It’s such an irony to return from a whirlwind trip to Hong Kong, try to recover from jetlag, reconnect with family and friends, return to work (and all the emails, meetings, and responsibilities), return to “school” aka assignments (three in one week!) AND then read Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Newport’s research shows “This was something I noticed was very common to influential thinkers, is that they all seem to have this drive to, on a regular basis, cut themselves off from their lives of busyness and communication and distraction and isolate themselves to think deeply. This drive to get away from noise and towards isolated solitary thinking is something that just comes up again and again when you study people who use their brain to produce influential or valuable output.” Yet here I am, composing my thoughts, with a noisy head, emails still unread from my long absence, and only having listened to Cal Newport on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.
I found significant research on the impact of technology and its connection to distraction. And it all reiterates the same message (including multiple authors who discuss email as a productivity killer). It begs the question…no one is changing course for better output? For me, the technology demands – especially email – are consuming my energy and decreasing by influential and valuable output (on a side note, I literally just stopped to read a work email that caught my eye at 8pm!). I am on board with dialing back society’s use of technology, but not just at work.
It’s brilliant that Newport has rejected all social media. Time spent on technology outside of work is just as damaging – but to a different target – people. It’s no longer about the bottom line of productivity, but the bottom line of relationships. Spouses/partners/paramours suffer. Children suffer. Friends suffer. “In 2012, in fact, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the brain chemicals of people who habitually used the Internet (and were perhaps addicted to it) had abnormal connections between the nerve fibers in their brain. These changes are similar to other sorts of addicts, including alcoholics.” As a therapist, I frequently see damaging technology use from toddlers all the way to the elderly. Whether it’s video games, pornography, cyber bullying, online dating as a form of infidelity, or just Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, technology is consuming our time and energy.
While all of the focus of Newport’s writing is on technology connected to the concept of distraction and decreased influential thinking and valuable output, this same phenomenon exists for the person who has experienced trauma. Think about the refugee who is fleeing their country to escape war, human rights violations, or persecution. They leave almost all their belongings, their home and job, family, community, and friends to find protections for themselves and whoever is able to leave with them. What strength and courage it takes to make and execute the decision to leave. And then there’s the trauma. Significant trauma. Trauma from the dangers in their own country, and trauma from the leaving. Yet, after years (often 10-20) in a refugee camp, and relocating again to a new country (let’s say the United States), refugees are expected to arrive in their new homeland ready to assimilate to culture and language, all the while become productive, contributing citizens within a short period of time. (Writers note – distracted twice in the writing of this paragraph including a phone call and viewing a suggested sweet video which triggered a “trauma” response from me). Have you ever struggled to focus on a task due to your own state of mind? It’s hard! Wait…more like impossible, right? For the refugee, there is then the trauma of arriving. Yes, arriving to the country where they begin their new life. In the United States, there are expectations and timelines for paperwork, school enrollment, job attainment, housing, etc. If, per se, the refugee struggles to get these things accomplished, there’s criticism, consequences, and guilt and shame. The fact of the matter is, the brain just can’t do it. Because of the trauma, critical thinking and outcomes are hindered (just like hindered thinking and outcomes from technology distraction). It’s imperative to provide trauma-informed care at every level of service for the refugee – whether it’s Job and Family Services, ESL classes, or learning how to grocery shop here. It would be an undertaking, but my hope is that the attitudes and biases towards refugees – deepened during this administrations tenure – can be turned around to reflect the heart of Jesus. Love, service, and non-judgment. He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:25
I want to be an influential thinker. I want to have valuable outputs. I want to find time and space in my life to create a place of solidarity, put away my technology (I would even discard social media if we didn’t have to have it for school), leave work at work, and be truly present in relationship with self and others. Thank you Cal Newport for this important reminder!