0682 – manage interruptions like you’re cooking

I dropped my smartphone yesterday. The battery fell out, and when I put it back together, the screen wouldn’t light up. So I’ve been smartphone-less for a day.

The first thing that happened almost immediately afterwards was that I felt a sense of loss. I had just spent about $60 recently getting the battery replaced. And the phone itself cost several hundred dollars – it’s a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The phone is over 2 years old now, wow. I still remember the first smartphone I got, which was a Samsung Galaxy Note 2. That phone was a real brick – it survived a 10 story drop outside my window and survived without a crack, by falling into some squelchy mud. I should remind myself of that. I should have had to buy a replacement phone right then and there, but I didn’t. This time I dropped my phone fairly innocuously, out of my pocket onto the MRT floor. Such is life. You can go through rough times and come out unscathed, and you can do something just a little bit wrong and suffer tremendously for it.

I immediately felt cut off from the things that I’m used to. I’m used to talking to a group of friends on Whatsapp – there’s no way for me to do that without my phone. Web Whatsapp still requires the phone to be nearby, turned on and so on. So I’m cut off from them. I’m used to chatting with my wife on the way home from work – now there’s an hour and a half of silence from when I leave work to when I get home, and it does feel a little weird.

I don’t have anything to play music on – I typically use Spotify on my phone, played through my Jaybirds. So there’s no music for my commutes now. I’m experimenting with reading books again. I read a bit of a book while waiting for my dinner order yesterday. And I read a bit this morning on the way to work. But I’m also practicing just being still and silent, focusing on my breathing and things like that. Being without my smartphone makes me realize how “itchy” I usually am to have something to fiddle with my fingers, something to look at, something to focus on while I’m going about my day.

There are of course lots of other ways to do this than to be on your phone, and I don’t think a phone is necessarily a bad way of doing it. I was trimming my sofa recently (because my cats pull at the threads all the time) and I found it very therapeutic. Doing the dishes, doing the laundry, all of these can be quite therapeutic things. I tend to enjoy listening to podcasts while I do it. It’s a little bit of multi-tasking, not too much… I think there’s some aspect of flow there. Not too loose, not too tight.

As I’m writing this vomit, I have another tab open with Twitch.tv on it – I’m watching somebody play Street Fighter V. [1] It’s not exactly a distraction – I don’t feel like I’m in the mood to write this with zero external input, zero distraction – in a way that’s what this post is all about, really. To think about the different sorts of states of mind you can be in, and how the tools you use, the workspace you setup in front of you influences that. I spend so much of my time either on my phone or in front of my computer (either or work or at home). I don’t resent this or think that it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s something that I should understand better in terms of how it’s affecting me. How it shapes who I am.

A part of me wants to go as long as I can without my smartphone. Maybe a week, maybe a month. A month sounds a little long. A week sounds okay. I’ll have to make some interesting arrangements – if I’m going to meet a friend somewhere, I have to let them know that I won’t be contactable, so I need to make specific plans. I’m not particularly obsessed about having this experience, I just think it would be a little interesting.

I’m also thinking about how I don’t have the same attention span for books that I used to – I keep thinking of alternate things to think about, alternate things to do, I think about making notes to share with people – as I write this I feel an impulse to switch tabs to check Twitter. I used to resent these impulses more, or feel guilty about them, and I realize now that that was too antagonistic. You can’t be too antagonistic with yourself. You have to just sit back and observe them, identify them, recognize them, and try to put some space between yourself and the thought. I mean, sometimes it’s going to be okay to let yourself interrupt yourself. How do you tell when you should and when you shouldn’t? You experiment and see how it feels. You spend some time saying no interruptions, and then you spend some time saying all interruptions welcome, and then you see how that makes you feel, how that works. It’s like cooking – you try lower heat, you try higher heat, you try varying it back and forth. Sometimes you want to give it a slow burn and then sear it really hot on the outside. Sometimes you want to let it simmer overnight. Sometimes you just want a quick flash in the pan. Different things require different approaches, and it’s unlikely that you’ll know what is the right thing to do in a context-independent way from day 1.

Yeah, so the thing I want to think about here, the takeaway… think about managing your attention like you think about cooking.

[1] How interesting that we’ve gotten to V. When I was a child, it was II. When I was a teenager, it was III. When I reached adulthoot, it was VI. Now it’s V. I wonder if the series will ever end, or if it’ll just keep going for decades, and if I’ll live to see Street Fighter X, or XV, or even XX.


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