Is screen time taking the glow out of our lives?
I was out to breakfast recently with my family, and we have an active 2-year-old. As I got her settled in her chair, I pulled out her crayons, colouring books, and assorted toys, trying to decide what she might want to eat. We looked around the colourfully decorated room, shaped like an igloo, and Lucy immediately noticed the green tinsel hanging from the windows. We talked about all of the various decorations for another 10 minutes - the kid notices everything! As my eyes scanned the room, I noticed something eerily quiet in the corner - a family of four in silence, each and every one of them focused on some type of screen. I watched them on and off throughout breakfast, and not once did they look at each other, only at their screens, and eventually at the meals placed in front of them.
This type of scene plays out for many folks in many restaurants on many nights. Last week I gave a presentation in Utah, and I decided to grab a bite when I was done. I sat next to a couple who spent more than 30 minutes without talking to each other, again, focused on their phones. Screen time has become our default. Waiting for your flight? Pull out your phone. Waiting for your friends to arrive and feeling bored? Look at your phone. Not enough stimulation in the meeting you're attending? Reach for your phone. Cal Newport, author and professor of computer science at Georgetown, hopes to usher in a new era called Digital Minimalism, a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time in a small number of carefully selected activities that strongly support the things you value.
When I talk to lawyers about the challenges they face in the profession today, without question one of the biggest issues they cite is technology. New technologies are and will continue to revolutionise the profession, but they complain more about the fact that they just can't get away from it. They wait for the e-mail from a client at 2am, fearful that a delayed response will look bad.
In his wonderful book, Irresistible, NYU Stern School of Business professor Adam Alter summarises the research about the irresistible urge to use technology, and the businesses that spend millions of dollars to keep you hooked. Guidelines suggest that you should spend less than an hour a day on our phones, yet research shows that only 12 per cent of phone users meet that criteria - that means 88 per cent of people overuse, with the overall average being three hours. Alter goes on to detail a survey of young adults that revealed that 46 per cent of them said they would rather break a bone than break their phone - and many of the 54 per cent who said they'd rather have a broken phone agonised about that decision.
E-mail is one of the biggest job demands (aspects of your work that take consistent effort and energy) busy professionals have today, and I consistently hear this in my presentations about burnout at work. According to one survey, "Almost one-third of US workers report replying within 15 minutes of receiving a work e-mail, and more than three-fourths reply within an hour."
When you are at work, constantly toggling between checking e-mail and doing other work activities taxes your mental and emotional capacities. The very act of switching between tasks takes mental effort, which in turn limits your cognitive capacity, and the result is more distraction and stress. In addition, frequent multitasking often results in worse performance across all tasks and can compromise emotional well-being, leading to less positivity.
Try setting aside a dedicated chunk of time several times each day where you do nothing but answer e-mail. Once that time is up, move on to something else. I started doing this when I'm in my office, and it has helped my concentration immensely (especially when it comes to focused tasks like writing this article). Download 'Moment'. If you're really interested in tracking how much time you spend on your phone, download an app called Moment. Most people underestimate their phone usage by about 50 per cent. Not all phone use is created equal - Moment actually stops tracking the time if you're using your phone to make a call or listen to music.
Use the "butt-brush" effect: The "butt-brush" effect is an example of a stopping rule - a cue in your environment that gets you to stop something. In the 1990s, psychologist Paco Underhill was asked by shopping store owners to help them identify why people suddenly stopped shopping. Underhill noticed that when strangers brushed up against each other, they left the store. The shoppers couldn't explain their behaviour, but the "butt brush" served as a cue to stop shopping and move onto something else. What is a cue you can use to stop scrolling through social media, for example?
Try breaking the habit. This may be hard, but there is a specific process you can use. If you want to break a habit, the trick is to keep the cue and the reward the same, but change the routine. For example, if you want to break the habit of mindlessly checking your phone, figure out your habit loop: I get bored (the cue), start checking fantasy football scores (the routine), then my body relaxes (the reward). Now change the routine: when you get bored, instead of reaching for your phone, pull out a magazine or book, crochet, or make dinner.
Technology isn't going away, and when used correctly, it has the ability to make our lives easier and support the values we hold dear. It's important for us to make sure we're using it to its highest and best use.
Paula Davis-Laack is a stress management and work/life performance expert
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