On a recent trip to Venice I saw a striking sight. Of course, I saw many: the Ponte de Rialto at dusk, the ornate glasswork of Murano, the view over the city from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore, and works by Bosch, Titian and Tintoretto. Lucky me.
But the sight that has stayed with me was plain whenever I rode a vaporetto, Venice’s waterborne answer to the London bus. All around were people pecking at screens as they played slither.io or scrolled through Instagram feeds.
A few of them, no doubt, were locals who had grown tired of gawping at their own city. But on a weekend in high summer, my guess is that most were tourists. The vaporetto provided them with a magnificent view of a unique city that is neither easy nor cheap to visit. Yet they felt compelled to look away from the vista they had paid so dearly to gaze upon.
We are hooked. Our devices can, at any moment, demand that we focus upon them by flashing, pinging or even vibrating insistently against our skin. They are constantly evolving to do so more and more effectively. As a result, phone users in developed countries now spend about two hours a day pawing at their little blue screens — a big chunk of our available leisure time.
Recently, the big tech companies, most prominently Apple, have started to trumpet new distraction-fighting features, such as tools that track your usage or remind you to stop watching YouTube videos. While welcome, these features have been halfhearted and slow to arrive.
No wonder. Technology companies, notably Facebook and Google, make money by selling your attention to advertisers. The more attention they have, the more they can sell. There is a limit to how much we can expect them to help us regain control.
So, without letting the technology companies off the hook, the main responsibility for managing our attention has to lie with us. And there is plenty we can do.
The first and simplest principle: if you want your future self to do something, make it easy; otherwise make it hard. So, switch off notifications — of course. Make sure your phone automatically reverts to a silent mode every night, muting incoming calls and messages. My phone is silent between 10pm and 7am; a more aggressive muting might be better.
Set up your phone charging station away from where you sleep (although the London Fire Brigade says don’t charge it at night at all). This is obvious advice, but I can assure you it works. Your phone becomes less distracting without you needing to exert any willpower; I predict that you will recoup the set-up time within 24 hours.
Tristan Harris, a former Google designer and founder of the Time Well Spent movement, suggests taking things further — putting only basic tools such as a calendar and a camera on your phone’s home screen. He hides icons for distracting apps altogether: if you want to use Instagram, you can type “Instagram” into the phone’s search bar. This works because while the search is quick, it requires deliberate effort.
My fellow tourists, I guess, started by taking photographs. Then their attention leaked: they wanted to post those photographs on social media, and from then they slipped unthinkingly into games or newsfeeds. Using Mr Harris’s method might have helped.
A second piece of advice is to notice your own emotional state. On vacation I sometimes found it easy to forget about my phone. The exceptions were instructive: a (small) problem arrived on email; I felt slightly anxious, wanted to send a quick response, wanted to alert the necessary people, wanted to see how they had responded, and suddenly I was checking every few minutes until I noticed my own feelings and got a grip.
Third, keep adapting, because the tech companies certainly will. A few months ago I installed an inbox blocker, a simple plug-in which deflects me from my email inbox by forcing me to click an extra button. After a while I noticed unintended consequences had set in: I had hit a mental block while working, so I would self-medicate by going to check email, where I would be fended off by the inbox blocker and end up checking social media instead. The result: just as much distraction in a less useful form. I have now uninstalled the blocker.
Finally, use social pressure. Platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn turn reciprocity and fear of missing out into weapons. The most egregious is the Snapchat “snapstreak”, where you need to keep exchanging messages every 24 hours with a friend to keep the streak going. Some kids will do anything to maintain a streak — including giving out their passwords to let others message when they cannot. Adults may sneer, but only because our own phones are subtler in the way they manipulate our social anxieties.
The good news is that social pressure works both ways. Make a point of telling your partner, your friends or your colleagues that you will not look at your phone during a conversation, a meal or a meeting. Ask them to nag you when you fail — and to remind you to look at the view.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 August 2018.
My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop. Yes, the iPhone is one of the inventions.