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  • Nikhil Dhawan

The Currency Of Time

How Notifications Are Making Us Go Broke

On a recent Fall evening, I was out for a stroll in the crisp weather. The clouds in the sky were scattering, crunchy leaves sprawled the ground, and a distant lake reflected the setting sun’s orange. It was a moment I was content soaking in.

Meanwhile, a friend was walking near me, texting and catching up on his phone. He was actively focusing on his messages, which might have been his only opportunity to do so. My instinct was to understand his situation and why he chose that moment to engage in said activity. I know a few people who use outdoor walks to catch up with people on the phone; I do the same when I’m alone. But I was curious if he realized what his trade-off was at that moment. His options were: soaking in nature, having a conversation with me, or catching up on his phone.

Take another situation: let’s say Covid is over, and you’re finally at a live concert, watching your favorite musician. It’s safe to assume that you would focus most of your attention on the performance. It’s only a three-hour-long concert, and you’ve been patiently waiting for this moment for months! In the meantime, you’re getting text messages and notifications from friends or work. That is now a part of everyday life; our phones are always alerting us of something happening in the world. The question is: how important is that notification? What are we willing to trade-off to distract ourselves?

Understanding Trade-Offs

The currency of time is very similar to an opportunity cost. It’s essential to look at the value of the road not taken. It’s easy to scroll through our phones, reading articles, looking at pictures, and live-texting people. But what are we missing out on while doing all of those things? If you’re actively reading this, you can’t simultaneously be having an engaging conversation. You also cannot take back the time you’ve already spent, so why would you want to spend that time distracted?

Nir Eyal, the author of a book called Indistractable, redefines the word distraction to understand its meaning better. Eyal says the opposite of distraction isn’t focus; it’s traction. Think of traction to mean momentum or force. That means, every time we pause what we’re doing to look at a notification, we’re choosing to slow down some progress.

Have you ever had a train of thought where everything made sense, then you’re suddenly distracted, and it’s hard to resume the original flow you had? That train of thought is traction; it’s moving steadily and uninterrupted. Once that motion is disturbed, it takes some time to get it back. Our brain thrives in situations when we aren’t being buzzed every few minutes or seconds.

The Dilemma Of Notifications

Nowadays, we get notifications for everything. The feeling of the vibration and the ‘ding’ sounds are ingrained in our brains; they cause us to react. You might be watching TV, reading a book, talking to a friend, or working; when a notification comes in, our heads turn and check to see what happened. We’re continually pausing real life to see what else is demanding our attention.

I’m not saying that we should completely ignore our phones. I’m asking if we can be more mindful of our usage. When we’re spending time doing task A, we’re implying that it’s more important than task B. It’s not a problem when it’s an intentional choice, but it’s questionable if it’s a force of habit.

While at a concert, you may consciously know that you don’t want to distract yourself from the moment to look at a work email. Or when you’re at work, in a deep state of flow, you know you don’t want to be distracted by an IG reply. Notifications were created to grab our attention, but the side-effect is that they’re continually curbing our state of mind and taking us away from the present moment.

So how do we take that same awareness and translate it into other moments in life? If you’re out to dinner with a friend, why would you reach for your phone unless there’s something timely or urgent?

Maybe it’s a reflex, or you’re bored, or you genuinely don’t want to be there. Sometimes it’s important, and those are the times people are most apologetic. But the scary thing is that most times, people reach for their phones when there’s an in-between moment, as a force of a habit — mostly a mindless one. Have we become that uncomfortable with silence and boredom?

The reality is, if you’re on your phone, you can’t be fully present with anything else around you. Your eyes, mind, and brain are actively focusing on something else. You may hear bits and pieces of whatever else is around you, but it can never be 100%. So the question is, how do you want to spend your currency of time?

Make Yourself Indistractable

Take a quick moment to evaluate how easily you can be distracted at this point in your life. Now, think about how indistractable you want to become. The next time you catch yourself mindlessly pulling out your phone when you’re actively doing something else, remember who you want to become and take one step towards that by waiting five minutes to pull out your phone.

Try that whenever you’re tempted to reach for it; you may start to realize that you didn’t miss anything important and you saved time.


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