With back-to-reality season upon us, Tal Fagin suggests making changes that will break your addiction to technology and restore balance in your life.
I took a lot of my own advice these past few months, downshifting as much as possible. I gave myself permission to linger over my morning coffee, to get lost in the view over the mountains or to enjoy the hummingbirds flitting around my planters. I took long, aimless walks with my dog, lingered over fabulous meals with close friends and steadily moved through the pile of novels on my nightstand. I played tennis and swam with my kids, and made it a point to replace evening TV with family rounds of Yahtzee and Rummikub.
I made time for things I usually do not—jazz concerts and plays and intimate readings with famous authors. I experimented in the kitchen with recipes I have always wanted to try, got my hands dirty in the garden and even spent one hot, sultry afternoon learning to tango. Tango!
I did not spend a lot of time staring at screens.
Now, with back-to-reality season upon me, I feel rested, restored and ready. Ready to pick up the pace—to usher the kids to back to school, to trade tee-shirts and flip flops for sweaters and boots, to dive back in to clients and work.
One thing I am not quite ready for?
Getting rehooked on my devices (or watching my children do the same).
If my clients—or the rest of the US population—are any indication, we could all use a little help breaking the tech bind, and restoring a little balance and intention to our ever-intensifying attachment to our devices.
With that in mind, I thought I would revisit and revise an oldie but goodie, chock full of tips and strategies for limiting screen time. Should you ever find yourself feeling shackled and burdened by your technology—or if you have children at home who seem way to enamored with their screens—I invite you to consider the following:
Knowledge is Power. People tend to use the language of addiction when talking about their devices, and there is good reason for that.
Like the cigarettes that hooked previous generations, smartphones began as cool, sexy, seemingly innocuous accessories that have begun to wreak havoc on us all. We now know that our devices (and many of the apps we can’t seem to live without) were designed—on purpose and by incredibly smart people—to be addictive. They play on certain psychological vulnerabilities and take advantage of long-studied behavioral patterns. They are like little slot machines, constantly beckoning with the “rewards” of buzzes, flashes and dings. You swipe down and wait for the thrill of new emails. You check your posts to see how many likes and shares they get, each one delivering a little dopamine rush that quickly fades and leaves you wanting more.
There is a growing body of information out there about all of this, and we are all-too-aware of the problem. So let’s talk solutions. As with almost everything in life, moderation is the key. Beyond that, I would suggest keeping a diary. If you were looking to shed pounds, I would suggest keeping a food diary. Instead, I am asking you to record your tech habits. How much technology do you actually consume? What exactly are you consuming—healthy, necessary, value-added items, or garbage? When do you find yourself reaching for your phone, and in each case, why? Is it for work? Pleasure? Procrastination? Is it just a mindless habit? A distraction or crutch? In each instance, make note of how you feel. Are you energized and satiated, or do you feel somehow disappointed or depleted? The first step to solving any problem is awareness. Paint a fuller picture of your habit and go from there.
Institute Small Changes. Once you have a better sense of when, how and why you reach for your phone, you can start to make small, impactful changes. Identify those digital habits that feel toxic or unnecessary, then modify or eliminate them. Establish personal rules, and consider writing them down. Lots of people ban devices from meal time or bedrooms, and a slew of friends have limited Facebook usage by setting self-imposed time limits, getting the app off their phones or deactivating altogether. Some people declare one day a week a “Tech Sabbath” and disconnect for 24 hours. Personally, I have rules about how I engage with my devices around my children, and I do not allow myself to instinctively reach to check it every time I wait in line or otherwise have a down moment.
What changes might you make?
Get a Room, just NOT the Bedroom. There is a mountain of evidence on how using our gadgets too close to bedtime messes with our circadian rhythms and impedes sleep. Consider an old fashioned alarm clock, and keep the phone out of the boudoir. Give yourself a chance to unwind and relax at the end of the day. Sleep is the foundation of all good health, and everything is always better after a good night’s sleep.
Dumb it Down. Try keeping your phone in Airplane Mode so nothing comes through, or Do Not Disturb mode so notifications won’t produce any sound. You can also go into settings on specific apps to tailor or restrict your notifications. All those buzzes and pings are like Pavlovian bells that condition you to keep turning away from what you are doing and back to your phone. Making your smartphone a little “dumber,” by limiting your notifications will reduce this addictive conditioning and help you start taking back control of your time and your attention-span.
Power it Up. You can reduce your phone habit by installing certain apps intended to reduce the amount of time you spend on it. Ah, the irony! I haven’t tried any of these personally, but I can tell from their names (Freedom, In Moment and Space, to name just a few) what the idea behind them is.
Go Social. Endlessly scrolling Facebook and Instagram is like binging on candy. You may feel momentarily full, but you quickly find yourself slightly nauseous and craving something more. Some of the most disturbing news around our smartphone habits is how they negatively impact relationships, reduce empathy and increase feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. The statistics on the rise of depression among teens and younger adults in recent years are truly alarming, and have been linked to social media. Our digital connectedness has many of us feeling utterly disconnected—from ourselves and one another. Approach your relationships the old fashioned way. Ditch the social media and make some real plans, ideally involving eye-contact. For long-distance friends, try scheduling a phone date. Gorge on the wholesome, full-fat, delicious experience of meaningful personal connection.
Confront Your Fears. Perhaps the thought of getting off or limiting your time on social media triggers a fear of missing out? Perhaps you worry that if you don’t immediately respond to every text or email—or like every post—you will offend people or otherwise fall out of favor? Are you afraid that the world will somehow cease turning—or the news cycle cease churning—if you are not entirely au courant on every occurrence? Investigate any underlying fears you may have around limiting your tech habit. Question what you will really be missing if you disconnect a bit. More importantly, ask yourself what you might gain.
Make Meaning. Limiting screen time needn’t feel like a punishment. It will free you up to pursue more fulfilling activities. These recent summer days, spent turning the pages of actual books and meandering through the woods, felt long and abundant, unhurried and full of possibility. I allowed myself to sink in, to go deep, to luxuriate in whatever experience was at hand. It felt like the antidote to all the havoc our devices wreak, the cure for all the ubiquitous complaints—of feeling frazzled and speedy, distracted and overwhelmed—I hear so often in this Age of Technology. Free from the usual pull of constantly checking texts and emails or otherwise getting sucked into the morass of online life, I felt refreshed and at ease. Side effects also included more energy and patience, more creativity and optimism and more engagement with my surroundings, too.
What are some things you love to do, and how can you free up more time for them? Life isn’t all about productivity or crossing items off a list, nor is it best spent alone with your face glued to a screen. Give yourself permission to put down the devices and do something scrumptious, at least once a day.
I consider my devices essential tools—allowing me to do everything from snap photos, stream my favorite workouts, keep up with family and friends and listen to inspiring podcasts. Plus, I get to work with people all over the world—by phone—so geography is never an issue. Still, I am determined to maintain a healthy balance, to use the devices to my advantage without sacrificing too much in the process. Might you be willing to do the same?