I had a dentist appointment this morning. I know, nothing too exciting about that, but the assistant got me in to exam room right away and then I had to wait for the doctor. I reached into my purse for my cell phone to kill time, only to realize I’d left my phone in the car. I felt vaguely annoyed that I had “nothing to do” while I waited – no social media to review, no work to check on, no emails to return, no book to read. I even debated excusing myself to go get my cell and then, thankfully, realized how ridiculous and rude that would be. So I sighed and stared out the window across from the exam chair. Outside the window was a winterscape since the area just got a fresh coating of snow a few days earlier. Snow clung to each branch and as the sun hit the branches, they sparkled with the layer of ice that had followed the snow. The dental team was also brilliant because they placed bird feeders outside the window. I got to see a cardinal, a blue jay, and a bunch of other birds that I didn’t recognize but which were filled with color and movement. As I watched, it occurred to me to practice the yoga breath that I did in the classes I attended, but somehow regularly forget to continue during my days. I incorporated my mantra – “inhale peace, exhale strife” – as I breathed, as I watched, as I stopped thinking. I’m not sure how long it was before the dentist came in, but I was a little disappointed when he did.
Can you relate to that initial reaction I had regarding my cell phone? We are so accustomed to having distraction with us at all times. According to a recent American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America™ survey, 81 percent of Americans report they are constantly or often connected to at least one technological device, and 18 percent of adults describe technology as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. The challenge is that technology also provides us with the opportunities to be more flexible and more productive when it comes to getting things done. We excuse the amount of time we are “plugged in” by how much we accomplish, whether it is responding to work emails, keeping track of our ever-changing calendar, being accessible via text/call/email/social media at all times, submitting our shopping list for pick up later, recording our daily exercise, or any of the other ways we use our phones, laptops, or smart watches. So while the same Stress in America survey found that 65 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly agree for the need to “unplug” to maintain mental health, only 28 percent actually do this. We don’t allow ourselves to just be in the moment because we have “so much to do”, or we don’t want to be bored. But it is in those moments of being and boredom that our mind can relax, and in relaxing we can foster creativity, peace and psychological health.
Now if you are one of those 28 percent who disconnect, GOOD FOR YOU! You have taken a very deliberate and healthful step for your optimal functioning. But, if you are like me and trying to make better choices regarding technology, here are some things to consider in this process. I like to remember these as NOW HERE:
- Nondigital people. Have you ever noticed a group of people at a restaurant, sitting at the same table, some on their phones and the others with their phones lined up alongside their utensils, within reach? While social media and technology have made is easier to connect with others, they’ve also become barriers to our standing-right-in-front-of-you interpersonal experiences. For the 44 percent of Americans who state they check their devices “often” or “constantly”, they also report feelings of disconnect with their families, even when they are together. I know it is just a “quick email” to send off, or “what if the kids need us”, or “let me just get back to this person”, but what do our actions of staring at a device, communicating to someone else, while someone we care about or love is right in front of us say to that other person? You know because, very likely, you’ve had the same done to you.
- Strategies: silence your devices when you are with others; find a location in your house to park your devices once you are home and only check them on schedules you’ve created (and which we’ll talk about in other points).
- Observation only. How many social media platforms are you on? Between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Snapchat (and there seem to be others developing monthly), you can lose hours each day scrolling and “liking”. Not only do you end up losing time, you might also begin to create unrealistic social comparisons between others’ lives and your own. Avoiding the “fakebook” trap is an essential part of positively utilizing social media.
- Strategies: schedule specific timeframes to review social media; develop a perspective of appreciating others’ posts as isolated snapshots of their lives which do not reflect their entire lives nor offer comparisons to your own.
- Worship your bed. You train your brain with routines. By only using your bed for sleep (or, if you have a partner, sex), your brain will come to associate bed with those 1-2 activities. It will learn that when you go to bed, it is time to start winding down. In addition, technology use before or in bed interferes with the quality of your sleep for two reasons. The first is the blue light from devices which interferes with the creation of melatonin, a hormone necessary for sleep. The second is your exposure to content which stimulates the brain. Whether an email, or a social media message, or the storyline of a show or movie, your thoughts can be triggered by the content and instead of beginning to relax, these activities rev the brain back up.
- Strategies: set your cell phone to its blue light filter; stop use of technology one hour before bedtime; remove TV from your bedroom; do not use your cell phone in bed; if you use your cell phone as an alarm clock, turn your volume off (your alarm function should still work) and place the phone across the room; do not use laptops in bed; remove your smart watch or at least shut off all notifications at night.
- Hands free. Actually what I’m really saying is technology free. We all know the dangers of using cell phones when driving and to support that, many states have laws requiring hands-free use of technology behind the wheel. This is certainly good in terms of safety, but not quite helpful with our mental health. With hands free, you are still able to avoid being in the moment by telling your phone to send texts or emails, or by calling someone. While that distraction might lead to driving errors, it definitely leads to you not fully enjoying or appreciating two areas: those things around you and those things inside of you. In terms of the former, taking care of your to-do list as your drive means you might miss the beautiful sunrise as you drive to work, or the puppy in the car next to you licking the window, or your child singing in the backseat. Now what about those things inside of you? Those are your thoughts. Driving gives you time to connect with your thoughts and I don’t necessarily mean your mental to-do list. This time gives you the opportunity to just think which we’ll talk about in the next point. Sometimes the mundane nature of driving allows us to just be in the moment, paying attention to all around us for safety and appreciation.
- Strategies: turn off the notifications on your phone and put your phone out of reach (the backseat or the trunk).
- Enjoy boredom. My sister, an incredible art teacher and future art director who has an intuitive sense about people, has a terrific saying, “It is only when you are bored that you truly figure out what you’re interested in.” In today’s world, there is little boredom. We always have access to games, or movies, or shows, or photos, or news, or music, or other people’s lives. We don’t want or take time to be bored and we are quickly becoming trained to avoid “doing nothing”. But without the down time, without quiet blocks of time, when do we allow ourselves time to truly breathe, to relax, to reflect? Without these moments, our brain doesn’t get to explore or imagine or create. We need time to let our thoughts wander and play, to consciously or subconsciously problem solve, create new ideas, imagine possibilities. None of this can happen if we constantly fill our brain with technologically-created content.
- Strategy: schedule time, every day, to unplug.
- Reject Pavlov. Are you familiar with this classic study? The one where the researcher would ring a bell, and the dog would automatically salivate? Many of us are conditioned by the notifications on our phones in the same way Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned by the bell. We hear a notification and we immediately pick up our phone or tap on our watches, click on our email or flip to our social media. Research has shown that when cell users turn off their notifications, they report lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity, and higher levels of productivity, social connectedness and feelings of psychological well-being. Think of it this way. If you had a friend who constantly and randomly interrupted your work day, family time or time with friends, you’d likely establish better boundaries with that friend, or get rid of the friend altogether. The why do we let our devices do just that?
- Strategies: selectively choose which notifications to leave on; create a schedule to determine what times during the day you will check your messages and for how long.
- Explain boundaries. If you plan to retrain yourself when it comes to technology, you likely will need to do the same for the people in your life. As a society, we have come to expect immediate gratification when it comes to communication. It always cracks me up when students will show frustration if I haven’t responded to their texts or emails within a few I don’t blame them; they’ve grown up in an “immediacy” world. What I can do is help them understand my boundaries: I don’t respond to messages after 5pm at night or on weekends, during the day I make every effort to respond to text messages within 24 hours and emails within 48 hours, and please be sure to sign your name to any communication so I know who I am talking to. The same is true for the people in your life. If your mom knows you will only respond to messages after work hours, then she won’t be texting you multiple times during the day to get a response. If your boss knows that you devote the weekends to your family, she won’t be waiting for your response to an email. And if your friends know that when you are with other people, their messages might remain on “red” because you are focusing on the people you are with, they won’t be offended. By sharing your plan, you manage expectations and reduce frustrations.
- Strategy: share your technology response plan with family, friends, co-workers, employees.
These seven considerations might take time to set up, and even more time to establish as habits. Maybe take one a week or one a month to put into practice. Within 7 weeks a minimum or less than one year maximum, you will be giving the gift of presence to yourself and to those you love. I doubt there is a better present than that.
Just a little something for your insight. – Dr. Robin