I have been a stage and screen actor for 35 years (you can see my film and TV credits here: http://imdb.to/1s67254). I am also an author and psychologist with a research specialization in #mindfulness #meditation. I’ve written a book about meditation techniques for actors called, Advanced Consciousness Training (A.C.T.) for Actors (Routledge Press) that comes out in September of 2018. In that book, I talk an awfully lot about the attention spans of actors and how important it is to be able to focus one’s attention on stage or in front of a camera.
In my research, I have discovered that actors, like everyone else in our society today, are suffering from varying degrees of #DigitalDistraction. This phenomenon is directly related to cell phone use and what has now been widely termed #MediaMultitasking. Now, the problem with media multitasking is that it actually makes changes in the structure of the brain and eventually begins to erode the ability to pay attention to a single thing for any extended period of time (which is exactly what the actor needs to be able to do while they’re performing!) Here is some research on the negative effects of media multitasking: Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life, Working memory, fluid intelligence, and impulsiveness in heavy media multitaskers .
So, after quite a bit of research, I figured out that meditation practices, like the ones I was recommending in A.C.T. for Actors, actually do the exact opposite thing in the brain as media multitasking and I even found some studies that affirmed this theory: Attention regulation and monitoring in Meditation, The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment, and Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention
After reading through all this research, and quite a bit more, I realized that meditation practice could actually counteract some of the worst side effects of media multitasking almost like an antidote for a poison. I even proposed a #TedTalk on the subject.
Now, here’s where my story takes a turn for the strange. After all that research, and meditating for an hour or more every day for a full year, I found myself regularly checking my emails, text, and social media sites all day and all evening long in an almost completely unconscious fashion. Regardless of my intellectual knowledge and even regular meditation practice, I was still abusing media multitasking just like an addict! When it finally struck me that I was doing exactly what I had been criticizing, even while writing advice for others about how to avoid such behaviors, I was shocked and amazed.
It was like an epiphany; an awakening of sorts. I realized that I needed to start taking some of my own medicine if I were to effectively commentate on digital distraction and solutions to the problem. To be perfectly honest, I found myself literally addicted to my devices and platforms and I needed to “get sober” right away! There were problems, however, as there always are when an addict is confronted with their own issues. You see, in addition to being an actor, I am a professional writer. A major part of my job is social media presence and an engagement with my readers and fans. In the publishing business nowadays, social media and connectivity are not options or even advantages: they are requirements and prerequisites! So, my digitally addicted brain said, how can I possibly drastically reduce my “screen time” on a daily basis and still build my “writer’s platform”? Impossible! I’m doing this for my JOB!!! (Sound familiar?)
So, I did an intervention on myself….
I paid careful attention to my own behavior for several days (the “being honest with yourself” part of therapy), and this is what I found.
- I was checking my email first thing in the morning, as I got out of bed and walked into the bathroom (in the dark, with the lights still out); it was literally the first thing I did in the mornings. This was made possible by the fact that I was using my cell phone as an alarm clock, so, even when it was muted (charging by my bedside) any incoming email or text would cause a vibration alert which often would actually wake me from sleep briefly (talk about embedding distraction into your lifestyle!)
- Just like many of the subjects in the research reports I studied, I would compulsively check my email throughout the day during almost any kind of transition between activities, adding up to several hundred interactions with my cell phone even when there were no incoming email or text alerts. And sometimes, usually when I was expecting (or hoping for) an important email from my agent or publisher, I would simply hit the refresh button over and over, obsessively pining to see that a message had arrived.
- In a very similar way to my compulsive email behavior, I would check my various social media sites at least once an hour while sitting at my computer working, looking for notifications, seeing what the response was to my latest post, and otherwise just scrolling through the random content on my newsfeeds. I came to view this as a type of “mental break” or a “temporary distraction” while I recharged my batteries between writing sessions. Only, it turns out, that much of this time was not really productive time at all. I was not necessarily communicating or connecting with my readers and fans, but getting lost in the random flow of information that was coming through, most of it completely irrelevant to myself or my work. In addition, I would often come into my office in the middle of the evening’s leisure activities to “check in,” yet when there were no messages or alerts, I’d still find myself once again aimlessly cruising through mostly useless information flow.
- I also realized that I use my cell phone as a social defense mechanism. I am, personally, a bit introverted. I get along well with other people, and can even be quite outgoing (I have, after all, been a professional actor for more than three decades…), but sometimes when just standing around in large groups, I feel a little awkward; just not sure what to say or where to put my hands. And so, I found that at social functions, instead of directly interacting with others when I felt awkward, I would tend to check my cellphone repeatedly…even when there were no new emails or texts that required immediate action.
So far this has been a pretty embarrassing confession…alas, it’s all true. When I added it all up, I was spending at least three hours of my day (and maybe more?) aimlessly, unconsciously, and mindlessly media multitasking. Even though my attention span was still sharp when it needed to be as a result of my regular meditation practice, my media behavior was in direct juxtaposition to mindfulness practice, leaving me in a precarious balance between the two very different worlds. I had to take some of my own medicine and seek a cure for what was apparently a self-poisoning of my own brain functions (see the above research references).
I decided to evaluate my entire pattern of mobile and social media use. I asked myself what I really needed/wanted to get out of my cell phone and my social networks. For me, it boiled down to just a few important things:
- I want to be immediately accessible to my family members in case of emergencies or if they need my help (or just want to say “hi!”).
- I need to be able to communicate in a timely fashion with my business partners (agents, PR reps, publishers, casting directors, etc.)
- I use internet and mobile technology to gather important data that is immediately relevant to my life (Is this restaurant open? What’s that phone number? What else has that actor been in? Etc.)
- I do manage several social media platforms to build and maintain communications with several networks of readers, fans, and friends (it truly is an important part of my business), and I need to do this efficiently.
That’s about it for me. Everything else is basically superfluous. Other people’s situations or needs might be different, but here’s my point: when I lined up my previous behavior with my actual goals and needs, it turns out the way I was trying to media multitask was not efficiently fulfilling my goals or meeting my needs!
So, here’s what I decided to do.
I removed my phone charging station from my bedside and put it in the bathroom where the phone would not buzz me awake during sleep. I bought a traditional alarm clock instead and it works just fine.
I realized that most of the time I spent during the day checking for email was compulsive, I would check my phone or computer desktop literally hundreds of times when I had not received a notice or alert. This represented totally wasted time and did not make my outside communications any more efficient. So, I decided to follow a strict schedule of email checking and response. I would check and respond to email in the morning, at lunchtime, at the end of my work day, and once in the evening a little before bed; and, I turned off the notifications function on my phone so that I would only check email at those preassigned times. This relieved me of the constant urge to check my phone instantly every time I felt it vibrate. Now, my phone would only vibrate when a text message came in (and that was primarily only because my wife and children use text to communicate in an emergency—my number one need as listed above).
NOTE: Other than text notifications and calendar alerts, I turned off all notifications on my phone so that, if an alert does come in, I know it is important to me and should be checked, otherwise I am free of buzzes, chimes, and chirps coming from my phone!
And, finally, as many social media experts recommend, I put together a simple schedule of when I check in on social media and responded to any communications I find there.
The result of all this? I don’t know yet…I just started today. I wrote this post with the extra time I saved not compulsively “checking in.” So, check back with me in a couple of weeks, I will file regular updates (at pre-scheduled times!). The results should be that I get roughly three hours of time added back to my day! Along with that, I hope to become more mindful of my technology use; essentially use this program as a way to become more aware of when, how, and where I use this amazing technology to learn about the world and stay connected with others.
As an actor, I hope to become less distracted and further cultivate my ability to focus attention “in the moment” of performance. As an author, I honestly believe this will make my writer’s platform more efficient and not less so; if nothing else, it will add several hours to my writing day by eliminating the useless and compulsive use of technology and making the time I do spend with it more productive. And finally, this exercise gave me an awesome post to share with you on my blog! Please respond below and let me hear your own stories of digital distraction and how you choose to cope with it.
Be well and stay focused!
About the Author. Kevin Page is an author, actor, and psychologist who writes about mindfulness meditation and other healthy mind/body training techniques. His book, Advanced Consciousness Training (A.C.T.) for Actors (Routledge, 2018) teaches both stage and screen actors how to use various meditative arts to improve their abilities as performers. He has two other books on psychology scheduled for publication in 2018, Psychology for Actors (Routledge), and The Fourth Force: A Biography of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies (SUNY Press). His article, The Genius of Meditation, was recently published as a feature for Mensa Bulletin (June 2017 issue), the official publication of American Mensa Association, with 55,000 monthly subscribers.
On Twitter and Instagram @KevinWPage