Managing Phone Distractions

A cartoon of a guy in a life preserver with a cell phone. The text says "Dude focus, don't be distracted."
Managing Phone Distractions.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Do you think that the revival of flip phones is helpful? My date recommended that I get one for managing phone distractions. She is ticked off that I check the phone a lot when we are together. I am always in the market for a new phone. Are there phones that manage phone distractions and will a flip phone really help me? I remember using a flip phone in junior high.  JJ

Dear JJ: We live in an era of fundamental conflict. Our attention is a scarce finite resource, but the Internet has unlimited capacity. The flip phone has only a limited ability to restore that  balance. And apps that claim to do the this are also an oxymoron- they also demand your attention. 

Tamp it Down:

Some history: the phones we use today evolved from the simplest flip phone and palm pilots. How were people to be aware if they had missed an incoming phone call or had a calendar appointment? What about a text message they did not read? So, beginning with the Blackberry phone, engineers built in more external triggers.

Fast forward: today these alerts take the form of sounds, banners, and vibrations. They let us know that someone is trying to reach us, or we have missed ‘something.’  Unless you lead a very exceptional life, most of us do not need to know about these losses in real-time.  But we all need help managing phone distractions.

No matter which phone you select, you already have the controls to tamp it down! There is a necessary habit when you download a new app- you must immediately go to the settings and reset the opt-ins. When you turn them off, that will limit the number of times the app will interrupt you with an incoming sound, badge, or marketing event. It’s also vital to do some housekeeping with the existing apps on your phone: which ones are you not using at all or using infrequently? These apps can be permanently deleted. The apps you decide to keep can be rearranged on the screen, so they are less in-your-eye. But do this only after you assess their privacy settings and notifications.

The Devices We Hold:

There are certain phone models or devices that claim to curb the distraction habit, but they would probably not make that much of a difference. Earlier versions of the Samsung phones had an edge on the side of the screen that enabled the user to view notifications (mostly of news) without engaging in additional gestures. A flip phone would work in a similar manner if it displayed the message on a screen, without additional gestures to open up the clamshell. You could also opt-into gray/scale format that makes the screen seem less appealing. 

That said, the key to making this change and being less distracted by the phone rests with you, not the technology. One explanation is that you are checking the phone because it has become an embedded habit. In that case, mindful awareness will help. But, people also open up their phones and browse them in the presence of other people because they are bored with their present company, afraid of missing out on a news flash, or self-absorbed in their online community. Probably these reasons overlap and are sticky ones to change. 

Mere Presence:

Going forward, examine the reasons you are checking the phone so often with your date so that you can train yourself to resist the gravitational pull. Perhaps it will improve your friendships and personal relationships. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a phone on the table, even when no one is browsing, changes what people talk about and how they interact. If they think they might be interrupted, they keep the conversation light, and stay less connected with each other. Although your date suggested that you use a different device, the flip phone, to manage your distraction, this might be a code word for something else. 

A final observation, a quirk to acknowledge, is that signals from someone else’s phone- say the noise, buzzing, and sounds from their notifications- will activate your own distracted response as if it was coming from your device. So be wary of the company you keep.