The Be Here Now Box

Last semester I chose to take a stand on student phone use in class.

I wasn’t just getting the occasional person doing a bad job hiding that they were texting in the middle of class. People would take out their phones multiple times during an hour-long lecture. People would keep earbuds in. People in the front row would sit staring at their phones for extended periods, right in front of me.

Talk to any educator and you’ll get plenty of kids-these-days gripes on the subject (as if kids always paid 100% attention to classes before phones). But phones do present a particular, difficult problem.

Teaching at a university instead of at a high school or middle school, I didn’t want to use an authoritarian demand for phones to stay out of the classroom with draconian penalties would only make students work slightly harder to hide phone use, and would force me to distract myself from teaching to enforce it.

I had to think about the underlying problem. If this were just about making sure I had all eyes on me for the entire lecture, it would feel like an ego problem, and it would be easier to deal with that by adjusting my expectations and taking some time for self reflexion. I could solve that problem more easily than convincing a room full of adults to stop touching their phones.

But looking at the work my students turned in, I saw there was a different reason to question their phone use: focus. With so many students getting marked down on their assignments for unforced errors that showed they weren’t focusing, I had a larger beast to slay than students not paying attention in class.

They weren’t paying attention to what they were doing, full stop.

Whatever solution I proposed had to be voluntary (so I could avoid the enforcement problem). It had to be persuasive. It had to use social pressure.

That’s when I came up with THE BE HERE NOW BOX.

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The best part about having a box is that you’ve got a physical prop. Something to hold up and point to. A novel object that draws attention.

I made my pitch: This isn’t about me — It’s about you. You’re not getting the class you’re paying for if you don’t pay attention. You’re giving up control of your attention by letting something distracting sit within arm’s reach for this hour. You may think that it doesn’t effect your attention, but studies show that multi-tasking not only reduces willpower but cognitive performance.

Being next to your phone distracts you, and you won’t even perceive any change in your attentiveness or mental ability.

So, if they were able; if they didn’t have any pending obligation or potential emergency that might require them to take immediate action, I asked them to make a choice: To take control of their attention and put their phone in the box. Make one decision this hour instead of having to make the choice to ignore your phone over and over throughout the hour.

It worked. Sort of.

Some classes participated more than others. The classes that needed it the most were also the most reluctant. But I saw an overall increase in participation, and the class that put the most phones in the box had the highest grades.

Anecdotal? Sure. It definitely wasn’t a controlled study. But it happened.

But that was last semester.

I knew I wanted to bring the box back for the new semester, but I wanted to refine my pitch. I figured if there was a way to pitch it more effectively, I could get more people to try it out. If I could find a better argument, better facts, or a more persuasive opening statement…

If I could do a better job, maybe more people would give it a shot.

But what did it actually mean to do a better job? How was I measuring success? More students putting aside their phones? More consistency from the students who initially tried it out? Students telling me they made their own box at home? Better student performance on assignments, showing an increase in mindful attention?

What was a win?

I was stuck, so I decided to try blogging about it to see if I could generate a better sense of what I wanted to say. But that pointed my attention to another problem.


I have a backlog of unfinished ideas and drafts for blog posts. Some abandoned, some not even started.

Over the last year, I had some posts that were well-received. Some work I got paid to write. A few posts got more views in a month than the blog had seen in a year.

It was cool. I felt cool.

And then I felt like I needed to do more of the same thing. Or try to maximize the value of that new audience. Or just do something. Anything.

And the ideas kept piling up, but nothing got posted.

It wasn’t until I got deep into watching The Good Place that I felt like I had the language to describe what was going on with me. That feeling of my brain turning into a Möbius strip of indecision, twisting and circling with justifications, re-evaluations, and new new directions.

Nothing felt good enough, because nothing felt like it was definitely that one thing that would move me forward. That would take the “I’m a Writer” part of my career to the next level. To even help me figure out what level I was on.

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I was going full-Chidi.


There’s a passage in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about fruitless work towards a goal:

One day while he was studying under Nangaku, Baso was sitting, practicing zazen…

Nangaku saw him sitting like a great mountain or like a frog. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing?” “I am practicing zazen,” Baso replied. “Why are you practicing zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment; I want to be a Buddha,” the disciple said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile, and he started to polish it. In Japan, after taking a tile from the kiln, we polish it to give it a beautiful finish. So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. Baso, his disciple, asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make this tile into a jewel,” Nangaku said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?” Baso asked. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku replied. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind. When a cart does not go, which do you whip, the cart or the horse?” the master asked.

The book is one of my go-to totems for when I’m totally freaking out, and I happened to flip over to this passage. Fortunate timing.

And then I remembered a post from CJ Chilvers on the why of blogging in the present moment:

The pros advise that long-form writing (going deep into a subject) is the best way to get any real attention and deal with the way Google, Facebook and Twitter have transformed how information is consumed online. You post something epic once in a great while, and promote over and over. Attention spans are shorter and readers aren’t using RSS anymore. If you want attention and sales, you have to go out and grab the attention, then offer something with extreme value to get the authority to sell something. They’re correct.

The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.

I’ve been thinking about this in my own life and career for the past month and I think I’ve come up with a theory: one is a business model, one is a life model.

​I’ve watched this site get stale; turning instead to the pursuit of likes and retweets, and the spending too much time chasing the empty satisfaction that comes from a “good” tweet.

I haven’t spent enough time trying to see what I actually value, and what I actually want to get out of my brain and into the world.

I’ve spent so much time trying to re-define what success is, I stopped producing anything that could get me closer to… Well, any definition of feeling successful.

So, as I’m getting closer to my birthday at the end of the week, I’m resolving to be less precious this year. I’m resolving to stop treating a blog as a means to an end, but instead as an end unto itself. To focus on satisfaction instead of success.

Success is as much given as it is earned. Satisfaction doesn’t require outside intervention.

The only way I’ll be satisfied is if I learn to take pride in my words themselves instead of pride in how widely my words travel.

My phone isn’t the only thing I need to put away if I’m going to get real work done.

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Boiling River

Early in the morning of our last day in Yellowstone, my wife, Dena, and father-in-law wanted to take me to Boiling River.

Boiling River is where the Gardiner River meets up with a hot spring. You can climb into the water and have a soak, with the swirling current and shallow, rocky river bed forming an all-natural, certified organic hot tub.

Unfortunately, when we parked nearby, I couldn’t find my river shoes. On a cross-country road trip with six people, not enough space, and all their stuff, this kind of thing happens.

It would be a 25 minute drive back to the hotel, and we didn’t have time for a second round trip.

Dena could see the scowl forming on my face. “Don’t stew on it,” she said. We needed to get moving if we were going at all. My $5 Old Navy flip flops would have to be good enough.

As we walked along the gravel path to the swimmer’s entrance, Dena and her dad pointed out different parts of the river, and told me about how when they’d come down the other night, it had been packed with people. We were lucky to be out so early, since it looked like it would be easy to find a spot to sit down and relax.

My father-in-law also mentioned not to stick my head in the water, especially my ears, since the water might be swarming with brain-eating amoebas.

Seriously.

We hung our towels up on a fence and walked down a slope to the river’s edge. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I knew my flip flops weren’t a smart choice. The water pushed down as I lifted my foot up, creating drag with each step.

I took lower, gliding steps and did my best to curl my feet, trying to grip the flimsy plastic with my toes, while keeping my balance on the smooth, wobbly rocks.

After catching up with Dena and her dad, I sat down. The tension of the last few minutes melted away as I found a spot where the currents mixed to the perfect temperature.

I wasn’t thinking about brain-eating amoebas, or the days we’d spent crammed into cars driving out here, or or the logistics of bringing an almost-three-year-old on such a big trip.

I sat quietly, feeling the river flow around me. We watched a bird of prey glide in circles overhead.

But we needed to leave and meet back up with the rest of the family. I stood up and started following Dena back to the entrance.

I plodded upstream, taking my time, trying to get solid footing. I fell behind.

And then the current yanked a flip flop off my foot.

It shot downstream toward a shaggy, surfer-type. He tried to catch it, but it zipped past his grasp.

“Alright,” I thought. “Don’t stew on this.”

I don’t go outside barefoot. Even as a kid, I never liked direct contact between my feet and nature.

I took a moment to get my bearings. I looked up at Dena, then upstream past her to the swimmer’s entrance.

I planted my bare foot on a rock to see how it felt. A little slick, but solid.

Goal set, I reminded myself that sitting back down and staying in the river forever was not an option. While not ideal to walk back on one flip flop, it could be done, one step at a time.

And the next step I took sent my other flip flop flying down toward the surfer. He missed that one, too.

I’d love to say I made a dignified march in my bare feet back to shore, deftly navigating the current and shifting stones. But that would be lying.

The next few minutes involved a lot of struggling for traction on slippery, river-smoothed rocks, punctuated by sharp moments of pain stepping on smaller, jagged stones.

I wobbled, frantically waving my arms to keep from falling on my face (because let’s not forget about the brain-eating amoebas).

I misjudged the current as I moved toward a larger stone and smashed my big toe against a rock as I lost my footing. I swore. Then I looked up and saw two parents and their four-year-old son a few feet away.

I quickly convinced myself I had heard them speaking German so I could at the very least keep from feeling embarrassed about my language.

But even after all that, I made it back to the shore. I took my towel off the fence and sat down on a bench. I caught my breath.

I made it.

And then I looked over at the gravel path I still had to walk on to get back to the parking lot.

At this point, I didn’t even bother starting to stew on the problem.

When my feet pressed down on the gravel, I felt even more pain than I’d anticipated. It was the combination of tiny, pointy rocks and a week’s worth of already sore feet from sightseeing.

But the path was the only way back to the parking lot. I took it slow. Big steps, pausing whenever I caught a particularly bad jab.

And then something funny happened. A group of people walking past us the opposite way whispered “Is he barefoot?” with a mix of shock and awe.

I turned to Dena, about to crack up. “They think I’m a badass!”

So, I played the part. I took my hesitant, big steps up until the point where I saw someone coming. Then I switched to strutting, just to see if people would react.

It was a stupid game. I understand this. But it also kept me moving and made the situation a little funnier.

A few minutes in I noticed that every so often there was a span of chalky white logs, bolted to the ground on the sides of the path. I hadn’t noticed them on the walk to the river, but now I was using them as balance beams, reveling in how smooth they felt against my feet.

If every situation were so simple, we wouldn’t need reminders not to dwell on the problem itself and start looking for a solution. Compared to a lot of problems, “I’m in a river and need to get back out right now,” has a refreshing clarity.

Stewing, complaining, or otherwise dwelling on the problem acts as a form of denial. Denying that you’re ready to solve the problem. Denying that you can even believe that you have this problem. Denying that it’s your problem to solve. Denying that a solution exists.

You need to accept the problem before you can move past it, and once you’re in motion, the problem becomes less important than staying in motion.

Living With Attention Debt

I’ve started referring to any dishes left in the sink or on the counter overnight as dish debt. Not only are they just left for my future self to do, but they accumulate interest in the sense that they’re in the way of other things I want to do the next day (i.e. make coffee), or they’re just a little bit grosser than when they were left to sit overnight.

Debt isn’t just monetary, although that kind can loom over a person. Student loan debt. Medical bill debt. Credit card debt. The kind of monetary debt that can follow a person for months, years, or even decades.

There’s attention debt, too. When you add a new person to your Twitter feed. When you make Facebook friends. When you start reading a new blog, or decide to watch a new TV series. When you add an app to your phone that uses push notifications. Actions that you take in one moment that make a commitment toward further actions in the future.

An aspect of all of these forms of debt is that they prevent you from living in the moment. It can aggressively follow you, like knowing that you have a payment to make at the end of the week, so you’d better be careful on what you spend your money on today. It can shift you out of the present moment and make you question your previous choices; make you wonder if you could have done things differently instead of accumulating that debt. Or, in the case of attention debt, you can slip into distraction for periods of time and come out wondering where all the time went.

Attention debt is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The way that you pay off your attention debt can mimic paying off a monetary debt in some ways. If you make small installments, checking your feeds frequently throughout the day, each payment on that debt seems small, but you’re also paying more interest in the time you’re taking away from focused work. If you set aside time to focus on those feeds in a larger, less frequent chunk of time, you do less harm to your focus. You pay less interest.

But sometimes it’s not easy to avoid those impulses. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and breeze through everything in a set amount of time and resist that sense that you’re missing out on something. Again, attention debt is taking you out of your present moment by making that sense of missing out even more acute. It’s not merely a sense that there’s more going on outside of your view, but you have a specific list in your head of what you’re not keeping up with. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about appearances and conspicuous consumption now, it’s about keeping pace with your neighbors’ updates. And our neighborhood is ever growing.

I’ve been thinking about how to create a payment plan for attention debt. Things like Email Bankruptcy and Quitting Twitter are just crash diets for the brain. Living debt-free in this sense also means reducing your connection to other people, and that’s not really my goal. We take on debts because there are things of value attached, but with attention debt there’s more room to negotiate the terms.