Your Phone is Changing the Way you Work (and not in a good way)

 It’s 11:37 PM and I can’t sleep because my brain is too busy reliving all the embarrassing things that have ever happened to me. Naturally, I reach for my phone in search of a distraction- anything must be better than reliving the 8th grade. I type  “baby guinea pigs” into my phone, hit the search button and am not disappointed.

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Am I alone in this? Do you ever catch yourself having a stressful thought, and suddenly feel the urge to grab your phone and Google something random? This is a coping mechanism my mind has developed to avoid the subjects I don’t want to deal with, like cringe-y memories I’d rather forget.  

While this coping mechanism is great for when I can’t fall asleep, it’s not so great when there are important things swimming around in my brain that need to be addressed. My smartphone has made it super easy to never have to think deeply about things that are tough. I have to make a real effort when I want to focus on something by putting away these easy distractions.

As a 24 year old in today’s technological age it’s not too surprising that the devices I use have a an impact on my personal life. What I didn’t anticipate was feeling the repercussions of that in my job. I remember the first few days after my formal training ended, I felt the urge to grab my phone every time I felt that panicky, lost feeling.

Luckily I curbed that temptation from the start and kept my phone turned off or in my purse until lunchtime. But this need for distractions has manifested itself in another way that doesn’t directly involve my phone. It has effectively chipped away at my capacity to focus for long periods of time. Let me explain.

My job is fast-paced and requires me to keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Naturally that leads to switching from task to task pretty frequently. I’ll be making changes to an order and the phone will ring, or I’ll be looking through a report and an email will pop up on my screen that needs my attention right then and there. But a good chunk of the day revolves around solving problems; trying to dig into an issue and figure out how I am supposed to do something or how it could be done differently.

When I get stuck, instead of pouring my whole efforts into that one thing I find myself looking for excuses to move onto the next task. There’s something about thinking through an issue that my brain doesn’t like.  Anything that isn’t easy or familiar or quick is seen as a threat, so my focus starts shifting to other things that I could be getting done.

When I let these feelings take over I end up going around in circles- starting a difficult task, stopping, starting again and having to remember where I left off, then feeling overwhelmed all over again and taking a break. Instead of getting through the hard stuff throughout the day, I find myself stuck at 3pm trying to muddle through it all. I’ve finished all the random to-dos and now all that’s left are all those tricky problems I kept avoiding. Talk about overwhelming!

One day as I reflected on these bad habits I was forming, I recalled hearing of studies that prove you have more decision- making power earlier in the day. That made sense, but I was starting to feel like I had no decision-making power at all! Why was my brain so lazy all of the sudden?

I had gotten through college just fine, and that had required a ton of studying and and intense focus for long periods of time. I thought of my tendency to be a perfectionist and how that might make me want to put things off. It can be a huge road-block to only want to do things perfectly the first time, especially when learning something new. But I felt it was more than that- almost like an impulse I was barely aware of.

I realized that over time, I had created bad habits when it came to managing my time. In my personal life, my phone served as that distraction I could pick up in a moment’s notice. It was constantly available and ready to be used in an unhealthy way if I allowed it. Any time I had a thought pop in my head that was upsetting or too much to handle at the moment, I could unlock my screen and begin sifting through tweets.

To make matters worse, the type of job I have provides me with an endless amount of distractions. There are always emails piling up, workflows that need to get done and live orders that require attention. All of these tasks are way easier than some of the problems I need to work through to get my job done. The problem is, like my phone, these tasks will always be there. Always competing for attention no matter what I have on my schedule that day.

When I took a step back and started to see this parallel I realized that my brain, if left to it’s own devices, would never want to think about things that require a lot of brain power. It would always default to the easy stuff and keep putting off the things that were hard. By allowing my phone to distract me in my personal life, I was weakening the brain muscles I needed to tackle things that can be challenging at work.

My job would be easier if I just took an issue by the reigns, set timer for 20 minutes and forced myself to work through it. Even if it meant I still didn’t have an answer when the time was up, but I had something concrete I can send on to a manager or coworker, I would have accomplished something. Instead of putting off all of my difficult tasks until the end of the day, I should sprinkle them throughout and let my brain chew on easier things in between.

To build that focus muscle I need to work on this in my personal life too. This means taking time out during the day where my phone is turned off completely and I can focus on the things that matter. Whether it’s ways I can improve myself, goals I want to work on, quiet time with God; I need to re-learn the art of stretching my attention span for as long as possible. I don’t want to spend my days spinning my wheels. If I don’t work on this I’ll end up not accomplishing anything meaningful on a daily basis or even in the next few years.

I haven’t seen any studies on how bad phone habits can impact your work even when your phone is off, but I know it rings true in my own life. Leave a comment below if you’ve experienced something similar and how you are working on it. Also, do your own search on baby guinea pigs, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Finals, Jaw Pain and Negatvity

As I pull into the driveway, my mind races with all of the things I need to do in the next 24 hours. It’s the dreaded finals week and there are simply too many things, I decide.

It’s not until several minutes later when I’m sitting upright on my bed with papers strewn everywhere and my laptop heating up when I notice it- I’m starting to get a headache. While I’m usually stubborn enough to try and “wait it out,” this time I instantly walk to the kitchen and reach for the Tylenol. There is  no way I’m going to let a headache keep me from acing this exam tomorrow, I thought. But when I opened my jaw to take the pills, I was met with pain much worse than my newly discovered headache.

I soon realized that my teeth had been clenched shut so hard and for so long that I no longer realized it was happening and it was now causing me a headache. I tried an old trick that i had learned to see how bad the situation was, “curve your fingers and try to stack three knuckles vertically into your mouth. If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem,” the Youtuber had said.

My face reddened with pain and embarrassment when my mom walked in right at that moment. It felt like I was trying to beat the Guinness world record for “Number of Fingers Forced Into Mouth” (the record is 30 fingers as of 2011, so close). The strain it was causing was painful and I couldn’t believe that I had led to my own demise by simply clenching my teeth all day.

I took a break from my studies and started to search the web for how to un-clench my jaw and get rid of all this soreness. I found one boring, long, but incredibly helpful video. Luckily, by the end of the video my jaw felt relaxed and I was no longer clenching my teeth.

It dawned on me long after finals week that TMJ pain (which is what the internet had informed me I was experiencing) is similar to despair one can feel after feeding on negative thoughts all day. Paul encourages us to focus on the positive: things that are good, true, etc., but how often do we really do that when we let our thoughts take the driver’s seat for a while?

I know I find myself repeating negative thoughts when I let my mind wander. These thoughts pile up during the day so that by the time I get home from work or class it’s almost impossible to climb out of the stress-filled pit  I’ve dug for myself.

One technique I am using to combat these thoughts can be found in “The Power of Habit” and it is a pair of terms called “awareness training” and “competing response.” Awareness training involves just what you might assume, training yourself to be aware when you are doing an unwanted activity. So whenever I say something negative to myself, I mark a notch on a notecard. At the end of the day, I’ll be able to see how often it happens and I’ll have a better idea of what triggers it because I am paying closer attention.

Competing response is where I replace negative thinking with something else. For me, I am going to try to memorize as much scripture as I can. For now, I will meditate on what Paul says in Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

The second I start to think something negative, the thought will be replaced by these words and positive thoughts until eventually, positivity will be the norm.

But just like TMJ pain, realizing my jaw is clenched during the day only gets me so far. At the end of the day I have to do certain exercises that loosen my jaw so that I don’t clench harder when I’m sleeping or when I’m not paying attention. The same goes for negative thinking. Reading a few bible verses here and there is only good for the short term.  I need to devote time to prayer and bible study that goes beyond just skimming the surface. Once I have done that, my relationship with God will help me make positivity and hope a lifestyle and negativity a healthy exception to the norm.