I spoke last week to a group of leaders in New York who are at an inflection point in their careers. They are poised to move to the highest level of leadership in their organization. Part way through the talk I suggested to them that they were all addicted to a chemical cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. My point was that in some important ways this habit of mainlining stress had served them well up to this point in their careers, but it would be toxic to them if they wanted to become conscious leaders who lead from presence and not reactivity. As is often the case when I suggested this there was pushback in the room, strong pushback.
This week I had one of those “life comes in 3s” experiences. First, a friend told me about Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Second, I bought the book and read much of it while watching the Masters yesterday (btw, this is the one sporting event I put on my calendar each year and ritually position myself in the first pew of the sacred sanctuary that is Augusta National and yesterday did not disappoint). And, third, Adam Atler was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes right after the Masters.
The big idea of the book is quite simple: Most of us are addicted to our screens. The people who create the software for our screens know this and are seeking to fuel our addictions for financial gain. Atler addresses addiction in general, with particular focus on behavioral addiction.
Conscious leaders already know about tech addiction, and they didn’t need Atler to prove what they experience in their bodies. Through practice, they cultivate the ability to be present instead of allowing themselves to be triggered and reactive. This includes practicing being with what is by being willing to fully experience what they’re already experiencing. I often say that addiction is any compulsive behavior that we use to avoid experiencing our experience. I mention this not to initiate a technical discussion about addiction, but rather to point to the reality that conscious leaders develop greater and greater tolerance for being with what is rather than avoiding it.
During my recent talk in New York as soon as I mentioned that we were going to be taking a break shortly everyone in the room (I honestly couldn’t see an exception) reached for their smart phone and like addicts pushed the syringes into their veins. They needed the juice. My belief is that there was no pause, no breath to bring them into presence, no actual free choice. Instead of acknowledging that checking their devices was one option among many, I saw a room of addicts compulsively behaving to avoid experiencing their experience.
But what experience were they avoiding? What experience are we all avoiding when we compulsively light up our screens with a flick of the finger? First, according to Atler’s framework we’re avoiding experiencing the letdown from the lack of a fresh infusion of the chemicals we’re habituated to using to run our lives. A few minutes—and certainly an hour and half in this case—of not getting a hit creates withdrawal symptoms, and we need a fix.
The juice we’re addicted to can come in a couple of forms. It can be the stress hormones referred to above, and it can be the upper of dopamine. We crave the pleasure of being liked (👍 ❤️ ) on our social media feeds. Or a text that makes us feel good and connected.
At a deeper level we’re unwilling to experience the experience of our fear, anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, and at times, meaninglessness. My sense is that those highly successful people I was talking to were afraid to experience the anxiety that arises from being disconnected for 90 minutes, “What am I missing?” “What do I need to take care of?” “Who needs me?” “What’s going wrong in my world?”
Yesterday I was playing with my grandson at the park. I was struck at one moment when I looked up from catching him at the bottom of the slide to see virtually every parent, grandparent, and caretaker in the park on their device. (According to Alter research shows that parents looking at devices around their babies and young children causes attention issues in the child.) A story that I make up is that some of those parents were actually avoiding the experience of joy, intimacy and connection they are having with their child. Yes, we avoid experiencing the experience of the good stuff in life as well.
So, how do you break the addiction??
First, get the data. Download Moment to track how much time you spend on your smartphone and tablet. It will tell you how often you check your device and what apps you’re using. Most people underestimate these numbers by 50%. One common characteristic of addicts is a lack or awareness—or flat out denial—of how much they use.
Second, breathe. One friend of mine said we’re becoming the breathless society based on how quickly we reach for and respond to stimuli on our devices. Try this. Before you look at a screen take one conscious breath deep into your belly with a four second inhale and a 4 second exhale. Pause.
Third, after your breath and before you look at a screen ask yourself, “What’s here now?” Look especially for anxiety, nervousness, fear, agitation, racing heartbeat, short chest breathing or worry. If any of these are here now ask yourself if you could tolerate being with these experiences for a few breaths more. Don’t try to change or get rid of the experience, just be with it. Allowing what is is a key shift move for conscious leaders.
Finally, after you’ve gotten present with the moment and your current state, make a conscious choice to check your device or look at your computer. Or not.
In my experience you’ll be stepping straight into the jaws of withdrawal, and like any addict you’ll probably get the shakes. Good. This lets you know that you’re actually facing what you haven’t been willing to face before. Being with the momentary discomfort is key to arriving at the presence and peace of mind waiting for you on the other side of addiction.