The lost art of intentionality

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Parents and two teenagers watching television

The smartphone has changed our lives.

Many would argue that it’s for the better.

Some work argue that it’s for the worse.

But all agree that this little piece of technology has truly changed our behaviors.

I’ve been analyzing my own behavior recently, in light of the many articles I’ve read bout the impact of small screens on our lives.

How our brains are different when we read paper than they are when we read on screens.

How we’ve lost our ability to focus on one task or project at a time.

Our summer binge-watching included all five seasons of the television show Friday Night Lights.

After dinner, after reading and homework and dishes and garbage duties, my wife and I would go to our favorite places on the couch.

Me with my laptop, and she with her Kindle Paper White.

I’d pull up the remote on my iPhone and dial in the latest episode of the show, and we’d tuck in to whatever it was on the screens in front of us, while the show played on the big screen on the wall of our living room.

This was not strange to me. It was how to get stuff done. Send a work email, research the latest technology, scroll through Twitter more than just the last 15 minutes of Tweets.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is that we could discuss the show at length after each episode, having followed the basic drama along with whatever was on our second screens.

I’m told most of America does it this way today.

We do almost everything with a second screen in our hands.

We do date night with our trusty little helpers right next to us.

We do soccer Saturdays in a foldaway chair and a phone or tablet in our hands.

We’ve become good at this.

This morning I got up, as I do most Sundays, before everyone else. I made a big batch of breakfast potatoes and drank two pots of Dragonwell green tea and waited of the two younger kids to get up.

We ate and turned on Doctor Who, which isn’t covered by our normal cable subscription, so I buy episodes on iTunes, and they are available the day after it airs on television.

I grabbed my laptop, and my son grabbed his laptop, which is provided by his school.

My daughter grabbed her notepad and crayons, and we settled in for the newest episode.

I look forward to this every Sunday, because it’s one  of the few things we watch together. It usually provides for great conversations.

When I looked up at them halfway through this weeks’ episode, I realized they were half watching just like me.

My daughter was drawing, my son was looking up football scores from yesterday.

This is just the way we watch things today.

It’s normal, right?

I folded my laptop and decided to watch the rest of the episode intentionally.

It was not easy.

I’m normally far more efficient if I’m multitasking.

I pulled out my phone twice but put it back in my pocket without checking anything.

After a few more minutes passed, my son put his laptop away, and the two of us watched intentionally to the end of the episode.

My daughter continued to draw, but I found out later that she does this, because she gets to scared when something really creepy happens on the show.

At least she was being creative and not using a second screen.

A year ago I decided to do date night intentionally. I leave my phone in my pocket, and we go out for martinis at a local bar we both like.

We do everything intentionally, although there’s always an out if we’re both tired.

There are five televisions playing any Chicago sport that is currently in season.

It’s been a good experiment, in that we have to work at conversation and toggle between my life away from her and her life away from me. Which means we discuss each other’s workplace most of the time.

After realizing that I watched most of the last four seasons of Friday Night Lights unintentionally, I decided to try and watch most of the last season as intentionally as possible. I kept my laptop shut and left my phone in my pocket. My iPad mysteriously made some appearances downstairs during this experiment, but that is a rarity.

Aside from being more aware of the what was happening in the show, I realized it brought up more questions for me.

Where did that character come from? What’s this story line? What’s that in reference to?

I had missed out on a lot of the show, because of my two-screen habit.

The other thing I noticed was the music. The music in the show is fantastic. So much so that I created a playlist of the music from the final season on Spotify, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop since we finished the last episode.

I read to my daughter every night, which is as rewarding for me as it is for her. I could’ve bought the books on iTunes and read from my iPhone or iPad. We’ve been doing that for years. But I decided I wanted to be intentional. As much for me as for her.

I wanted to give myself a break from screen reading at night. I wanted to feel paper between my fingers.

I’m a little amazed that I’m actually writing a post about being intentional, as if it’s some ancient ritual that hasn’t been practiced in thousands of years.

I spent more than 30 years of my life living intentionally. Having intentional conversations and watching television intentionally.

That technology could completely wipe that out in 10 years is somewhat shocking to me.

Because I do technology for a living, I realize that my behaviors are going to be scanned and analyzed by my wife and children, by my employees, by students and by pretty much anyone with whom I interact on a daily basis.

I don’t know if being intentional gets you ahead today, but I do know that it means something, and that it’s worth pursuing.

It’s not an all or nothing deal either. Technology makes it easier for us to live unintentionally. But it’s laziness to think we cannot put it away for a conversation or a television show.

I’m no better at this than the next person.

I find it almost impossible to leave my phone in my pocket for longer than 30 minutes.

When my kids ask me something I don’t know at the dinner table, I’m inclined to Google it to get a quick reference.

Sometimes living intentionally reveals our lack of knowledge or understanding.

Which is ironic, because the best way to become knowledgeable and to gain understanding is through studying something over time.

Sure, we have access to almost all of human knowledge at our fingertips today.  But it doesn’t come with experience.

Experience comes with being intentional.

You don’t learn a language by listening to a podcast every day. Most people learn a language by speaking it to other people who speak it.

Intentionality is as simple as not being distracted.

I take my laptop to meetings at work, because I can get work done during conversation that is not related to me. But that sort of unintentionally is what makes meetings take so much longer than they need to.

I had planned to write a review of Friday Night Lights, because I enjoyed it so much.

There is so much depth to the characters, and even a violent medium like football provides a brilliant landscape on which to develop character.

But I realized that I couldn’t base a review off of one season of watching intentionally.

It’s likely I’ll continue to have my laptop open the next time I’m lazily watching television. It’s highly likely I’ll pull my phone out during a conversation with my kids.

But I’m going to try to live a little more intentionally from now on.

A little more eye contact, a little more paying attention to one thing at a time.

Watching a television show all the way through from credits to credits shouldn’t be a chore.

I don’t want to be the reason Hollywood is putting out so many bad movies today. But if I’m only half watching everything, it’s as much my fault as theirs.

3 thoughts on “The lost art of intentionality”

  1. Oh man! Brilliant. A few years ago I read a blog post by Mike Maddaloni about watching TV intentionally; and how it’s a better experience. On the rare occasions I turn on the TV, I focus on it. The same holds true for many other things, as your blog post points out. Being intentional instead of wishy-washy. Really focusing. You revealed a great psychological truth, “Sometimes living intentionally reveals our lack of knowledge or understanding. Which is ironic, because the best way to become knowledgeable and to gain understanding is through studying something over time.”

    Perhaps part of it comes down to fear. The fear of missing something, so we multi-task. The fear of not doing enough, so we multi-task. The last few years I’ve been rediscovering the joy of doing something, and doing something well by focusing on the task–and not letting my fears rule me.

    Your story of reading books to your kids is great. The focus on an actual book. Spending the time to read it. Those are some of the great moments in life. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Matt. That means a lot to me. For me it’s definitely the fear of not doing enough. I’m trying to get to a place of satisfaction with the best of my work. Hemingway wrote 800 words a day. He wrote until he got those 800 words right. I want to do that with other things in my life too.

      1. Yeah, I hear ya on the wanting to do other things with life. The internet has revealed so many great artists doing such great work, it’s inspiring. But then I often wonder what is this work really doing. Ultimately, I think it’s all about human connection. We can get concerned about producing enough, but many times I need to get out of my hole and introverted ways and connect. And connecting on a level of love by putting others before myself. A bit of a tangent there, but thinking about intentionality requires a perspective and where one stands, right?

        I’m going to give more thought to your point of satisfaction (and contentment).

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