I made two resolutions this year. The first was to put the phone down more, to be present in conversations and ask that those who are with me do the same. It just seems like a more genteel way of being. I had great success with this resolution. I wasn’t perfect. I would certainly find myself at lunches with a friend at Bravo Restaurant or Loews Hotel repeatedly looking at my phone as texts came in. I’ve spent too many dinners at Fritto Misto with the phone sitting there, its illuminated screen just mocking me, daring me to pick it up and play with it.
But in general I was better this year about being present in a conversation. I found that the conversations were more fulfilling when I focused on them, but there was certainly a residual draw to the phone so long as it was in my periphery. If I thought about leaving it in the car, there would be that moment of, “What if …?” and then I’d leave it and relax. I’m a divorce lawyer, what emergency is going to happen that I “have to” know about immediately? There isn’t. If a client is bleeding, call 911; if they’re fighting over the kids, call the cops. They’ll do better than I can, and charge less.
In January I wrote: “The second resolution I made was to take more vacation time. I notice that I always get a lot of work done the week before a vacation and the week after a vacation. So, obviously if I take a week off every two weeks, I’ll be at my highest productivity level.”
This one wasn’t so easy to do. Not working a third of the year is a lovely idea, but not a practical plan without a sizable passive income. I was able to get away for a total of seven weeks this year. The benefit wasn’t so much in the productivity, though I was able to be more productive when I was in town, but rather in the peace of mind and calm that I developed.
One thing I noticed this year is how calm and relaxed I’ve become, and how striking it is in relation to others. Whether it’s in a yoga class at Equinox or sitting at the King’s Head, I see around me greater stress levels every day.
I am fairly certain that the connection between our phones and the pressure on us as Americans to always be busy is what is driving an increase in the unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life in general. This “always connectedness” is driving a wedge between people and creates the mindset that there is always something better going on somewhere else, with someone who is prettier, richer or more interesting than who we are with.
All you have to do is sit in a busy restaurant and watch the people around you to notice how they lose focus on the friends and family they are with, and get engrossed in the latest Facebook post from someone in Greenland. It’s not just the teenagers anymore, it’s all of us.
I think it has to do with both biological and societal positive feedback. When we pick up our phone and see that someone has texted, called or e-mailed, we get a jolt of an emotional reward: “Ooh someone likes and wants me!” But also, socially, we affirm that it’s OK to ignore the person you’re with, and get a quick jolt of good feelings. Add in the social construct that we should always be working and it’s no wonder that we’re addicted to our phones. I’m sure B.F. Skinner and Abram Maslow would have a field day with this behavior and the track that our society is on.
Personally, I really enjoy how I felt by focusing more on people while I’m with them. This was partly a result of being away, but more a result of intentionally focusing on them and putting away the phone.
Most resolutions fail quickly. We don’t like to change as humans. I certainly am resistant, but after this year I think I’ll keep up these because I like the effects, and that is how positive reinforcement works, which would make B.F. Skinner proud.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at email@example.com or (310) 664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra