Giving Your Undivided Attention to the One You’re With

Thanksgiving dinner. The person next to you is chatting with you, and you are interested… but part of you wants to check your texts to see what your other friends are doing, wants to post a picture of the kale salad to instagram. You give in to temptation and pull out your phone as the other person is talking.

I’ll leave aside the etiquette issue altogether, or how it might be impacting the other person to see your eyes flutter down to your phone when they are in the middle of a sentence. I want to talk about what you are missing out on when you divide your attention like this.

The truth is, human beings are not all that good at multitasking. Research has consistently shown that doing two or more things at once makes us less efficient, less productive, even less creative. What researchers often leave out is that multitasking also prevents us from fully drinking in the benefit of any one task. For instance, we get physiological and psychological benefit from being in nature — blood pressure drops, nervous system relaxes, etc — but that benefit is markedly diminished if we’re lost in thoughts about what we have to get done when we get back to the city.

Being mindfully present in the moment allows us to really take in the rejuvenating and relaxing benefits of walking in the woods and feeling the sun on your face. Similarly, reading email while eating means you are not really savoring each bite, not fully enjoying your meal. (And you are also way more likely to overeat, because you are not paying attention to your body’s messages that you are getting full.) Checking your phone while talking to a friend means you are not actually taking in the benefits of face-to-face social interactions. Our brains and nervous systems are nourished by eye contact, tone of voice, body language, and other aspects of in-person communication in a way that just doesn’t happen with screen time. This kind of human contact is vital to our well-being, like sunshine or food. And the more we can be fully present in those social interactions, the more we can mindfully take in the connection being offered, the more we get out of it.

In fact, a recent study found that having a cell phone in sight — even when it was not in use — markedly decreased the satisfaction and fulfillment people got out of face-to-face interactions. Study participants who could see a cell phone reported feeling less connected to their conversational partners, less trusting, and got less pleasure from that social interaction than people who did not have a cell phone in sight. There is real benefit to being present with the actual person in front of you, instead of the idea of a person represented in a message on a screen. You may be trying to be *more* socially connected by checking Instagram or Facebook while eating dinner, but this social “multitasking” is actually making you less connected, results in you getting less out of the encounter. We’re making up the social and psychological rules of tech use as we go. It’s up to us to define a way of using tech that enhances our lives, rather than fragmenting or dulling them.