Recently, I had tea with a colleague. I was astonished at how unaware he was about glancing at his phone. No fewer than eight(!) times during our meeting, he checked texts, e-mail, and voice mail.
Twice he checked for incoming calls that weren’t there. It was Phantom Vibration Syndrome: when you don’t have an incoming call, but you hear the ring or feel the vibration anyway, and feel compelled to check. (Honest. It’s a thing.)
I felt a lot of compassion for this person, because I felt like technology is running his life instead of the other way around. It made me wonder about my own digital manners. It’s something I think about a lot, because I know I’m happier when I’m not tethered to tech.
Very few of us are exempt from the siren call of the screen. The big question is whether or not we have the capacity to consciously unplug. When we lose that capacity, we also lose our ability to focus on a single task. In psychologist Larry Rosen’s book iDisorder, he explains how multitasking is a myth and how we are losing our ability to concentrate.
You may be able to do a lot of things at once, but in truth, the cerebral cortex can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Rather than doing several things simultaneously, multitasking really means rapidly switching attention from task to task. You get the illusion of doing many things at once and wind up not doing any of them as well as you could. The brain is on overload and the mind is distracted.
One of the best ways to re-harness executive control is to implement specific boundaries around tech. One that has worked exceptionally well for me is confining tablet usage to entertainment and learning. That means no e-mail, messaging, or other external distractions on the tablet other than what I’m watching or reading. When I implemented this boundary, my nervous system breathed a sigh of relief — not to mention how much more I happily lose myself in whatever book or video I’m enjoying.
There’s no question that our use of technology has changed, and continues to change, our brains. While a lot of the news is negative, it’s not all bad. The brain has much plasticity, and we can learn new habits — including wisely managing how we use tech.
Here, then, are five suggestions for ways we can stay connected while keeping our brains healthy.
Start the day tech-free. When you awake, give yourself a window of time before checking technology. If powering on your phone is the first thing you do when you wake up, don’t! At first, this may seem more challenging than you’d think. That in itself is pretty interesting. Notice it. Are you running the show, or is your phone? I encourage you to honor the first moments of the day without e-mail, news, or other digital distractions. The amount of time is up to you. I’ve worked with clients who spend 3-10 minutes meditating. I’ve worked with others who spend the first 45 minutes to an hour of their day exercising, journaling, or doing a longer meditation. Without exception — and without technology — they feel more focused and ready to hit the ground running because they’ve given their mind/body sacred, undistracted time.
Witness and resist multitasking. Prioritize your work and focus on one thing at a time. Turn off e-mail notifications. Allocate designated times for e-mailing and texting — mid-morning, mid-afternoon, end of day — to minimize constant interruptions. The rest of the time give your full attention to the task at hand. Notice when your attention splinters and make a note to return to an item later, rather than multitask. Your efficiency is likely to skyrocket.
Limit time on social networks. Along with my suggestion of banishing social media, texting, and e-mail from your tablet if you own one, establish a set number of minutes per day for social media on your phone and computer, and stick to it. When a client chose to give herself two 15-minute breaks for Instagram each day, it became fun again, not another relentless “obligation.” Choose one weekend day to ignore social media completely.
Look at and spend time in nature (pictures count) and leave the tech behind. Scientists have found that taking a nature break can decrease stress and increase the brain’s ability to process information. Pay attention to what your senses enjoy most. I particularly love the smell and sound of the ocean. When I can’t get away for a short walk, I take a moment to enjoy the screensaver below of a breathtaking landscape I took when visiting Iceland.
Meditate. The practice of meditation offers us the perspective to witness and tame our monkey mind so we can show up in the present. If you’re still unsure of meditation’s ability to affect your heart, brain, and creativity, check out this entertaining TED Talk by Andy Puddicombe. Meditation comes in many flavors and finding the type of practice that works best for you sometimes requires experimentation or skilled guidance. Popular apps include Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. I like to think of the apps as training wheels for meditation. Once you get the hang of it, leave the tech behind.
When we walk away from all of our devices and unplug, we have the opportunity and the joy of being deeply and richly present with ourselves and the world.