For the first time in over four years, I’ve bought a new mobile phone.
Unlike my old one, which moved at the pace of a dial-up modem, this one is lightning fast. Blink of an eye fast. It also tries to be helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I was buried under notifications for the first 48 hours.
It pinged with new emails, new updates and new messages. Did I want to know what the weather was like, it asked. You want to know what the traffic’s like right now, though, for sure. Why don’t I tell you about the restaurants near here, yeah?
Stemming the tide was technological whack-a-mole as I unearthed and extinguished all these ever-so-helpful attempts to engage with me.
However, the most invasive ping I face is the one Todd Henry writes about in his excellent book, The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice;
” .. A few years ago I noticed a disturbing pattern in my life. It was a tiny sensation, a little pinprick in my gut every so often. I called it the “Ping”.
The Ping is that little sensation that occasionally prompts me to check my email or my social media accounts. It’s the impulse to mindlessly surf news sites instead of doing something productive. And as my number of options grew, the pull of the Ping became even more powerful.
The Ping wants to be my master. It wants to own me. It wants me to serve it. The Ping even has a life philosophy for me: “Something out there is more important than whatever is right here.”
If a meeting gets even the slightest bit boring, I reach into my phone to check my email. If I have a few minutes in line at the store, I check my feeds.
Rather than being heads up and actually paying attention to what’s happening in front of me, the Ping tells me, “Hey, you don’t have to be bored. You have options.”
The net result? It’s more and more difficult for me to be fully in one place, to focus on what’s in front of me.
Author Linda Stone coined a term for the way many of us are living: “continuous partial attention.” We’re always kind of here, and kind of somewhere else.
Some of us slip in and out of zomebielike engagement .. as we scan the horizon for something more appealing to feed on. Can we really do our best [work] this way?”
I’ll admit it; the Ping has me in its clutches. I can be doing something, reading something, listening to something, and .. yeah, I’ll just have a quick flick, make sure I’m not missing anything.
It’s exhausting, but addictive.
As someone who’s still predominantly housebound and alone, the Ping hooks me on social media’s infinite scrolls as a source of stimuli, connection and comfort.
And, as a highly responsive and sensitive person, it’s hard to ignore other people’s unmet bids for emotional connection; as an introvert, my own FOMO is less about missing parties and more about missing articles.
Inspired by Todd Henry’s chapter on focus and productivity author Laura Vanderkam’s “power hour”, I’m trying an experiment. So far this week I’ve switched my phone off each night, not switching it on until around lunchtime.
Like Henry (who suggests setting aside an hour in your day to do strategic thinking and to plan your projects), Vanderkam advises scheduling the first hour of every day to work on your top priority.
If you want to take it to the next level, she suggests setting aside the whole of Monday morning, likening it to “paying yourself first” (putting money into your savings account before you spend it on anything else).
I set aside Monday morning and, more importantly, set both my phone and social media aside. It felt itchy, but I suddenly discovered more time and mental capacity to do things. The same, yesterday and today.
The Ping hasn’t enjoyed this one bit. The Ping has had me itching to open Facebook in another window, to check my emails, to see if someone has responded to my last message.
Being with the Ping and yet not submitting or rejecting it allows more time not just for projects, but for self-care. Hell, it is a form of self-care.
As Pema Chödrön writes about the six kinds of loneliness;
“When we’re lonely in a “hot” way, we look for something to save us; we look for a way out.
We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity.
It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain. It could take the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit of gossip into the six o’clock news, or even going off by ourselves into the wilderness.
The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness.
Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves? What about practicing not jumping and grabbing when we begin to panic?
Relaxing with loneliness is a worthy occupation. As the Japanese poet Ryokan says, “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.” “
The funny thing? By noticing the Ping and leaving my phone switched off I’ve actually felt LESS lonely. Crazy, huh?
Being more present and productive gives me the space to tune into what I want, and the time to do something about it.
Whether it’s sustainable, I don’t know. But at least it’s given me the time and space to write this blog post.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and switch on my phone.
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