The Race for Your Attention

By Mike Pinto, IPLI Mentor and Principal at James Cole Elementary

I have an addiction problem. I admit it. I’m addicted to my cell phone. In this age where everything is at your fingertips and a school administrator needs to be able to keep up with emails and also update their Twitter feed, the cell phone can easily become something you are strapped to 24/7.  As I was listening to a podcast recently, I heard an interview of an author named Adam Alter who wrote a book called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. I was intrigued so I tracked down a copy of the book to explore more. A Ted Talk featuring Adam Alter is linked here: Adam Alter TED Talk.

The book is a fascinating read. It offers many examples of how technology companies who create websites and apps indulge our tendency toward behavioral addiction.  The book covered a wide range of topics including how our attention span has decreased on average from 3 minutes to 45 seconds. The book covered how children on social media chase “Likes” and how these “Likes” sometimes equate to a person’s view of their self worth.  It also spoke to how platforms like Netflix introduce an episode resolving the cliffhanger from the last episode, offer the middle of the episode for new content, and end each episode with another episode – all intended to keep your attention and when you are in the midst of a binge-watching session – watch another episode.

Following Nancy Dana’s model of Action Research, I began some of my own.  I downloaded an app called Moment which you can use to track your phone use. I began in the middle of the summer and for two months each day tracked the following information on a Google Sheet: Date, Minutes on Phone, Number of Pick-ups each day, the longest span each day I was on my phone continuously, the number of phone calls I made, and the three most used apps each day.

I discovered a couple of things. First, the App allows you to set time limits for phone use and gives you feedback based on the number of minutes you are on the phone during different pick ups. The App also has features in it that are set to help you decrease your phone use. You can allow the App access to your phone to essentially shut it off after a certain number of hours for use outside an emergency call.  It also allows you to set up ‘Moment Family’ that will allow screen limits for different members of your family.

In the end, after two months of action research, my data regarding phone use includes:

  • Time Span – 82 days
  • Average Minutes on Phone: 396 minutes (6h 36m)
    • When School is in Session: 427 minutes (7h 7m)
  • Average Pickups: 62 (91 highest, 22 lowest)
    • When School is in Session: 52
  • Longest Pickup/Day: 24 / 48 days (longest 5 min or less)
    • Longest span of time on one “pickup” during each day) 21 / 19 days (longest 40 min or longer)
  • Average Phone Calls: 8
    • When School is in Session: 9
  • Apps Used Most (Tracked Top 4 Most Used Apps/Day)
    • Messages
    • Gmail
    • Gmail
    • Pages (Facebook)

What I found was that as I used the Moment App, I began to get focused on lowering my phone use.  Unfortunately, my intentions weren’t so honorable. Often, instead of grabbing my phone, I would grab my iPad and do the same task. I was in many ways shirking the system because I wasn’t lessening the amount of screen time or blue light exposure, I was simply changing the tool to which I received technological input. What I did become aware of was the number of times I grabbed for my phone during the day to just check it.  I found that I would often do a continuous loop – checking Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, then do the loop once more again. I also had the following insights:

  • Don’t judge. Try the App. You might be surprised how much you use your phone. The two people who I convinced to use the app stopped using it in one day. They were alarmed by their phone use.
  • The phone is tool necessary now for my job. I use it all the time for pictures and posting on school’s social media. I also use it to check/keep up on emails throughout my day at different places around the building.
  • During school days, my pick-ups are as frequent as on non-school days, but the length of my time on the phone is very short – on average under two minutes per pick-up.
  • I don’t use the phone much for phone calls. I text, email, and post from it. I rarely call on it.
  • Notification on home screen at school are my new focus. I try to unsubscribe to all unnecessary emails. I also have turned off notifications on most apps. They just draw me to my phone more frequently.

In the end, the action research and information from Adam Alter’s book has helped me. I am more aware than ever before about the attraction of technology and how it can consume one of your most precious resources: Time.  In our efforts for mindfulness and calm, here are some tools one might consider to lower your phone use:

Breaking the Habit:

  1. Stop checking your phone in the car.
  2. Move your phone elsewhere when you watch TV or read.
  3. When you get up to check your phone, leave it plugged in.
  4. Turn off notifications.
  5. Institute a weekend email moratorium with your staff.
  6. Choose an end point for your browsing session.
  7. Stop checking your phone when in line or waiting for an appointment.
  8. Don’t use your phone in bed.
  9. Break the “Checking In” cycle. (Once you’ve checked your normal loop, don’t start again)
  10. Close apps as soon as you use them to avoid the “What’s next?” habit.
  11. Don’t expect a quick fix, but be mindful of your habit.

Technology is a necessary and integral part of our every day.  Learning how web page and app designers target our attention as well as how our own behaviors drive its use can be powerful in our efforts to find daily balance in our lives.