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KUNDE: What really matters? It is probably not your smartphone

• Dec 8, 2017 at 2:30 PM

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? In today’s world, information is everywhere, it surrounds us. We have billions of pieces of information in our pocket each day. Anyone with a smartphone can look up just about anything in seconds. The availability to access information has never been easier.

And, does this free access to information foster anxiety and undermine our performance at times? The answer to this question might very well be “yes.”

Nicholas Carr, in his Wall Street Journal article titled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds,” pointed out: “The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. What makes the smartphone so captivating? Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.”

Carr went on to point out: “Smartphones can also foster anxiety and undermine performance. Even hearing one ring or vibrate produces a welter of distractions that makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job. The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance. One study found that when a person isn’t able to answer a ring or vibration, blood pressure spikes, the pulse quickens and problem-solving skills decline.”

Keep in mind, this study was conducted with adults. As a high school principal, I found myself asking, “What impact does this have on teenagers?” The answer appears all around us.

Ever watch a table full of teenagers eat lunch at the mall or a restaurant, like I do each day in the school cafeteria? Twenty years ago, I would watch this group, while gulping down their lunch, chatting about this or that, laughing, talking with friends, and just having a good time as teenagers should during their one break time during the school day.

What happens today? Routinely, I observe a table of 10 teenagers, not paying attention to anyone else at the table, absolutely captivated by the 3-inch screen in front of them. The world could be collapsing around them and they would have no idea it’s happening. And, they maintain this position throughout the entire lunch break — sometimes even forgetting to do what they came for, eat lunch. Often, you can see them become frustrated or even enraged because of something someone “posted.”

I’m often left wondering what impact all of this technology access has on the future.

Now, before I go any further, I must make an admission. I’m a smartphone user. It’s with me a lot. And, I’ll admit freely, it makes life a lot easier in many different ways. Christmas shopping this year has largely been a matter of pushing the right buttons on my smartphone. No driving to the mall, no lines, no frustration with crowds of people. Just push a button and Christmas gifts appear at my front door. It’s wonderful. And, let’s face it, smartphones aren’t going away.

All of this has led me to ask: What really matters? What is essential? At the end of my life, will I look back and wish I spent more time on my smartphone?

Essentialism is something I began studying over a year ago when my wife handed me a book by Greg McKoewn titled, “Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” The impact for me has been overwhelming, dare I say life-saving?

As access to information became easier for me, I found myself increasingly “connected” and finding a very difficult time “shutting it off.” As I look back on it now, it wasn’t healthy for me. I would wake up in the morning and the first thing I would do is look at my smartphone, versus saying “good morning” to my children.

The “light bulb moment” occurred one day when my son said to me: “Dad, I appreciate you being here, but you are never really here, you are always distracted by something else.” Those simple words from my son hit me, and I found myself immediately thinking about all the important stuff I was missing in life. The things that really matter. Then came the book, “Essentialism.”

In his book, McKoewn talks about our current world and how we have to be disciplined in making sure we’re spending our time on this planet doing the right things versus doing everything. We’ve created a culture that champions “more is better.” McKoewn argues that less is better if we truly want to have an impact during our time on this planet.

By spending time thinking about what really matters to us, we can begin the process of keeping our lives in balance. Asking ourselves: Does this really matter? Is this what I need to be doing at this time?

It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves as life becomes increasingly busy. It’s also a question we should be asking for our children.

For me, the smartphone is essential, but it’s also something I put down at night and work very hard not to look at. I challenge you to do the same. I’ll warn you up front: It’s not easy and your kids will love it.

Paul Kunde is principal of Grand Haven’s Central High School.

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