One of the most extraordinary aspects of modern life is just how much of our attention is dominated by electronic screens. Be it smart phones, TVs, tablets or desktop computers, these devices play a disproportionate amount of time in our lives. We use them for working, socialising, learning and for entertainment; in fact, such is the ubiquity of these screens that working, socialising, learning and entertainment have themselves blurred into one homogenous lump of infoworkingedutainment. So it came as no surprise when a recent survey showed that 71% of people in the UK agreed with the statement that these days “…I’m constantly looking at a screen.” Of course, we wouldn’t do away with our various devices; after all, the benefits they bring are manifold. However, one does wonder whether our constant use of these devices is something more than a necessity and may actually be a habit bordering on an addiction.
For many of the people that I coach and advise, the seemingly constant demands of electronic communication is a real issue. They struggle with wanting time and space to work productively and to think whilst feeling the need to be always on. Instantly replying to emails is seen as being a signal of commitment and of being on top of things. These inanimate objects hold sway over us, eating into our daily lives. They were meant to liberate us but now seem to dominate. What began as time-saving technology has become time consuming technology. As William Penn put it: “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”
Our screens are more than merely a distraction. They can sometimes give us a nagging sensation that life is happening elsewhere, making us feel conversely both more connected to the world and at the same time more estranged. By ceding authority for our lives to these machines we are in danger of losing our sense of both presence and perspective. A good example of the myth of multi-tasking is that of trying to walk and text at the same time. Try walking down any busy street in any city in the world and it won’t be long before someone walks into you, distracted and focused on their phone.
With the executives that I work with, a starting point is often to bring them back to the present. They live lives of such pressure and at such a high speed that many have almost lost the ability to take in what’s around them. It is always important to allow ourselves the opportunity to observe: to notice and to be curious. When we do give ourselves the space to open our eyes and our minds it is extraordinary what is there to be seen; things that we would otherwise miss. We need to start to re-cultivate the art of not just looking but of seeing; of letting what is there make itself known. As with much of life, context is everything and yet too often we ignore what is around us. Giving ourselves time to take in our surroundings, to look deeply into people’s faces, and to stop and properly observe, can pay rich dividends. Too many of us live our lives on auto-pilot; rushing from one thing to the next and hardly pausing for breath. We need to rekindle the art of living in the present; of observing our surrounding, other people, and, most importantly, ourselves. When we do we often find that issues can take on a completely different hue. As James Thurber put it: “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”