Last week was a busy one online, with #CyberMonday and #Giving Tuesday vying for our digital attention.
One school I know sent at least half a dozen messages about donating, including an announcement about the online drive, an opening bell for the day, a midway-through notice, a two-hour warning toward the end, a “what a day” exhale, and a final tally of the donations.
Marketers and fundraisers are becoming tenacious with their digital notifications. Some recipients of the onslaught find these to be helpful reminders, while others see the online deluge as reason to opt-out or unsubscribe altogether.
Whether news or nuisance, notifications are designed to get our attention. All too often we give it, turning our focus to our devices reflexively and without any further thought.
The unhesitating way we attune ourselves to these notifications, and to our devices in general, should give us pause. Are we really being “present” to one another when we are quick to take out our phones while seated at table? Do we notice how readily we may turn away from in-person conversations to give our attention, instead, to someone on the other end of a wireless device?
Despite the moaning of many, the problem here is not the communications technology that engenders an overload of notifications or information. The focus, as with most digital challenges, should be on the user; after all, it’s still a fact that they (we) choose when and where and how to respond to each digital touch.
With every notifying banner, sound, or badge comes a sense of urgency, or at least what appears to be so. Receiving such a signal, we presume it necessary to look immediately and respond right away.
It’s like dopamine, they say. Pavlov was right, they claim. Perhaps. But the real culprit, as well as the solution, is our own freedom.
With devices at hand, we have trained ourselves to ask Google impulsively, as if every question that comes up in a conversation necessitates an immediate and definitive answer. We have convinced ourselves to keep our phones close by in the event that someone of importance may want to contact us, as if our ever-readiness to respond were a contemporary job requirement or a modern-day form of fealty.
Here’s a different notification to consider: nothing is that urgent!
Despite our rationalizations, we don’t really need to know or respond to things right away. Not everything is an emergency needing immediate attention! Truth be told, the only real emergencies in life are when someone can’t breathe or is bleeding profusely, neither of which can usually be helped by another at a digital distance!
What may help to lessen the digital demand on our consciousness is a healthy dose of “Essentialism” – as in the best-selling book by Greg McKeown, subtitled “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Core competencies constituting this mind-set include choosing (something always within our power to do), discerning (because most of the things that seem to matter really don’t), and prioritizing (since having it all or doing it all is really impossible).
Applied to life in the digital realm, cultivating this discipline means purposefully deciding when and where to use our devices (and, most likely, to use them less). Contrary to what we may assume, that decision is not pre-determined by the technology, nor is constant use justly demanded by others.
Essentially, using our devices is up to us. Choosing when and where and how we respond to all those notifications – that’s how we know who and what are our priorities; that’s how we show who and what really matter.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne. This article originally appeared in Seminarian Casual, the blog of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.
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