Being Present (The Phone Down Challenge)


I get home from work. I’m having a conversation with my wife. She’s been around whiny kids non-stop and hasn’t had a meaningful adult conversation all day. She wants to talk, and talk, and talk (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but sometimes any talking is a lot of talking for me). And I completely understand why she wants and needs that adult interaction. My head is still spinning from my work day, but I try my best to tune in. My intentions are good. Her words are, indeed, important to me. We finish talking (likely due to child interruption). Five minutes pass by. I ask my wife a legitimate question. She stares at me for a second. Her facial expression immediately lets me know I’m in trouble. I’ve done it again. I brace myself and wait for it, and then the dreaded words come out of her mouth… “Did you really not hear what I just said to you?”

I’m embarrassed to confess that I cannot even tell you how many times this exact scenario has played out in my life, much less in the last six months alone. And let’s not even discuss the topic of remembering the names of people I meet (I may be the worst all-time). Am I just a really bad listener? I would have to say yes, I am (sometimes). And I’m quite positive that most experts and non-experts alike would adamantly agree. But why am I such a bad listener at times? Is it because I am hard of hearing? No, I don’t have any hearing impairments (at least not that I’m aware of). Is it because I just don’t care about what other people are saying? Perhaps sometimes, but that’s never the case with my wife and other individuals who are important to me. Is it because I am often distracted? YES, YES, and YES!

I‘m not sure if it’s normal or abnormal, but my mind seems like it never stops racing. Surely I am not the only one to feel like I have fourteen different things rushing through my mind at all times. How can I possibly focus on what is going on around me when I’m constantly trying to escape from the inner-workings of my own mind? I often have a very hard time staying in the moment. Consequently, there are times when I am nothing more than just physically present. By default, that means that I am mentally and emotionally absent in those moments. Sadly, this is more apparent to those I am interacting with than it is to me… until they call me out on it, of course. That’s when I finally realize that it’s time for me to clear my mind and really focus (which I am fully capable of doing, believe it or not).

There are soooo many distractions that we face on a daily basis, and they all seem to battle ruthlessly for our attention at the exact same time. The noise of passing cars, the images on the television, the stressful thoughts of looming work deadlines, the hustle and bustle of family life, etc., etc., etc. It never ends… and it won’t end. There are very few places in this world we can escape to that will allow us to avoid the vast majority of distractions we face from day-to-day. And even when we are in those hallowed places, we’ll likely still be distracted by a single, tiny fly that won’t stop buzzing around our ears. Hence, distractions of one kind or another are ever-present. So how do we deal with that reality? If distractions cannot be fully eliminated, then my best suggestion is that we must find a way to reduce our distractions as much as possible.

Distractions & Chaos
When you try to observe this photo all at once in its entirety, it appears as cluttered chaos. However, when you focus in on a single line you become capable of following that one line along its path. Such is life. We must make the choice to remove ourselves from the chaos of distractions by focusing in on the one line (i.e. the one person or the one moment) that requires and deserves our full, undivided attention.

When I think about my life, and when I think about the stresses I face and the distractions I frequently encounter, the bulk of them can be traced back to one thing: A small, hand-held device that can drain my mental and emotional batteries much more quickly than I can ever drain its more easily rechargeable, manufactured battery. Yes, I am speaking of the mobile phone (specifically, the smartphone), which now seems like a permanent appendage of the human body. I am speaking of the same device that will probably cause humans to evolve (or devolve) into hunched back creatures with extremely poor eyesight. Mobile phones are now as much a part of daily life as food and water and sleep, and arguably more a part of daily life than face-to-face conversations and bowel movements (TMI?).

Listen, I’m not here to rip on mobile phones and throw down some useless discourse about how we need to do away with them once and for all. Not happening, nor would I want that to happen. Smartphones are incredibly useful, and quite honestly I wouldn’t want to live without one at this point (even if getting rid of mine meant that I would no longer be accessible 24-7, which is an appealing thought). If used properly, then smartphones are a very effective tool for managing daily life, carrying out various forms of communication, and obtaining important information. Here’s the problem: We’re not using our mobile phones properly. And by that I mean that we are using them far too much, and they are taking over our lives. A recent study found that Americans check their phone once every 12 minutes on average, and that equates to looking at the phone 80 times per day on average. That’s five times per waking hour. That’s once every twelve minutes, on average, every single day. Wow. Just, wow. Mobile phones are the single biggest distraction we all currently face in our lives, period. So what are we going to do about it?

Each time I look at my phone I am reminded of everything else that is going on, and everything else that I could or should be doing. Those reminders often consume my mind, and the end result of looking at my phone is that I tend to become mentally and emotionally absent from what is actually taking place right in front of me. I become an inactive participant in my own life. The grasp of my mobile phone takes me out of the moment far more than I am comfortable with, especially when I am around my own wife and kids. I finally recognized this sad truth recently, and I knew that I had to do something about it. And so I did! About three weeks ago I took a proactive step towards being more present with those I cherish most, and towards paying closer attention to the precious moments that are taking place in my life. I made an important (perhaps life-changing) decision for myself, and I fully believe it is one that we can all benefit from.

So what was my decision, you ask? It’s so simple, and it’s something that we are all capable of doing. I decided to completely remove the presence of my mobile phone from my sight for at least two waking hours each day, particularly when I am around the people I care about the most (I literally put my phone in a drawer where I can’t see it). That’s my daily goal. Seriously, how simple and attainable is that goal? I usually do this on weekdays right when I get home from work, and sometime in the middle of the day on weekends. I have already noticed a big difference in my own life in a short amount of time. I am a better listener, I am more patient with my kids, I’m leaving work at work, and I am less stressed at home. In short, I am more attentive. I am seeing things, and hearing things, that I very likely would have missed before. As a result I can honestly say that I am noticeably happier. I actually look forward to that break from my phone each day and the temporary relief and release from the world that it provides.

I’m not saying it has been easy to avoid my phone for two hours each day, or that it will be easy moving forward. In fact, even after three weeks I still find myself reaching for my pocket habitually expecting my phone to be there (mobile phone addiction). It’s a tough habit to break. It’s rare that anything worthwhile ever is easy. But I do believe it will make a positive impact on my life if I am successful at it most days, so I know I need to finish what I start with this goal. I have found that being more than physically present, being mentally and emotionally present also, requires active self-awareness and the determination to make conscious choices that will allow me to avoid distractions and focus on what matters most. I have made the choice to take back some much needed control over my mobile phone, and I now invite you to do the same. We could all use a little less mobile phone in our lives.

Note to Self: This choice to restrict your mobile phone usage will not only have a positive effect on your own mind and awareness, but it will also set a good example for your kids and allow you to give them more of the focused attention they so deserve. You don’t want your kids thinking your phone is more important to you than they are.

Proactively Me Challenge # 4 | The Phone Down Challenge:

Completely remove the presence of your mobile phone from your sight for at least two consecutive hours each day (120+ minutes), preferably when you are in the presence of individuals you care about the most (and no, sleeping hours do not count).

The Phone Down Challenge

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1 Response

  1. Faye Gibbs says:

    I totally feel this challenge makes a lot of sense and I am going to do it. Thank you Chris Coates for sharing this life experience. So necessary to show your family they are important

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