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Living While Distracted

by Barbara Kazdan

Always asking, “What’s next?” "Why?" and "Why Not?" solo, sassy Barbara Rady Kazdan loves back roads travel and forward thinking.  Find this empty nester and lifelong change agent enjoying her writing colleagues and gray-haired girlfriends in Silver Spring, Maryland, en route to far-flung family.

I’m weary of my split-screen life. Aren’t you? While I’m on one screen – computer, TV, phone or tablet – I hear “Ping!” and drop everything to check my messages. What is there about those alerts that jumps the line every time, pulling me away from whatever I was doing to investigate what lies behind that tiny dot that won’t go away until I attend to it? When I do take a peek, sometimes the message is an emoji – a cute cookie cutter image responding to a text from me, or even more annoying, someone affixing a heart or upturned thumb. Oh good, I dropped what I was doing for that? My message doesn’t merit the time it takes to put a few words together in response? Well, at least I don’t have to reply – my time’s precious, too.

While I’m checking email, researching an article, reading a book on my iPad, buying a gadget on EBay with ApplePay, or watching a show streaming from Netflix, do I check my phone multiple times? Of course, because my device-dependent life revolves around my phone: the calendar I keep, the reminders I set, the lists and random thoughts I keep on my notepad… I have to keep a watchful eye. What if there’s a time-sensitive email, or an intriguing new post on my Facebook feed? And what’s the weather going to be when I go out this evening? The forecast may have changed since I checked it this morning. 

Even when - resisting electronic distractions - I’m working, cooking, or watering plants, a musical chord interrupts: my ever-present phone announces, “Time to leave. Traffic is light. 17 minutes to Dr. Crane’s office.”  (Okay, some distractions are helpful.) 

I’m calendar-challenged. So last night one of these prompts provided a hair on fire moment.  I’d just sat down to dinner when WAZE told me “20 minutes to neighborhood council meeting.” No, I thought – I must’ve put that calendar entry on the wrong date. That meeting’s tomorrow – it’s always on Tuesday. But a quick check of my calendar put my rear in gear. I’d responded “yes” to the meeting invitation for Tuesday, May 14 at 7:30. And my phone confirmed it wasTuesday! Was I dressed for the meeting? No. Did I fly into action and out the door in record time? Yes.

Speaking of WAZE, most states ban talking or texting on a hand-held cell phone, right? But how could we drive without a navigation app? So we put a phone holder on our dashboards and off we go. The laws don’t apply to watching the app instead of the road. So we’re good to go. But when “Ping!” signals a text is waiting, who can resist a quick peek? And when we’re at a stoplight, there’s no harm in checking email, until a horn blast from the car behind you shouts, “Green light, idiot. GO!”  In fact, so many drivers are interacting with their dash-mounted phones some states are banning all cell phone use while driving.  When that happens we’ll hear a collective sigh of relief as strangers stop cutting through quiet residential neighborhoods because “WAZE made us do it.” 

Our phones are eroding the last vestiges of common courtesy. After returning to my parked car I plead guilty to checking and responding to emails while cars are backed up waiting for me to vacate my parking space. Don’t you hate it when that happens to you? Somehow we forgot when we’re the ones sitting in the car and other drivers are waiting. Phubbing’s another item in the phone etiquette manual –leaving your phone on the table when dining out for business or pleasure. A clever combo of phoning and snubbing. It’s happened to me and I don’t like it! Remember that “do unto others” thing? Kindly keep your phone out of sight and focus on our conversation. As preschool teachers say: “One, two, three, eyes on me!”

Speaking of attention, my mind darts around from one device to another all day long. Here’s a snippet of a typical split-screen evening: After choosing among a countless number of shows for my viewing delight, I settle in, phone in easy reach, to enjoy the next segment of the Great British Baking Show or a movie I found in “my stuff.” Do I press “pause,” interrupt my own viewing pleasure to send a quick email when something comes to mind, or add to the grocery list on my phone’s notepad?  You know I do. I pause again to pick up my iPad because it’s my turn to play in a nightly Scrabble game with my daughter in a distant time zone. I jump around like that all day long. Am I regressing to the attention span of that aforementioned preschooler? 

If there were a contest for the number of “windows” open at one time I’d win in a heartbeat. “They just don’t close themselves,” my daughter remarks affectionately, knowing there’s no point in harnessing my need to chase down answers to every question that pops into my mind. One thought leaps to another faster than a hummingbird flits from bloom to bloom. It’s a good thing I didn’t have Wikipedia at my fingertips when I was in school; my assignments would never have gotten done. Ever wonder how many websites you visit in a day? I bet I visit more. You know those pop-up ads tailored to your web-browsing? Well my threshold for resistance is low. Doesn’t matter if I’m deep into the New Yorker article I’m reading, when a window opens offering the perfect top for my new jeans I’m suddenly on Macy’s website, selecting my size, and logging in so I can grab it before it’s gone. 

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