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Unplugging from the Noise

by Kim Painter

For journalist Catherine Price, the moment of truth came one night when she was feeding her infant daughter. She realized that her baby was gazing at her—but she was gazing at her smartphone, glued to a shopping website.

“I saw the scene as it would have looked to an outsider—her focused on me, me focused on my phone—and my heart sank,” Price wrote in the New York Times recently. “This was not the way I wanted things to be.”

It’s not the way a lot of us want things to be, and yet it’s how we are living our daily lives. Connected devices have worked their way into every corner of our lives. We sit at meals with family and friends, but we give our attention to our phones. We still take vacations but not from our work email and text messages. Waiting room and airplane downtimes that once left us alone with our thoughts—or led to spontaneous chats with strangers—now are occasions to work on our laptops, play games on our tablets, or scroll through social media feeds on our phones.

Consider the following frightening statistics:

  • The average adult checks his or her smartphone 47 times a day, according to Deloitte’s most recent annual survey. The survey finds that almost everyone checks first thing in the morning and last thing at night—and 48 percent check in the middle of the night.
  • More than a quarter of U.S. adults report that they are online “almost constantly,” and another 43 percent are plugged in several times a day, according to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center. Constant use is even higher among young adults and those with the highest incomes.
  • More than 70 percent of teens and adults admitted to at least glancing at their phones while driving, according to a survey commissioned by AT&T and researchers at the University of Connecticut. And these folks are not just texting: a follow-up survey found 1 in 10 drivers video chatting and 1 in 4 using Facebook.

“You are making yourself more forgetful; you are making yourself more distracted, less creative, and less insightful. You are actually training your brain to be distractible,” says Price, who explored the research for her new book, How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life. In it, she offers a plan that includes a weekend “trial separation” from phones and other devices.

She also offers advice for coexisting with those devices in a healthier way, one that turns a smartphone into a tool, rather than a constant obsession. Something more like a friend and less like a lover, Price says.

There’s an obvious market for her book. In a recent survey, two thirds of adults agreed that unplugging for an occasional digital detox could be good for mental health. Yet the same survey found that only 28 percent had done it.

In other words, breaking up is hard to do.

A growing body of research suggests that all this connectivity is not only changing our routines, it’s changing our brains—and not necessarily for the better.

Our Ancient Human Brains

Humans have always lived in a complex world, one in which it pays to seek out and pay attention to multiple sources of information, says Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Imagine two thirsty ancestors approaching a stream for a drink. One notices the rustle and scent of a nearby jaguar and retreats to find his drink elsewhere; the other focuses only on his thirst, ignores the warning signs, and becomes a jaguar’s lunch.

Throughout our evolutionary history, people with more information fared better, Rosen says. But now, he says, we live in a world where much vaster quantities of information are constantly available. Very little of that information is crucial to our survival, but our brains do not always seem to know that, Rosen says.

Thus, the title of a recent book Rosen coauthored with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

When we tap our phone seeking the next new thing, “we are like animals foraging for food, but we are just foraging for information,” Rosen says. Just knowing that emails, Facebook posts, and news stories are piling up while we are doing something else can induce a modern form of anxiety known as fear of missing out, or FOMO, Rosen says.

Our smartphones are “the world’s smallest slot machines,” designed to keep us coming back for more, says psychologist David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut. Like slot machines, apps such as Twitter and Facebook offer variable and unpredictable rewards, he says. Occasionally, we find something good there, and those little thrills prime our brains to keep checking for more.

“For a small slice of the population, perhaps as much as 6 percent, the urge to be online becomes so disruptive that it’s a kind of addiction, one that needs to be treated with the same techniques that work for drug or gambling addictions,” Greenfield believes.

A More Mindful Approach

You don’t need to be a technology addict to benefit from a tech break, though.Tom Pierik, senior vice president at Lee & Associates Commercial Real Estate in Riverside, California, does not have a Facebook account or a phone full of gaming apps. What he does have, on most days, is an overflowing email inbox. On a typical day, he says, he gets about 400 messages. Up to 100 require a response.

In the past, he says, he felt he had to respond to those emails at all hours. But, a few years ago, he took a family vacation and decided to leave his phone and laptop behind. “The first time was a little scary,” he says. “But once you get through it, you realize that, ‘Oh, the world did not fall apart; my business did not fall apart.’”

Now, Pierik makes it a point to take regular hiking and biking vacations in areas with no cell service. He also goes out to weekend dinners without his phone. “It keeps you much more focused on the moment,” he says. “It allows you to leave work behind.”

Some businesses have started to encourage those breaks by enforcing email-free evenings and weekends and setting up programs that delete employees’ emails during their vacations. Senders get messages letting them know when they can try again and whom to contact in the meantime.

Most of us must set our own limits, though.

And if more of us, like Pierik, learned to focus on the moment—on what we are doing and how it makes us feel—more of us might change our ways, says David Levy, author of Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives.

Levy, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, has for the past two decades taught a course in which he asks students to apply the principles of mindfulness to their technology use. In one exercise, he asks students to keep journals as they use email for a week, noting “their breathing, body sensations, posture, emotions, and the quality of their attention.”

Many people, he says, notice “a little jolt of anxiety” as they open their inboxes. They find themselves holding their breath, tensing their muscles, and careening through emotions as they go from message to message. Some realize they are checking email to avoid other things, like work.

Levy assigns similar exercises with Facebook and other social media accounts. He also teaches his students traditional breath-noticing meditation techniques. The idea, he says, is to learn to notice what’s happening when we are on- and offline—and to start making more informed choices.

Price, the phone break up author, agrees that’s the goal: “Be the person you want to be and spend your time the way you want. Any time you decide in the moment about how to use your attention, you are making a broader decision about how to spend your life.”

For her part, Price no longer has a phone in hand when she’s spending time with her daughter, now age three. She’s found time to learn to play the guitar and to meditate. Like Levy, she says there’s a link between mindfulness and a less plugged-in life.

“When you put your phone down, time slows down,” she says. “It’s like you put down a burden you didn’t know you were carrying.”