Never-ending news feeds and always-open email inboxes can be stress-inducing. Using your devices more deliberately may be the answer.
Have you ever opened your email inbox to check for one message and wound up so caught up in the onslaught of new messages that you forgot why you logged on in the first place? Have you ever ended up spending way more time than you planned checking your Twitter or Facebook feed? Does it happen all the time?
There’s research on both sides of the argument as to whether or not social media use contributes to or helps protect against stress. But many experts who study it agree that being more intentional about your virtual habits — and being more mindful about how much time you’re spending on your tech devices — is usually to your benefit.
Studies suggest, for example, that more intentional use of social networking websites (when you’re using it to strengthen personal relationships with people you know in real life) may benefit well-being, while using these online tools in a more passive, non-connection-forming way (“Facebook stalking” your ex, for instance) may not, according to a study review.
“If we’re looking at long-term ways to support our self-care efforts, then it’s even more important to look for ways to use technology in a more conscious, mindful way,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a business consultant based in Menlo Park, California, and author of The Distraction Addiction and Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
You don’t have to delete your social media accounts and go for days on end without looking at a screen, he explains. For most of us, that’s probably not even realistic considering work responsibilities — especially with many of us working from home at least some of the time now — and wanting to connect with friends and family we don’t live with.
It’s about being more mindful about when and why you’re reaching for your smartphone, laptop, or other devices, so you can be pickier about choosing to do so. “Focus on usage that makes you feel uplifted and informed, rather than seeing tech as some necessary evil or distraction habit,” Pang says.
It’s this kind of mindset shift that Jennifer Ashton, MD, chief medical correspondent for Good Morning America and ABC News, decided to try out for herself and write about in her book, The Self-Care Solution: A Year of Becoming Happier, Healthier, and Fitter — One Month at a Time. She felt like she was fighting against her devices, rather than them working for her, according to her book.
“Going off the grid entirely isn’t an option for me — ever,” she noted. “But when I began to think about my day-to-day tech consumption, I knew I had a problem. The worst of it was that I knew my phone was interfering with my personal relationships and preventing me from enjoying the moment, noticing my surroundings, and fully appreciating my food, family, and friends.”
Dr. Ashton spent a month focused on being more deliberate about when and how she used her digital devices. Here are some tips from her, Pang, and others about how to kick start your own habit of more mindfully using your digital devices:
- Become Aware of When and How You Use Your Devices
Any repeated behavior creates habit loops. For example, you likely follow the same sequence when brushing your teeth or making your morning coffee. They’re one way the brain automates actions to be more efficient, explains Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, who is based in Oakland, California.
But these loops can sometimes switch our behavior into autopilot mode. You might reach for your phone whenever you find yourself waiting in a line, check email before getting out of bed in the morning, or open Instagram whenever you get a notification. “Creating awareness of these automatic habits is helpful, even if you choose not to change anything,” says Dr. Breuning. “You’ll have a greater sense of control, just from being more conscious of your behavior.”
If it’s an option, take a single day “off” from checking your email, social media accounts, and using other devices; and simply notice what happens, Pang says. That’s when you’ll see how you’re really using your tech.
- Make a Plan
As you would with any behavior change — from starting a workout routine to changing up your meal prep — a solid first step is setting some specific intentions and goals, suggests Tanya Dalton, a productivity expert in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of The Joy of Missing Out.
“To create healthy boundaries and better habits, it’s always good to cultivate a deeper sense of purpose, and make a plan,” she says. “That’s what allows you to take ownership of how you’re spending your time.”
Your plan for more intentional tech use will probably look different from that of a friend’s or family member’s. What’s important is that it’s the right plan with the right goals for you. Maybe your plan includes a maximum amount of time you want to spend per day looking at a screen, or maybe it’s a matter of a certain number of “checks” of social media each day. “Do what makes you feel nourished, and change your usage when you stop feeling that way,” says Dalton.
- Use Tech to Control Your Tech
Consider apps that help you tame distractions, such as Freedom — which blocks all notifications and triggers “Do Not Disturb” mode on chat apps. Or try FocusMe, an app that lets you block specific sites or apps (like Facebook and Instagram) for certain periods of time. The app also allows you to set reminders for specific tasks and activities, like going for a walk or taking a mindfulness break.
And purposefully set up your phone to make it less distracting. Turn off notifications that might prompt you to open an app without thinking. Move app icons to the second page of your home screen, so they’re a little bit more difficult to navigate to and open. Try putting your phone on airplane mode during meals or when socializing.
- Think Differently
“Instead of seeing [your devices] as a hindrance to ‘real life,’ ask yourself: What do I want to learn?” Pang says. They’re tools that can increase creativity, boost social connections, streamline your workflow, and teach you new skills, he explains. Redefine how you think about technology: “What can I do today that will be made easier by using this tool? Focus on that, instead of aspects that are just killing time.”
And then use technology for those purposes.
- Prepare to Be Fidgety
Yes, you might find yourself at a loss for what to do when you’re not on your phone, as Ashton found when she started limiting her usage. In her book, she describes how setting a better, screen-free evening routine meant she had plenty of free time — and it actually made her feel uneasy at first.
“I felt out of sorts, like I wasn’t doing something that I should be,” she notes in her book. But after recognizing this newfound time, she quickly found ways to fill it that felt more rewarding: she logged more steps, she spent time with her kids, and practiced being more present.
The bottom line: Technology isn’t all good or all bad. It all comes down to how you feel when you’re using that tech, Pang says. Do you put your tech down feeling irritated and drained? Or are you energized and appreciative? Aim for the latter and you’ll be on the right track.
By Elizabeth Millard