Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. 

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Why Are You Reaching For Your Phone?

Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on October 5, 2016 at 3:35 AM

These days a lot of people complain about how everyone has their faces stuck in their phones. It seems like everywhere you look, people are texting, scrolling, and talking their way out of the present moment. Now before you stop reading, let me make it clear that this blog isn't about bashing technology or complaining about millennials. Personally, I think technology is awesome. And besides, this isn't only a "young people" problem. This weekend I was having brunch at a beautiful cafe in Prague where I watched two women in their mid-sixties spend almost the entire time on their phones instead of taking in this awesome ambiance:




Now I'm the first to admit that while I think technology is awesome, I'm not the most tech savvy person. I was a late adopter as far as cell phones go. I I was the last of my friends to own a cell phone, and even then my phone had a small plan that was only for emergencies. I text with my left index finger - no thumbs - and even though my fingers are very small I seem to be incapable of consistently hitting the right letters. I've never been much of a phone person anyway, so you'll rarely find me using my phone to talk or text anyone. I also rarely - if ever - pull out my phone in social situations, like when I'm having dinner with friends. I've even had friends comment that they feel uncomfortable going on their phones around me because I never seem to use mine.


I have, however, noticed one habit that has crept up on me: scrolling. I mostly use my cell phone to post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram - this is a part of my professional life that I enjoy. But there are other times when I reach for my phone - almost without realizing it - and begin scrolling mindlessly through social media.


Sound familiar?




Lately I've been experimenting with bringing more mindfulness into my relationship with my phone. Here's how it works. If I've already done my professional social media posts for the day, and I find myself lured toward my phone, I ask myself:


"Why am I reaching for my phone?"


I've noticed three main themes that come up in response to this question: boredom, discomfort, and distraction.


I think these three themes apply to many of us. How many times have you pulled out your phone because you were bored waiting for the bus or for an appointment? Or maybe you grab your phone when you feel uncomfortable in a social situation. Or perhaps you start scrolling because you're trying to distract yourself from having a difficult conversation or feeling a deep emotion.


I think it would be worthwhile for all of us to infuse a bit of mindfulness into our cell phone use.


It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with scrolling. Maybe sometimes you really do need a quick break and scrolling does the trick. What I'm advocating is that we become more aware of why we're scrolling. If you're scrolling because you're bored, or uncomfortable, or trying to avoid something, see if you can put your phone down and simply be with those feelings. Using a mindful approach, you can breathe in and out and just feel the sensations of your feelings without judging them. Or, if you're avoiding something, stop watching cute kitten videos and do what needs to be done. My guess is that you'll feel much better afterwards.


Here's a recent example of my new mindful phone practice. Last week I arrived early to a meeting where the conference room was locked. At first, I sat on a bench outside of the room and immediately felt drawn to my phone. I asked myself why I was reaching for my phone and my answer was that I was bored. So I kept my phone in my purse and started looking around. This felt somewhat uncomfortable - there were people sitting at tables and desks all around me, and I thought it looked strange for me to be starring into space. I think many of us feel like we need to look busy and important all the time - and we use our phones to perpetuate this illusion. So instead of trying to make myself look busy, I sat with my feelings of discomfort and boredom and focused on my breath and my surroundings. It's not like anything magical happened as a result of this practice, but I did feel more present in the moment I was in, instead of bringing myself into a virtual, imaginary place. I made eye contact with people, I noticed the unique construction of the building I was in, and I gave myself a moment to chill out and disengage from over-stimulation.


I think the same principle holds for other forms of technology, like TV. Again, I'm not saying that TV is bad. I love watching movies and documentaries, and even some shows (Game of Thrones, anyone? Yes, I want to be Daenerys Targaryen and own a few dragons - however in my version I'd also have a couple of unicorns). Anyway, I've noticed that sometimes my approach to TV isn't exactly mindful. For example, on weeknights, if my husband and I are both at home, we'll usually watch an episode of something on Netflix. Over the years this has turned into a bit of a habit, and we rarely think about other ways that we might use this time.


Recently our American Netflix account finally caught up to the fact that we now live in the Czech Republic, despite our use of different types of IP-switching-software (see how tech savvy I am - not?). Without Netflix we don't have much to watch because while my husband understands Czech TV, to me the Czech language still sounds like telephone wires hitting each other to create electric shocks. Before switching to the Czech Netflix (or "Czech-flix" as I've started to call it) we've decided to go a little while without a consistent source of TV. This means that we can approach our evenings more intentionally and mindfully, by being present with what's up for us in that moment, and by paying attention to what we truly feel like doing.


I often wonder what people did in the evenings before the advent of TV. I'm not a historian, but I imagine people probably talked more, or listened to music, or read. Or maybe they went to sleep early because they were exhausted from working on their farm all day. Regardless, I think it would be interesting for each of us to spend a bit of time without evening technology. What would your weeknights look like if your entire family was at home, but no one used any form of technology? How would you engage with each other? What would you do to occupy yourselves?


I think these are extremely important questions to answer. Because the truth is that if you watched less reality TV or spent less time on your iPad, you might end up engaging in activities that are more meaningful to you. Maybe you would pick up the guitar you haven't played in three years or pull out your sketch pad or have an engaging discussion with your partner. Maybe you would learn more about what lights your children up. Or maybe you would have time for some self-care or spend some time working on your personal/psychological development.


I believe that cultivating a more mindful relationship with technology will help us harness innovation to move forward, instead of using our gadgets to remain stagnant.


What about you? Have you ever practiced a mindful approach to reaching for your phone? Have you ever gone a period of time without TV? Have you ever taken a "technology fast" or a social media fast? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!




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