Last year, I joined a local community concert band after nearly a decade of not playing my trumpet regularly. It was something that I could never manage the time or logistics for when I lived in California, and I was super excited to play again.
I went into it knowing that it'd probably take a while for my lips to get back into shape, but what I didn't expect was how much trouble I would have just simply…focusing on the music. I was losing my place constantly and zoning out whenever I needed to count more than a few measures of rest.
I'd already known that I was struggling with concentration and productivity, and I'd been hearing concerns my entire life over what [insert new tech here] is doing to The Youths™ and their attention spans. I figured that was probably about equal parts valid and equal parts get-off-my-lawn exaggeration. I considered my phone and social media to be distractions in my life that also generally made me feel worse, but I assumed that they only had those negative effects on me while I was using them. If I simply logged off, I'd be fine. I could throw my phone in a lake and write a novel tomorrow.
I don't know if it was The Pandemic Of It All, the internet, some combination of the two, or something else entirely — but these band rehearsals were Exhibit A that something had noticeably shifted in how well my brain could think and focus. And it was bleeding out into my offline life too.
A personal goal for 2023 was to see if I could regain some of that focus back, with an emphasis on my devices and the social platforms I visit on them. It wasn't some huge endeavor or anything (I wouldn't have had the attention span for it!) — I just wanted to see some improvement to reassure myself that my brain wasn't ruined forever. Here are a few of my main takeaways that I hope to build on in 2024:
✦ 1 ✦
Going cold turkey didn't work.
Every time I delete an app or install some website blocker extension, I somehow just end up back on it anyway. Rather than repeat that pattern over and over and then beat myself up over it, I shifted my focus towards replacing specific unhealthy habits with better alternatives.
✦ 2 ✦
My most effective change was removing news feeds and deleting accounts.
I've been using the News Feed Eradicator extension for Chrome for a couple years now, and it's a game changer. It essentially returns social platforms to how they were many moons ago, before Product Managers A/B tested their products into oblivion and made them as addictive as possible. You can still use the sites — but you have to specifically think of which profile/subreddit/etc. you want to visit, and I find I don't get sidetracked as much.
Deleting accounts has helped a lot too, for similar reasons. Platforms are a heck of a lot less interesting to use when you're locked out of half the functionality because you don't have an account.
✦ 3 ✦
My most unexpected effective change was the New York Times games and puzzles app.
I like that the puzzles are a more mentally-engaging alternative to "just passing time" mindless phone scrolling, and that they keep me locked in on one task for 15+ minutes. I've been able to completely break a habit I hated — using my phone in bed — by doing a nightly crossword puzzle on my iPad instead.
✦ 4 ✦
I needed to take control over when and how I was receiving bad news.
I think the root of the negative effects I've experienced from these platforms is the sheer amount of depressing/outraging/terrifying content I encounter on them. We all know the feeling of pulling out our phones just to pass a few minutes or look up something quick, only to be smacked in the face with horrible news.
I care deeply about social causes and generally being a well-informed person, so I didn't want to tune out completely. But this pattern was making me feel too overwhelmed to do anything that was actually of use to the causes I care about, while also making it impossible to context-switch back to my other responsibilities.
I removed as much news as I could from my social media (and had already removed most social media from my phone entirely). I now seek out specific reputable podcasts, journalists, etc. for news when I'm at home and in the right mindset to take it in.
✦ 5 ✦
Instead of posting photos or thoughts to social media, I now send them directly to friends and family.
Cute dog photos? My mom loves 'em. Came across some cool packaging? My design friends will think it's cool too. Big life update? People would rather hear it directly from me anyway. It's been more fun and, as someone who's been historically terrible at responding to texts in a timely manner, it's helping me feel more connected to the people I care about.
Overall, I feel remarkably better in pretty much all measures compared to how I was doing at this time last year. I'm not sure I've reduced the time I've spent on my devices (maybe I'll be ready for that goal in 2024), but I've at least found healthier alternatives to the things that were most negatively affecting me. I've been learning that incremental changes that I can actually maintain long-term end up feeling better than the more impressive-sounding changes that I inevitably backslide on.
Band is going better too! Almost two years in now, I've regained probably 90% of my former playing ability. Our winter concert is coming up in a couple weeks, and we're playing a few pieces with particularly challenging time signatures and rhythms. I haven't gotten lost yet. ☻