Where's my phone

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published July 7, 2023

Don't you just hate it when you are on your phone talking with a colleague, rushing to get out the door to make it to the bus, are carrying aheavy backpack, keys and water bottle in hand, and are about to lock the door butrealize that you can't find your phone?

Are you nodding and smiling because that frequently happens to you or did you, like me, not realize that my phone was in my hand? In my last column I spoke about being overwhelmed as a nation with all that has happened in the past few years and today, I would like to focus on how as individuals we each "lack focus" and get more easily overwhelmed, in large part due to so much extraneous stimulation.

Remember those days when you sent a letter by post and happily waited for several weeks before receiving a response? Now we send a WhatsApp message and wait with concern if we don't receive a response within a few minutes. Few people today experience the same pleasure they once had when they sat down, slowly tore open the envelope, noted the pretty postage stamp, the smell and feel of the paper and reveled in the personal response. Remember the excitement from those tissue thin aerograms that a loved one sent on their year abroad? Those days were indeed special and can't compare with our feelings of dread when our bosses and others think we should be available 24/7 in case they need to share a thought or have an urgent request.

So how for one full minute did I actually forget that my phone was next to my ear and not still sitting on my desk?Was I simply not paying attention, didn't multitask as well as I once did, had too many responsibilities and was preoccupied, or was I sleep deprived? Had Ideveloped age related memory issues, or simply became a statistic in the proliferating all time high rate of ADD diagnosis? Was it a symptom of long COVID or simply 2023 when most people spend too much time on their phones for all the wrong reasons? I'm guessing that sadly it may be a little bit of many of the above and that I am not alone.

Here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Keep track of objects near and dear to you. While it may be easiest to wear your phone around your neck, making a mental note of when you generally use it and where you had it last often works for most people. Choose a designated home for your phone, keys, glasses, backpack, water bottle and other objects of importance and make sure that at night everything is where it belongs so that in the morning you can grab them and run.

  2. Count out the items you typically need to have with you before your departure. In the same way that I taught our children "two mittens, two boots, scarf, coat and hat" in those pre-aliyah days, by listing the objects and repeating them out loud, you make them more salient and mindfully ensure that you have them all as you go through your mental checklist. Repetition, rehearsal and reinforcement can successfully enhance your memory. Learning a mnemonic definitely works too as long as you can remember the mnemonic!

  3. Use your senses to enhance memory consolidation. Visualizing where everything is in a room or on a page can help remind you of what object is where. Stating that you are taking your medication and actually moving it from one place to another when finished will help you keep track of having taken it.

  4. Focus on what you need to be doing and not just on what you may want to be doing . I am reminded of a pop quiz in one of my psychology courses many years ago. The directions specifically instructed that we read all of the questions before attempting the test. Most people ignored the directions when seeing that it was a timed test with many questions, they simply began. Those who read the test through first as directed were rewarded by the last question which said, "write your name on the top of the test and do not answer any questions." They were the ones who passed.

    Today many people inadvertently choose the comforting distraction of social media over completing a task, and then wonder if it was really a matter of lack of time or more a lack of interest in accomplishing the tasks at hand. If you are doing something with little enthusiasm, neither you nor others will derive much gratification from it, and this may ultimately be to your detriment.

  5. If you do multitask, can you "chunk" things to be done into smaller groups making things more efficient? This for example is a great technique when you need to buy groceries. I often make up my grocery list according to the store layout, grouping similar items. This speeds up shopping as it provides a mental map with less need to backtrack. If you are doing multiple things simultaneously, you'll need to practice being intentional in each of your tasks or in attempting to do two things at once, you may discover that you are not doing either particularly well. This is true perhaps if you tend to talk on your phone (hands-free, of course) when driving. You may also need to turn off the radio when backing up in order to concentrate without distraction.

  6. Ask yourself if you are doing too much. Do you have too many things that all seem to need your attention at once and you set unreasonable demands upon yourself, leaving you with insufficient time to complete them? Are you overwhelmed by tons of paperwork, time spent waiting for someone "on hold" or simply unhappy with something that is taking both your time and energy and feels unsolvable? Check out your expectations. They may not be at all realistic.

  7. Ask yourself if you have serious memory issues? Many people experience age-related changes as they get older. You may find that you learn more slowly, retain less information, and feel that y our memory seems less sharp and reliable. You may go blank when trying to recall a person's name, retell a story or enter a room.

    Stressing over this may actually make the situation temporarily worse so try to be calm as you wait for the "reboot" button in your brain to kick in. It usually does.

    That said we all know people in their 90's who you envy for being so sharp that they don't miss a beat. You may wonder how they have time to work on a hobby, meditate, walk their 10,000 steps a day, read for hours or acquire a new language, all with a sense of calm, great interest and joy. Good sleep, healthy relationships, a proper diet and giving your brain a workout, all contribute to memory and can be protective against the effects of aging. If you are concerned about memory loss, you owe it to yourself to seek professional help.

  8. Compare how old you feel and think you act with your true chronological age. How do they match up? Is it good or bad? Do people value your opinions because you have life experience or think that you no longer have a contribution to make to society. And how do you see this? Do you view "old" as a phenomenon that is simply in your mind or is "old" someone who is "x" years older than you, and this keeps increasing as you yourself age?

  9. Put your life in order. Declutter your home, organize your finances, and simplify your daily routine so that you can make room for the things you value and decrease the clutter in your head. Create a memory-friendly environment. Utilize a calendar, a watch, a daily journal and a "to do" list to help keep you organized. Take pen to paper when writing notes. The actual process of writing slows things down and enables you to give the task more attention both motorically as well as visually. This in itself is thought to make neuronal wiring more effective. Pat yourself on the back literally and praise yourself for tasks well done. This may sound silly but also helps you to solidify memory and make the praise more memorable and meaningful.

  10. Notice the extraneous noise in your environment and find ways to appreciate the quiet- even if only briefly. Between the occasional noises from the water cooler and the refrigerator, the hum of the air conditioner and the whir of the fans you may be privy to an unwanted symphony that may impact your state of calm without your awareness. Add to it the LED display lights in red, green and blue and you may discover that you can practically read in the room even with the overhead lights off.

    Finally, even a phone on vibrate is very distracting when 50 people on a group list each chime in to wish someone a Happy Birthday instead of writing to them in private. Do we really all need to know? Do you need to hear the incessant bings and pings, not to mention the ringing of someone else's phone or their conversations in public areas? Add these distractions to already feeling already overwhelmed by the endless emails, WhatsApp messages and more, and you may sadly discover yourself checking your phone at three in the morning when you can not sleep. Is it any wonder that most people are more distracted than ever before?

Your task now must be to notice and acknowledge the distractions in your life. Be attentive to all the things that you may need to change in your environment, and you can set yourself up for success. Whether you decide to charge your phone in another room, set aside meals or Shabbat as digital device free time, actively choose to pay attention and be there with someone and for them, in this moment, not get caught up in social media, organize your time differently, or try some of the other ideas suggested above, you are indeed the one person who can reduce your level of stress and make all the difference in your life. Good luck!

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.