“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master” – does that saying resonate with you? Do you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through social media sites or apps? Are you overwhelmed by all the emails that clutter up your inbox? Do you claim to not have enough time to pursue big goals or to relax and unwind? Well my friend, you may be due a digital detox!
1. Be mindful of the effects your habits have on you
Next time you turn to your phone for a temporary distraction or gaze at your overflowing inbox, ask yourself this: how do I feel? Do I feel jealous of people who look happier, prettier, richer, slimmer, fitter (etc.) than me on their filtered photos? Do I feel overwhelmed by all I have to do – and every time I reply to an email it just keeps coming? Does all this time spent consuming digital information make me feel inefficient and inadequate?
Be mindful of how you feel when you are looking at screens, and use this awareness to guide your efforts to detox your life. Think about how you feel now and how you would rather feel, then read on for actionable strategies to calm the madness.
2. Check once, action, sweep, relax
A sin many of us commit in the workplace (and sometimes take home!) is fragmenting our focus. We arrive at the office, open our inbox (and many other things), get a bit anxious scrolling down the list of emails, leave the inbox open, start working on something, pop back over to the inbox when the task at hand gets stressful, go back to the task when we’re not sure what to do with an email, then ping! a little notification says that we have a new email – let’s see what it is – hmm what was I doing again? We continue on this rhythm and then are surprised that we don’t accomplish what we set out to do that day. Witnessing other people doing this drives me bananas!
The answer is simple: stop the madness! Stop checking your emails every other minute and focus on what moves you / your organisation forward. Block out times in your schedule for catching up with emails and go through the incoming messages once at that time. Start at the bottom of your inbox (or of your “focused” inbox if you have one) and do one of the following things (don’t just skim through an email, then leave it as unread, niggling away at your sanity!):
- Reply: if it takes less than a couple minutes to do whatever is asked of you – just do it and move on;
- Forward the email to a relevant person and ask them what to do;
- If you’re just cced in and there’s no action required on your part, read it, mark it as read and move on;
- If someone is asking you for something that you want/have to do, but that will take quite a bit of effort: add it as a task in your task management system (I use Todoist), e.g. “send draft comms plan to Sandra”, to do later;
- Sweep – I love this option with my hotmail inbox: it allows you to archive or delete all messages from the same sender. This is particularly useful with newsletters that can pile up in your inbox. I sweep and archive mine away to enjoy a quickly decluttered inbox, without worrying that I deleted something important (archived items show up in searches);
- Unsubscribe: if whatever it is that you are receiving isn’t bringing you joy or a tangible benefit, unsubscribe and sweep the remaining emails away.
I strive to only look at my emails on workdays, and I deal with my “other” emails (mainly newsletters and various alerts) in one batch on Tuesdays. Find a system that works for you and try to stick to it!
3. Streamline your attention
The methods above solve your inbox issues if used regularly, but what about your pinging phone? This is easy – turn off all distracting notifications. If you don’t know where to start, leave your phone for an hour or more (!) and see how many useless notifications have piled up. Chances are, you don’t need to be notified in real time that someone has liked your Instagram picture, re-pinned something you shared or commented on the same video as you.
Many of us are addicted to our phones and to social media, so this can be tough, but you will thank me later. Being an early 90s kid, I can remember a world without smartphones and I reckon that having technology distracting us all the time ruins our ability to focus and can also damage our relationships. If you want to learn more about the issues caused by these distractions and about the importance of focused work, you can read this book (on my to-read list ahead of my PhD) or listen to this podcast.
4. Go cold turkey
I’m not suggesting that you throw all your devices away and retreat to a cave, but here are a few ideas to try out:
- Leave your phone at home when you go for a walk – take in the sights and sounds without looking at your screen for what other people are doing;
- Turn your phone off – or at least keep it in your bag / pocket – when on a date or spending time with family and friends. Scrolling up and down newsfeeds is not only a turnoff, but also a waste of time and disrespectful to the people you are with. Apply the “no phones at the table” rule and see if it’s easier to unwind and enjoy a meal or a card game with loved ones;
- Take a few days off: if you’re on holiday, leave your computer at home, turn roaming off and enjoy several days without emails or notifications. If you want to try something on a smaller scale, have a week without newsfeeds: no scrolling up Facebook / Pinterest / Instagram, etc.;
- Keep the Internet turned off in the morning: maybe while you do your “miracle morning” or until your most important tasks for the day are achieved – you might surprise yourself with how serene and productive you feel!
5. Replace the distractions with something positive
All of this advice might feel like you are taking something out of the equation, but not getting anything for it. Decluttering your digital habits may seem difficult, which is why it helps to adopt new healthier habits to make the transition more pleasurable.
- Read more: many people feel like they don’t have time to read, but once you reduce the time you spend mindlessly staring at screens, a lot of time magically appears! Start by carrying a book around with you and fitting in a few pages throughout the day; you could also aim for a chapter in the morning or before bed. If you want accountability, set yourself a reading target for the year on Goodreads;
- Choose to produce rather than consume: if you’ve always wanted to write or draw or anything else, start doing a little bit every day – even 5 minutes a day will add up!
- Try to get more fresh air: hopefully by taking a break from screens you have created little pockets of time that you can use to stroll or exercise.
This post is as much an attempt to help others tame the madness as it is a reminder for me when my bad habits creep back in. Now, if you’ve implemented all the recommendations: loop back to step number 1 and tell me how you feel!