Lately I've been paying closer attention to the steady, low-level urge I often feel to check my phone for emails, texts, tweets and other notifications. I can justify this urge with any number of "good" reasons: I keep my phone on silent so it won't interrupt a coaching session, and I might have missed something important. A client or student may need to reach me, and I want to be responsive to them. Amy may have texted me about something pressing, and... Etc.
Those reasons are all true, and yet they don't fully explain my behavior. I've realized that this urge--and my almost automatic response to obey it--has a more emotional, less cognitive explanation: When I feel a little anxious or bored, I can check my phone, and if something new is there, my anxiety is eased and my boredom is relieved. It's a form of adult thumb-sucking.
There are times when this urge disappears, such as when I'm in a coaching session with a client or student, or when I'm in a meaningful conversation with Amy or a friend. And there are times when this urge is almost overpowering, such as when I'm in a dull meeting or making awkward small talk, or when I'm struggling with a difficult piece of writing.
All behavior is adaptive, so it's unhelpful to simply characterize this urge as "bad" and strive to quash it without understanding 1) what I'm adapting to, 2) how that adaptation serves me (and how it leads me off course), and 3) when I should follow it (and when I should resist it).
I'm clearly adapting to a set of inner drives that are important parts of my makeup. I'm usually highly attuned to my social environment, particularly signals that suggest another person's need for support or engagement, and this allows me to be an effective coach (and husband and friend) but can also generate anxiety when I want to connect but am unable to. I'm also typically a quick thinker who needs a lot of stimulation to avoid boredom--which is one reason why I find it difficult to meditate and yet keep trying.
Checking my phone obviously helps me adapt to these drives, and this adaptation serves me in many ways. Clients and students often express appreciation for my responsiveness, and note that they feel respected and cared for as a result. At times I can get a lot of work done on multiple fronts simultaneously. And I stay connected with a number of people who are important to me as a result.
But compulsively checking my phone leads me off course in a number of ways as well. In the moment, it tells the people in my physical presence that I'm less interested in them than I am in my virtual network, which can undermine my relationships. It contributes to unrealistic expectations regarding my availability and responsiveness. It disrupts my concentration when I'm struggling to think through difficult work, requiring me to switch contexts and rapidly adjust from one mode of working to another. And perhaps most importantly, I suspect that there's a neurological impact, resulting in diminished impulse control in general.
As noted above, when I'm fully engaged in a coaching session or conversation I don't feel this urge at all and have no need to resist it. But I believe there are a number of situations in which I'd be well served to do so, both interpersonally and in my writing and other reflective work. It's not difficult to manage this urge when I'm coaching--my dedication to my craft helps me focus on the people in front of me and keep any conceptual distractions at bay. The real challenge is when I'm writing, reading or doing other work alone--it's always tempting to set aside any conceptual challenges I face in order to deal with the "real" issues posed by a client or friend (or Twitter follower.)
Photo by syauqee. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.