Just after Dana Hanna took a solemn vow to love and cherish his new wife for the rest of his life, he took out his phone, updated his relationship status on Facebook and tweeted a wedding announcement.
These are unprecedented times. As a society, we are hurtling headlong towards ever greater digital dependence, and there’s no road map. The embedding of technology in our bodies is not far off, but for the time being, we can keep our smartphones and other devices constantly at hand, and be online at any time of day or night.
The advantages to this are clear and multiple – we’re connected, informed, challenged and entertained like never before. Our voices can have a reach unimaginable to our forebears. Accessing the thoughts of the world’s most original thinkers, starting innovative new businesses and finding the answer to almost any question in seconds is now commonplace.
But, as we know, this comes at a cost.
The dopamine-fuelled draw of our devices is a significant, even addictive one, and it pulls us away from real human interaction.
Do you ever find yourself in a conversation, listening, smiling and nodding and desperate to check the response to something you’ve just posted – or is that just me? Ironically, the person speaking is probably no different from the people whose likes, retweets and comments I’m so interested in online. Those people are in turn – quite possibly – ignoring the people they’re with to read what I just posted.
Digital dependence can compromise and diminish us. Here’s why:
- Our performance dips. When we switch quickly between screens, sites or platforms online rather than focusing on one task we may feel productive, but evidence suggests the opposite. Researchers at the University of London found that subjects who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced the same IQ score decline as those who had stayed up all night or been smoking marijuana.
- Our focus is fragmented. I frequently coach time-pressured people who admit to checking their phones in meetings; I also catch myself doing it. By dipping in and out in this way we are a) less likely to contribute as effectively to the meeting’s objectives, and b) unable to give due attention to the communications we’re scanning. Physically present, we can find ourselves mentally short-changing both the people we’re with and those with whom we’re connecting online.
- Our creativity is stifled. The stimulation of other people’s ideas is valuable, but to nurture our own creativity we need time offline. In the fast, shiny online world our own vision gets blurred. In my experience creativity is like drawing from a well whose water needs to filter, collect and sit for a while before being tapped.
- Our real-life relationships suffer. In the middle of a conversation a phone vibrates, pings, lights up and its owner reaches for it instinctively, ignoring the person they are with to give their attention away cheaply. Do this too often and you make the people you care for feel unseen, undervalued, unloved. I want my children’s memory of me to be my eyes and smile as I looked at them, not my forehead as I looked down at a screen.
- Our mental health is affected. It’s hard to deal with constant exposure to the violence and threats that feature so often in the news. Without realising it, we can begin abdicating responsibility for how we think. In her classic work, Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers wrote that our internal voice often “heralds doom, lack and losing”, and I think this is also true of the news.
- We define ourselves by the wrong measures. Our resilience is eroded when we base our self esteem on the online response we generate. Don’t let your sense of self be dependent upon what a disparate and distracted digital world might say – or omit to say – about you.
- We binge but feel empty. There’s a familiar, nebulous feeling of dissatisfaction when we’ve surfed a thousand surfaces and bounced off them without really connecting. Maybe we’re just killing time, chasing one link on to the next, or keen not to miss out, but the effect of directionless surfing can be like the quick spike of a sugar high followed by the crash.
- Great things go undone. When we become dependent on a regular digital hit we go shallow, across a scattering of platforms, quick-reads and soundbites. This is not the stuff of which master works are made. Think in terms of legacy – do you want to produce something that lasts, that is so good it lives on past you? Allow yourself the time to weigh, consider, reflect, develop, review – offline.
So, given the strength of the draw our devices exert on us, how do we go about living well in a digital world?
The key, I believe, is to re-assert our independence and put our devices in their place by setting and keeping intentional boundaries.
Here are my tips for pushing through your digital detox:
- Expect it to hurt. Don’t go into it halfheartedly. It’s called ‘detox’ for a reason.
- Break the challenge down. Start by designating one 30-minute period a day to switch off your phone, wifi and internet connection. Make use of the apps designed to help with this.
- Invest in an alarm clock and don’t use your phone as your morning alarm. Keep it out of your sleeping zone and give yourself a simpler transition as you fall asleep and wake up.
- Turn a negative – ‘I’m not going to check my phone’ – into a positive – ‘I’m going to focus fully on the situation I’m in and the people I’m with’. Practise being present.
- Rediscover the ancient rhythms of work and rest. Work hard when you are working. But apply the same clarity and definition to your allocated rest time; I take a day a week for this. Your rest will be more valuable for it.
- Bring structure to your detox. I have recently started using a 9-part grid, a modified version of the grid Susan Jeffers describes in her book cited above. By clearly identifying and focusing on nine areas in my life: contribution, exercise, leisure and hobbies, my wife, family, friends, higher self, work and personal growth, I can work on being present to the areas of my life where I want to make the most positive impact.
- Kickstart your detox by going on a retreat. A friend of mine recently spent two weeks in the wilderness on a no-technology retreat. Much of this was solo. If that’s a bit much for you, start with a seasonal retreat lasting just a few hours, such as those led by Brian Draper.
Ships in harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.
Detox can feel risky, but by reintroducing structure to our digital lives we can be deliberate rather than become distracted. We can prioritise coherence over fragmentation, depth over shallowness, freedom over dependence. I know the results will be worth it.
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