There’s nothing like waking up Christmas morning to a new bright notification on your smartphone. With our phones continuously tugging at our attention, being fully present with friends and family during the holidays can prove challenging.
According to recent research by McCombs School of Business Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and co-authors, the urge to constantly check your phone is actually your brain’s way of solving a significant problem.
“We can’t pay attention to everything, and we often have trouble figuring out what we should pay attention to,” said Ward. “One way our brains have solved this is by prioritizing stuff that is rewarding and self-relevant. Our smartphones are unintentionally engineered to take advantage of both of these concerns.”
So even if your intention is to enjoy time with your loved ones, the potential dopamine-boosting rewards on your smartphone, such as social media likes or cute animal videos, are continuously in the background vying for your attention.
“Smartphones are basically always calling your name, and the closer the phone is to you, the more powerful that is,” said Ward. “If your phone is in sight right in front of you, it’s saying ‘Hey, pay attention to me!’ Even if you didn’t receive a text message or notification, the phone itself represents all the stuff you want to pay attention to. It’s putting you in a state of conflict.”
So how can we begin to resolve this conflict and be more present with our loved ones? We asked Ward to share some tips on how we can be smarter with our smartphones this holiday season.
1. Focus on one task at a time.
Research shows that multitasking is a myth. You can’t pay attention to two things at once. Rather, your brain is switching back and forth between two things, causing you to never be fully present in either task. So, if you’re sitting with your family while scrolling through Instagram, you’re actually never fully present in the conversation. Avoid the myth of multitasking and carve out time to focus on one task at a time.
2. Don’t take pictures of everything.
Catching up with friends and family leads to special moments you’ll want to capture and share, but taking pictures to share on social media can actually take you out of experiences completely. Reconsider the need for constant picture taking and experience the moment instead.
3. Put your phone away when connecting with others.
Research shows that the mere presence of your smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, which means having your phone out during holiday gatherings can undermine the enjoyment you get during face to face interactions. Place your phone out of sight to help you better engage.
4. Gradually reduce time spent with your phone.
If you decide to put your phone away cold turkey, research shows that your heart rate goes up and your mind starts to wander. Reducing time spent with your phone is a training process. It’s important to acknowledge that wanting to use your phone while being with loved ones doesn’t make you a bad person or signify that you don’t care. We are just accustomed to always having our phones around, so reversing this instinct takes time and practice.
Acknowledging what’s important to you this holiday season and creating boundaries around your phone usage is a great start to strengthening your ability to stay present. So, put the phone down — or better yet, in a different room — and enjoy the holidays!