of our existence. However, consider this for a moment: if the first thing you did in the morning was have a drink- you’d probably consider yourself an alcoholic. So what’s the difference? So many of us our checking our phones before checking in with ourselves. Replying to messages before giving our partners a good morning kiss. So are we not addicts too? Equally unconscious and effectively controlled by an external resource?


According to a study by the research firm Dscout, we touch our phones on average 2,617 times a day. For heavy mobile users this figure rises to a shocking 5,427. I was slightly skeptical about these numbers, so I decided to investigate it for myself, downloading a phone checker app that calculated how many times I touched my phone in a day. To my complete surprise, I was clocking in 2000+ most days of the week, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I still hit four figures when I was away on retreat. Yet, as with any addiction, awareness is often the first step to recovery and it was this realisation that inspired me to consciously create tech-free spaces in my day. By creating literal space between myself and my phone I have found that I am much less distracted and able to delve deeper into my work. Interestingly, if my phone doesn’t disturb me but is still in my field of awareness, I notice that I am drawn to it regardless. Sometimes I even sense ‘ghost’ ringing, which is the perception that one’s mobile phone is vibrating or ringing when it is not. Apparently I’m not alone in this as according to research published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal, up to 90% of us have experienced what has been aptly named as ‘phantom vibration syndrome’. Due to our cultural anxiety around constant connection we are developing “bodily and perceptual habits” that are negatively affecting our concentration and increasing our fear of missing out (otherwise known as FOMO).


So tip number two is about creating tech-free spaces. Give yourself a fighting chance to focus on your work, family or dinner by putting your phone in another room. Out of sight and out of mind (at least temporarily!) The same 2017 Deloitte survey reported that 41% of people believed their partners used their phone too much. So, next time you’re out for dinner decide what best deserves your attention- your date, the dinner or your digital device ? Distancing yourself from your digital device may also have a positive impact on your mental health, as according to a survey of nearly 2,000 UK workers conducted by the London-based Future Work Centre, constant email notifications can contribute to higher levels of stress and anxiety: “despite its widespread usage and popularity as a communication tool, for some individuals and employers, it can be a source of major frustration, anxiety and lost productivity.” Yet, you don’t need to completely retreat from the internet in order reap the benefits of a digital ‘detox,’ as tech-free spaces can be easily woven into your daily routine. Perhaps you can turn off your notifications for 10 minutes, go for a walk without your phone or simply switch it off for an evening. However, what can we do about the dismantled boundaries between personal and public? The blurred lines between work and home? Tip number 3: draw your own red lines.


3. Boundary Building

Last week my sister and I were walking in the park enjoying the unseasonably sunny weather. Whilst her children were playing on the swings, we noticed a set of parents sitting on a bench, both engrossed in their mobile phones. Now, you may think that this was a good use of their time- perhaps sending work emails or messaging a friend- whilst their kids happily played in the park. But in addition to the picture I just painted there was a little girl, around the age of 6, trying to get their attention. The young girl- who I presumed was their daughter- was trying to connect with them in the present moment. However, they were focused on their phones, detached from the outside world and with that, their child. As sad as I felt about this scene, it was also something I recognised in myself. Perhaps many of us do.


Our digital devices have made socialising a 24/7 affair. Smart phones have created constant availability, which can be amazing, but also a real-life hijacker. Nowadays bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground because when kids come home, they have access to almost everyone they know on numerous different platforms. You’ll probably remember Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth for Facebook, expressing his regret for his part in building tools that are destroying “the social fabric of how society works.” He even went so far as to say that “I can’t control them… [but] I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.” We keep our social lives, our relationships and our work with us in our pockets, at all times, which is a lot to carry and connect to- all at once. The lines drawn by the geography of going to school or to work no longer apply. This is why we must create our own lines. We must consciously create the boundaries that protect what matters most to us. To use the wonderfully frank words of Mark Manson (‘The subtle art of not giving a f*ck’): “You have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.”

So tip number 3 is all about boundary building. Be clear about the non-negotiables in your life, so that you can choose to be available or unavailable in the moments that matter most. The grey areas around work and home have never been greater, so it’s important that you are clear about your red lines because otherwise, technology will walk all over them. A friend recently recognised the importance of boundaries when he ended up taking a work call in a hospital, moments after his partner was let out of surgery. He felt forced to take what he described as “a step too far”, simply because his phone made him readily accessible and available to his boss. At their most basic level boundaries can create clear distinctions between when it’s okay to work out of hours and when it’s not. But boundary setting can also be hugely beneficial in relationship, with our family, our colleagues and also with ourselves. What matters most to you? It’s a crucial question to keep asking yourself because without boundaries, what’s to stop you sending a work email as your best friend walks down the aisle?

Conscious Tech

Who is really controlling the scrolling? Man or machine? It’s an interesting question to ask yourself next time you reach for your phone because we might not be aware of the extent to which our actions and thoughts are being dictated by our digital devices. Conscious choice gives you the power to choose and stops you from becoming a victim of your circumstances, online and offline. In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an essay in the Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr believed that an increase in his internet usage correlated with a decrease in his own intelligence and he foreshadowed the following trend: “[As] we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” Fast forward to 2018 and where are we now? The dark prophecy suggested a reversal of roles, with humans operating more like robots and robots acting more like humans. Whilst the digital landscape has dramatically changed over the last 10 years-with the introduction of Instagram in 2010, closely followed by the launch of Tinder in 2012- I don’t believe we have down spiralled as far as Carr predicted. In fact, we live in a world more inventive, creative and connected than ever before. An all-consuming digital world in which information overwhelm and too much choice are contributing to what Matthew Crawford (‘The World Beyond Your Head’) calls a “crisis of attention” with distraction acting like “a kind of obesity of the mind.” Because what I fear might be becoming ever more instinct are the moments in between. The downtime, the daydreams, the places for pause. Whilst we are ever more connected are we forgetting to reconnect to ourselves?

“If humans remain unconscious, robots will become like humans and humans will become like robots”

– Fabian Markl

(Click here to read part 2: In defence of daydreams.)