Can Mobile Technology Help Us Be More Mindful?

A product called Spire came across one of my social media feeds today. This wearable technology attaches to your clothing and monitors your breathing patterns. If you are stressed, Spire will know and send you a notification on your smartphone with a reminder to take a moment to breathe deeply. The concept seems similar to a Fitbit.

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

To answer the question, “Can mobile technology help us be more mindful?”, I think it helps to have a basic understanding of mindfulness.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (4).
  • Ellen Langer, in her book Mindfulness, describes the benefits of this concept, such as “greater control, richer options, and transcend limits” (4) in our thinking and our lives, versus the negative effects of mindlessness which include poor decision making and being more susceptible to our biases. 

So will wearable technology like Spire help someone with stress (see: everyone) improve their attention span, be more present in the moment, and have greater control in his or her intentions? I think this will largely depend on how a person uses their smartphone and related mobile technology, and have very little to do with Spire itself. If a person is stressed by outside factors at work, such as employee relations, then I could see some benefits. However, if a person’s stressors are a result of their connections, then Spire probably would be a waste of money (and at $149, that is considerable).

I consider my own mobile tech use. I regularly check email, read social media feeds, and receive reminders via text and notifications. After engaging in all of these connections, I’m pretty sure my breathing rate is going to escalate, at least if it is largely related to my work as a school principal. Because Spire utilizes the same features that technology providers also use to keep me engaged in their products, I would predict that the effectiveness of it would be marginal at best. Rather, I would need to heavily reduce all of my connections on my smartphone to become more mindful. But then why would I need this product?

While Spire is a unique idea, I believe its effectiveness is correlated with how well we currently manage our connections. The context determines the outcome. Somewhat related, I think this product is another step toward technology not only becoming essential to our everyday lives, but actually becoming a part of us. There is certainly a paradox here. As I revealed about myself, often the stressors in our lives are the technology we use, such as that ever-growing email inbox. With Spire, are we reducing our stress, or just feeding the monster? That largely depends on our current habits.

What Can Be Gained When We Lose Our Connection With Technology

One of the most pervasive myths about the benefits of technology in education, and learning in general, is the need for digital tools to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Learn anytime, anywhere” is proudly proclaimed when educators effuse all the benefits of learning via online courses and through social media such as Twitter. Time is the only constraint while connected in the 21st century, apparently.

William Powers, in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, describes this phenomena as taking a “maximalist” approach with our digital tools. The basic idea is the more connected we are, the better. I’m as susceptible as anyone. Even though I have turned off the notifications on certain apps and have silenced my ringtone, I still find myself checking my phone many times throughout the day.

I needed a break. That’s why I left my devices at home during a recent family vacation.

This separation from our digital tools and connections is sometimes referred to as “tech sabbaticals”, encouraged by Tiffany Shlain and other forward-minded thinkers. Our family headed out to the Pocono Mountains to meet my brothers, parents, and cousins for a weeklong vacation. What came with me: The essentials (clothes, toiletries, etc.), lots of books, notebooks and pens for writing, and…that’s about it. What didn’t make the cut: My laptop, my smartphone, and anything school-related. I guess I needed a break from my job as an elementary school principal as much as from digital tools.

The two pieces of technology I did bring with me were my wife’s old Kindle and an iPad. The Kindle is really convenient. I can house a lot of books in one small location. Before we left, I loaded it up with a bunch of eBooks from our public library via Overdrive for my son, daughter, and myself. I don’t consider this technology as being connected (which kind of says something about the short cycle of these devices going mainstream). As for the iPad, we brought it largely so the kids could watch a movie we had downloaded on it. The wireless at our location was a paid service, which I knew I wouldn’t take advantage of during our vacation.

My time away could be observed at varied levels. Geography-wise, I felt right at home in the woods of Northeastern Pennsylvania, which largely resembled my current residence in Central Wisconsin. Beyond the obvious, I believe my social and emotional well-being benefitted from this sabbatical from technology. I was more present for people’s conversations, the kids’ activities, and just life in general. As familiar as Pennsylvania seemed to be to me, there were also certain differences. For example, the rolling hills of PA reminded me that this land was largely untouched by glaciers, unlike Wisconsin.

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Maybe the most important benefit gained during my technology sabbatical was relational. It is one thing to constantly check your social media feeds and email accounts. It is quite another when other people, especially those you have just met or rarely see, observe your habits. The message I believe that is portrayed is, “Whatever is happening online is more important to me than anything you might have to say or offer.” What is conveyed here is largely indirect, but it nonetheless exists.

I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to checking my social media feeds and email messages a couple times while on the trip. My wife’s smartphone was the connection source. There were a few instances during our vacation where there was a lull in the action, which I felt was an opportunity to engage in online interactions.

Also, and to be fair, my wife took this excellent picture of my son while on a hike in the Pocono Mountains.

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She posted it on Facebook. I have to admit, if my wife had not brought her iPhone 6 with her on this trip, I never would have seen this image. I was not on the hike, and instead golfing with my brothers and cousins. The digital camera we had at our vacation site was too unwieldy to bring on a hike. So there are certainly sacrifices one must make when we choose to disconnect. However, would life be any different had I not had this photo? Sure, by looking at the experience my wife captured with her smartphone, I felt a little bit more a part of it. But at the same time, there was also this twinge of guilt of choosing golf with my brothers and other family members over a hike with my wife and kids.

This isn’t how being connected is supposed to work, right? By posting and conversing online, we create a smaller world and bring people closer together. Yet it often has the opposite effect. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle cites examples where being connected online leaves people feeling inadequate in their lack of availability. “In a tethered world, too much is possible, yet few can resist measuring success against a metric of what they could accomplish if they were always available.” (164). How sad that our self-assessment as a person could be determined from the impossible task of being in two places at one time.

Technology is not to blame, but it is also not absolved from all wrongdoing. Smartphones and their ilk are distractible by design. App developers and digital device providers want us to use their products. A lot. The more times we visit their sites and click on their links, the more money those companies make, and the more we view these tools as indispensable for our everyday lives.

On this last note, I beg to differ. Life was fine not just ten years ago, before smartphones were the norm rather than an anomaly. That is why, after reflecting on my most recent “digital deprivation”, I am committing to the following:

  • Checking email only a couple times a day.
  • Not carrying my smartphone everywhere I go.
  • If someone is speaking to me, put my digital device out of sight.
  • Determining what social media is truly necessary on my phone.
  • Finding future opportunities to leave all technology at home.

I’ll do my best to adhere to these commitments and reflect on the experience in the future.