Two and a half hours had passed since I got into bed and the ceiling wasn’t getting any more interesting. My focus turned to the cellphone, benignly charging on my side table. Perhaps all I needed was a little distraction until sleep found me. I could catch up on the news, check my email, and see whether Berkeley Breathed posted tomorrow’s strip. Problem solved.
Truly, I wish I could tell you that my ability to abstain from my phone was based on the rational application of scientific findings related to brain activity and digital screens. The research is clear that exposure to the light emitted by our devices stimulates our brains in ways that disturb our sleep pattern. Although different studies might caution us to power down either one or two hours before going to bed, everyone agrees that we shouldn’t undertake that last survey of texts and news before closing our eyes. You’d think that this knowledge would be enough to keep the phone out of my hand. Unfortunately, I’m one of the many who’ve fallen into this “last check” habit, which is anything but benign. Especially in the long run, poor sleep patterns impair judgement, memory, and outlook – and that’s only the start of the list. Perhaps most worrying, some of us who regularly fall short on sleep begin to believe that we don’t require the recommended dose. We become so accustomed to our diminished performance that we no longer notice the shortfall.
As I said, I wish that the science would have been enough to guide my resistance, but it took more – a public commitment. Recently, our school marked its annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW). On the theme of what’s entailed in looking after our brains, students and staff spoke in Chapel about the role of exercise, gratitude, music, and, yes, sleep. In closing one of the sessions, I ruminated that ultimately each of us must choose for ourselves from among the offered tips and act. Pulling an example from the air, I confessed my cellphone habit and committed to changing that practice. My words reached the ears of over two hundred students and colleagues.
If that hadn’t happened, I’m sure that I would have picked up the phone last night. Even though I desired sleep; even though, intellectually, I knew the science; even though the findings reflected my own experience; even though I had only fallen back into the habit within the last two months – none of this would likely have been enough at the height of my nocturnal boredom.
Our susceptibility to the thoughts we generate amazes me. We can have a comprehensive rationale about what we want to say or do and yet one well-placed thought can derail all the others. In my case last night that thought was, “Hey, you’ve held on long enough. Time to grab the phone.” Though in a dazed state, I remembered (courtesy of BAW speaker, Lynn Lyons, among others) that just because we think of something, it doesn’t make the thought true or good. I entered into an internal dialogue and remembered my commitment before chuckling to myself and returning to my mindless inspection of the ceiling.
Meeting and defeating such thoughts is good practice, especially for those times when the stakes are higher. After all, every piece of malicious gossip is nothing more than a thought in someone’s head that wasn’t held back. Every break in professional conduct exists as a mere idea until it’s put into action. Every questionable affair begins as no more than a notion until it’s embraced and granted power. Not surprisingly, it’s often the pattern we set and the capacity we build with respect to the lesser challenges that enables us to face these greater ones.
This is precisely why it’s helpful to get clear about who we are now and who we want to become. Armed with such clarity, not only can we better sort through which of our thoughts to empower and which to set aside, we can also recognize our weaknesses and enlist support, both within ourselves and from those around us.
Perhaps we don’t need to involve as many people as I inadvertently drew upon to break my habit, but each of us does need to figure out the personal combination of resources which leads us to a meaningful life, one activated thought at a time.
Keven Fletcher, 2016