A lot has been written about the vagaries of technology on our social relationships, child rearing, and mental health. Some have offered a more nuanced perspective that includes the use of technology as a tool, rather than the cause of the demise of society. It is this perspective to which I’d like to add from my own experience, in the hope that you can also find ease and wellbeing in your relationship with technology.
I am a knowledge junkie, and, as the internet can be an infinite source of information, I can sometimes find myself popping on my phone to look up, say, the natural history of armadillos (I saw one on my patio the other day, and needed to know). However, constantly breaking away from the present to enter the vast library of the internet leaves me in limbo between there and here and makes my mind foggy and anxious. My solution?
- I have a running list of things to look up in a Note on my iPhone (and a piece of scrap paper), and pick things from that list when it’s “internet time.”
Which brings me to “internet time.” Knowing that spending a lot of time online tightens my shoulders and mid-back and fogs my mind, I am consciously trying to limit time spent at the computer (“screen time”), and especially time browsing the internet (“internet time”). This is a challenge when our work involves using the computer, such as when writing this post, but being intentional about screen time and internet time helps one remain focused and fresh. I purposely make a distinction between screen time and internet time here, because we can be working on a computer and not be connected to the internet, though that is not very likely in the developed world these days, and certainly not possible when work is being captured in “the cloud.” My method?
2. I think in advance about how much time I need to spend on the computer and how much “fun browsing” I want to do, and then I set my timer for 30 minute intervals as I begin the “internet and screen time,” taking some kind of physical break when the timer sounds.
Setting the timer keeps me focused and checking things that I need to do off my list (e.g., pay the bills, book flights), rather than allowing me to get lost browsing Facebook posts or reading random articles – for which I allow some time, but try not to disappear down the rabbit hole (and if I do, the timer brings me back up).
Email is the woe of many, and, indeed, I remember when I was still an assistant professor and administrator at a DC-area university that I received no less than 30 messages that actually needed response within the scope of two hours on a Monday: 5-7PM! Really, people? Don’t you eat dinner with your families or significant others, or feed your dogs, or at least go to the gym? One of my deans was excellent at subtly managing people simply by timing his responses to emails (I don’t know whether he was conscious of this, but I certainly was): one could always count on a response from him, but it would be made sometime between 10pm and 1am, and would be waiting in one’s inbox the following morning. Taking a page from this gentleman’s book and adapting the habit to my own circadian rhythms (which do not involve being up at 1am unless I am at a really, really good party):
3. I check email three times a day and quit the email program the rest of the time, especially if I remain on the computer to do work.
People eventually learn to know when to expect responses, and know that they can get a hold of my via text or phone more quickly if they need quicker answers.
It’s more difficult to get out of the habit of checking email while waiting for, say, the checkout line at the grocery store to move or the coffee to brew. Our hands almost move automatically to the little envelope icon. Barring removing email altogether from one’s phone, which could be inconvenient, there is way to save the moment:
4. I pause as I reach for the phone and ask myself: how many times have I checked email today? Twice? Oh? OK, I only have one more time to do so today, so I’d better make it count! Is this a good time to make it count?
Chances are that it’s not, and a more focused time would be better used later. And one saves the moment to hear that beautiful red cardinal that just landed on the fence sing, as the coffee smell wastes into the room….
Related to not checking email spuriously is not checking FB, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat spuriously.
5. I have disabled notifications for everything.
Or at least everything that is just not that important. We each have a different definition for what is and isn’t important. For me, FB comments and Instagram likes are just not that important. Disable them. Turn off email notifications. There will be a happy number waiting for you in notifications when you finally get to the app.
And this naturally brings me back to email.
6. I unsubscribe from the 15% off Pottery Barn ads, the Hotwire deals, and the personal loan offers from the bank as they come in.
The amount of junk that clutters our inboxes wastes our (now self-limited – see #2, above) online time, but much of this waste is preventable. And how many of us think of the environmental consequences of servers running all the time? The amount of electricity needed to cool these servers is tremendous and requires subsequently large amounts of fossil fuels to be burned, contributing to climate change.
And now my screen time is at an end, so I leave you with the question:
What do you do to stay present in a world of technology?
If it’s worth using your internet time, please join the discussion! 🙂