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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 47: Cell Phone Buffering and Physician Families: Lessons from Napolean

When you find yourself reaching for your phone when you are off the clock to check your email. Or drinking not because you are enjoying that IPA, but because you are avoiding something. Or when you begin to think about all the people that need you to respond to their text within minutes, you might be buffering.  

Larry Keller

Buffering is very common in our culture today, but it isn’t a way to live life that will help us feel like the person, parent, and physician we want to be. Today I am going to talk about something Napoleon taught us years ago that might just help you uncover the real reason you are buffering today.   

Editor’s Note: Inside the Alpha Coaching Experience (ACE) we help physicians realize actions they are taking that are holding them back from practicing medicine on their terms so that they can live the life they want. Learn more at thephysicianphilosopher.com/waitlist.

Staying Off Your Cell Phone… Wait What? 

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Napoleon Bonaparte called Napoleon, or The Man of the World, he describes Napoleon’s view on checking the mail.  

“He directed [his officers] to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”

This idea was different from the norm, even back then. But these days? It sounds really ludicrous. And when you look at the facts, leaving messages unread and texts unanswered is far from the norm. 

For example, according to Medium.com, 90% of texts are read within 3 minutes, the average response time to a text is 90 seconds, and another recent study showed that 90% of people expect an email response within 10 minutes.

But I want to point out that I think there is a lot to learn from Napoleon’s example here. He found that requests and questions that seem so urgent at the time, if given proper time, would answer themselves or become clearly unimportant.

As an online business owner of The Physician Philosopher, I have felt the constant need over the last four years to always be connected. Not just that, but if I am being honest, I felt that way even before that as a physician in our ever-connected society.

What if someone needs me?

What if I miss a text or call or email? 

These seem like reasonable questions to ask, right? But I began to think they might be misplaced. Are these actions sabotaging my other top life priorities?

My daughter taught me that lesson recently actually. 

A Lesson From My 10 Year Old

When I asked my 10 year old daughter what she wanted from me on a recent vacation for 4 days, she didn’t ask for me to buy her something. Or to go do something fun.   

She asked me to stay off my phone while I was on vacation. To simply just hang out with her.  

She doesn’t want my talents, or my sage wisdom, or any of the other things that a parent can provide. What she wanted was my availability and to be 100% present with her. 

What she was saying is, “Dad, you are on your cell phone too much.  I am right here.  Right in front of you.” 

This is just ONE of the reasons that I think cell phones have become one of the most common buffers for people these days.

What Is Buffering On A Cell Phone? 

So what do I mean by common “buffers?” 

A “buffer” is something that we do when we are unwilling to deal with a negative feeling we would rather avoid. 

Here is a really common example of buffering that I talked about in episode 8 of The Physician Philosophers Podcast. In the past when I have felt bored or anxious, one of my quick fixes is to drink alcohol.   

Now, I don’t personally believe that drinking alcohol in and of itself is a problem. I enjoy a good IPA or Old Fashioned (particularly with Bulleit Rye) as much as the next person. 

Alcohol becomes a problem when we look into WHY we are drinking. If you are drinking alcohol to escape anxiety, depression, boredom because you are unwilling to feel those feelings. Then it becomes a problem. 

That is called buffering. In this instance, we are buffering our anxiety or boredom with alcohol. That’s a short-term fix that has massive long-term consequences.  

The reason that we do this is that we are looking to get that hit of dopamine that our buffers provide, which then covers up the negative feelings we have been having.  

 

Buffering Avoids the Real Problem 

The problem with buffers is that it allows you to avoid doing the real thought work, because you are covering it up with a bandaid. Like I said before, it is a short-term fix with long-term consequences when we don’t treat the disease.  

But this article isn’t about alcohol, it is about one of the other most common buffers that we have in our society – cell phones.  

Here is what it has looked like for me. 

It usually happens when I am bored. I reach in my pocket, take out my cell phone and do a quick scan. Any new emails, social media notifications, text messages, what about slack? 

Why do I do this? Because I am unwilling to be bored.  In other words, I am buffering my boredom with my cell phone. 

I’ve also used my cell phone to “take my mind off” of an upcoming event that makes me nervous or anxious. It is a way to not pre-occupy my mind with the possibility that a future event may not go well. 

Since I am unwilling to feel that anxiety or nervousness, I buffer it by using my cell phone. 

Can you relate? 

The list of things we buffer with cell phones is massive.

How To Stop Reaching For Your Cell Phone 

The obvious and easy solution that people often pose in this situation involves silencing notifications, getting rid of social media apps, and manually retrieving emails instead of pushing them to your phone instantly the second they hit your account. 

But these solutions aren’t the long term answer. Trust me, I’ve tried. 

I don’t have my work email for the hospital on my phone. I typically only check it when I am working a clinical shift. So, if I have Wednesday and Thursday off, I’ll go 48 or 72 hours without checking it.

And as crazy as that sounds, Napoleon is right. The world hasn’t broken because I don’t check my email every day. In fact, most things resolve themselves before I even look 48 hours later. People know they can text or call me if something is urgent.

Yet, despite this change, I’d still reach for my phone. 

Then I tried silencing my notifications. It certainly helped, but didn’t solve the problem either. 

The reason that it hasn’t solved the problem is because the cell phone isn’t the problem. My brain is.

I am clearly pretty unwilling to deal with boredom when it comes up. As someone who feels the need to be constantly available and asks “what if” I miss something. 

And as someone who Hates boredom (yes, with a capital H).  

My cell phone is an ever-present fix that is hard to escape.   

So, what I’ve decided to do is get rid of the temptation for a while.  Like an alcoholic who pours out the alcohol, I’ve decided to get rid of my smartphone.   

How do you ask? 

I bought a dumb phone that basically only calls and texts.  It is called the Light Phone 2 and it will serve my purpose for a period of time.

Honestly, I tried this before but it was trying to use the Light Phone as a companion to my smart phone that I could use on occasion.  

This time, I am ripping the bandaid off. I’m just going to use the Light Phone as my main phone for a period of time.   

I’m not sure if this will last a week, a month, or a year, but in a sense I’m going to be doing a digital detox. 

If something needs to be answered, I can do it with an actual computer or laptop.  

Why Putting Down The Cell Phone Is A Good Thing

Sitting with My Boredom

I think there is very real work to be done for me to learn how to allow my boredom and my thought that I need to be constantly available. And most likely for you too. 

This change is going to force me to do that hard work. The hard work to be done soon after will involve dealing with the urge of a cell phone to be around when I get bored.   

With my cell phone being ever-present, I need to learn how to sit with my boredom and the brain that hides behind it.   

I’ve actually been reading a book by Ryan Holliday called Stillness is the Key (really good book by the way) where he argues that boredom is often the bridge to get to inspiration.   

If you aren’t willing to be bored and not constantly entertained, you might be missing out on the inspiration that lies on the other side. 

 

I want my life to reflect my priorities.

This is probably the biggest reason for me to try this experiment out. My family deserves my complete and undivided attention when I am around them. 

I am tired of telling my daughter “just one more minute, baby… I just need to answer this email real quick.”

What kind of message is that sending to her? That my work is more important than she is? That she can wait, but my reply can’t? That can’t keep happening.   

I don’t want my tombstone to say “replied to every text message and email instantly.” I want it to say that I was deeply and personally invested in supporting my friends and family. 

I am a fan of deep work. 

I am a big fan of the idea that Cal Newport talks about in his book Deep Work.   

It turns out that when we superficially multi-task with technology we are doing a lot of things haphazardly and almost nothing well. 

I’d much rather do one thing at a time, and to do it really well. 

Instead of checking emails throughout the day, I can spend 30 minutes or one hour checking them and answering them. When I do it that way, I’ll actually do it better than if I was checking my email while at the kitchen table or at the pool or at the hospital. 

Having the constant presence of a super-computer in my pocket makes that a huge challenge.   

 

What is Your Buffer?

I hope this has helped you take a deeper look at your cell phone use. Or at any of the other buffers you might have where you are trading hits of dopamine to cover up feelings you are unwilling to feel. 

None of us have to buffer boredom and, though the world may rage, we don’t have to provide instantaneous feedback to people. Remember Napoleon, what seems urgent now will likely answer itself or more clearly define its urgency. 

Get clear on what matters most to you, and make sure your life is reflecting those values and goals.  

Then, do the hard work it takes to deal with all of the good and bad feelings that arise in life. Because only when we have bad feelings that we are truly willing to experience can we really appreciate the good feelings, too. 

 

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