What if we are missing out on meaningful connection because we keep jumping into reporter mode?

What Photographers Do

I was a yearbook editor the year our school first used computer software to submit our layouts. It was 1993 and we were embracing the future. 

Our photographers still used film. They spent hours in the darkroom, mixing chemicals to draw out the perfect color and contrast. While the darkroom was fascinating, developing the photo was the final step. 

The photographers’ first task was to capture the moment. 

The sports photographer squatted strategically along the sidelines, poised to capture the perfect shot of the winning shot. Or steal. Or block. 

The arts photographer made himself part of the background so she could record the action on stage. 

Wedding photographers do the same. Sure, they do the formal line-up, but the candid photos —  snapped without anyone’s notice —  are often the most magical.

The best photographers capture a moment. As an observer. Without participating. 

You Can’t Do It All. At Once.

Recall a time you shared weighty concerns with a friend and felt understood. I bet you didn’t start unloading your heaviest burdens the minute you ordered coffee.

Like deep work, deep sharing needs an on ramp. Most of us need a warm up of small talk — “How are the kids?” — before wading into heavy, emotional topics.

What if something is lying there, just below the surface that needs to come out in a safe, quiet, uninterrupted conversation?

If I needed to get something off my chest, that selfie you took, followed by a just-a-quick pic of the meal, would assure my side of the conversation will stay light and superficial.

Reporting ≠ Participating

What if we are missing out on meaningful connection because we keep jumping into reporter mode?

Writing is my favorite way to process feelings and events. Recording what happened today is helpful. Journaling is a life-giving practice.

Capturing photos of everyday moments is a gift.

Taking selfies and posting to social media are amoral. Neither good or bad.

Just be aware that when you are reporting, you are busy doing something other than participating.

The photographer captures the moment. He’s not on the court. Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash.

  • I can’t make the winning lay-up and be on the sidelines, taking the photo. 
  • I can’t gaze into my baby eyes while snapping selfies. 
  • I can’t savor your meal while arranging it to be photo worthy.
  • I can’t listen to my friend’s concern for her struggling child while writing a catchy caption for Instagram.

Neither can you.

Attention Residue

Social media tricks us into thinking we can do it all. We can snap a photo and write a caption for Instagram while fully engaged in conversation. Report the memory while making the memory. That doesn’t work.

You can jump into reporting mode and then back into conversation mode, but you can’t do both simultaneously.

You’re either participating or observing. You can jump between the two, but something is lost in the exchange.

And something is lost in the exchange. Cal Newport calls this “attention residue”. He explains in an interview with Tim Herrera

“Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears.”

You can’t immediately refocus your attention. You carry this attention residue after each interruption. It that reduces your focus for a while even after you’ve returned to the task at hand.

Uninvite Your Phone

Sharing on social weakens the quality of real life sharing. 

A 2016 study of smartphone use had 95 participants perform a concentration test in a laboratory setting under four different conditions:

… with their smartphone in their pocket, at their desk, locked in a drawer and removed from the room completely. The results are significant — test results were lowest when the smartphone was on the desk, but with every additional layer of distance between participants and their smartphones, test performance increased. Overall, test results were 26% higher when phones were removed from the room.

That smartphone on the coffee table hinders your concentration. Even if it is silent.

The researchers of the above study recommend businesses adopt policies to help employees have uninterrupted time on task. (As a mom, I appreciate this. Uninterrupted time to focus — on anything — is a gift!)

“Instead of expecting permanent access to their smartphones, employee productivity might be boosted if they have dedicated ‘smartphone-free’ time…”

For the best chat, board game night, walk in the woods, or glass of wine uninvite your phone. Engage fully in making a memory. Give your internal reporter the night off.

If the thought of an evening without your phone makes you sweat, start with an hour. An uninterrupted hour with your spouse or kids or friend might be enough to get you hooked. You might up it to an hour-and-a-half next week.

That smartphone on the coffee table hinders your concentration. Even if it is silent. Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash.

Productivity is Different than Attention

Darius Foroux writes, 

“ People who make phones and apps are smarter than us. Their only goal is to get you hooked. I think it’s good to realize that.

That’s why I often try to remind myself not to depend on smartphones too much because my attention matters more than productivity.”

“…my attention matters more than productivity.” Let’s break that down.

The selling point for most smartphone apps is productivity. We can do a task more quickly on our phone than seated at the computer. 

The trouble is that often, the time we might gain by using the app gets lost as we shift attention from one app and one task to another.

Take Facebook messenger, for example. Instead of transferring a photo from my phone to a computer and then uploading them, I can upload straight from my phone. 

The app lets me do the same task in less time. That feels productive. 

The problem is with my attention. Since uploading photos is so quick, I now do it six times a day instead of once. Each time I post a photo to Facebook, I figure, “It only takes a minute.” 

Then I notice a friend’s status, click a link, watch a video. More minutes are lost. 

Any time I might have saved using the Messenger app is lost as I switch between tasks more frequently. And I expend mental energy resisting the FOMO that surfaces every time I step into the same room as an open Facebook feed. 

Pay Attention

Attention doesn’t just happen, it costs something. Mental effort. Focus. 

Cal Newport writes, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.” Learning isn’t the only thing that demands your full attention.

To have hard conversations — you know the ones about your fears and dreams and the insecurities holding you back — you must focus intensely without distraction.

Our attention in superficial conversations — especially with teens and preteens — indicate whether we are available. Their on-ramp for deep conversation may be as long as an Interstate. 

They need to frequently and consistently see we are available to listen to the small things before they’ll share the big ones.

Now what?

The next time you meet a friend for coffee, leave your phone in your purse. Ringer off. Or pull it out and take the selfie and then put it away. 

On your next outing with your kids, make a memory together. Let them be the focus of your attention, not a topic you write about.

Don’t let your fear of missing a post on Instagram make you miss a meaningful conversation. In real life. In person.

Do you struggle with this? Have you seen a promising conversation sidelined by a smartphone? Let me know in the comments.

Colleen’s four kids learned to walk on three different continents. She knows transitions can be overwhelming and writes to help others enjoy the journey and engage in community. Wherever they call home. Visit Colleen at ColleenHiggs.com.
Colleen’s four kids learned to walk on three different continents. She knows transitions can be overwhelming and writes to help others enjoy the journey and engage in community. Wherever they call home. Visit Colleen at ColleenHiggs.com.

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