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C-app-e Diem: It’s Time To Re-take Control Of Your Tech Use

Could a healthier, happier you be just an “off” button away?

Digital Detox, Mobile Mindfulness, Time Well Spent….

Whatever name you know it by, you can’t fail to have noticed the increasing concern about just how much we all now rely on our digital devices – and in particular our phones – in almost everything we do. 

They’re with us constantly at our side all day, ready to entertain us, help us do our jobs, connect us with friends, keep us updated on the news, answer our questions, or just offer up a thousand ways to waste time. 

We decided it was time to go ‘under the hood’ of our tech usage.  Are we ‘hooked’ on our digital devices?  If so, why, what role do the tech companies play, and what effect is it having on us?  And when all is said and done, what can and should we do about it? 

And just to reassure you before you read on – the morale of this story won’t be that you need to throw your phone in the river and live off-grid for the next 10 years.  This isn’t about abandoning technology, going ‘cold turkey’ or trying to turn the clock back to 1984 – it’s about taking back control.

[before we start, yes, we do realize that there’s a certain irony in the fact that you’re probably reading this on a digital device.  If it helps, print it out, read it, and then recycle the paper!]

Getting started: give yourself a digital health-check

Do you panic if your phone battery dies?  Do you feel ‘naked’ without your phone?  Do you check your phone as soon as you wake up?  Do you feel less good about yourself after using social media?  Do you struggle to make it to the end of a movie or newspaper story without checking your phone?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, it could be time to reassess how much you’re using your digital devices.  In fact, even if you don’t check all these boxes, you might still be surprised just how much often you end up turning to your phone.

Here’s a quick test.  List all the devices you own, and then when and for what you use each one in a typical day (your phones probably has a feature showing you a full log of your daily usage).

What does it add up to?  Four hours?  Six?  Eight?  More?  And how much of that was things that were necessary (say, for work) or genuinely gave you pleasure? How much was – bluntly –wasting time?

You’re not alone – In a 2017 Deloitte survey, 40% of Americans said they checked their phone within five minutes of getting up (9 in 10 did so within an hour).  Other studies have found that two-thirds of thirtysomethings use their phone for at least five hours every day .  

Surprising?  Not really.  Digital devices provide all manner of useful or entertaining functions that help us go about our daily lives.  And that utility means that they have become the default way to solve a problem, communicate with friends, or entertain ourselves (remember Apple’s “there’s an app for that” slogan?).  So it’s no surprise that – day and night – they’re often the first thing we turn to.

Back again so soon? How apps keep us coming back for more.

But did you know that that ‘addictiveness’ is also built into the apps themselves, and in more subtle (and brutally effective) ways than you might imagine?  There’s even a name for it – behavior design – and it seems that half of Silicon Valley’s techpreneurs learned about it together at Stanford.

Perhaps the most notoriously ‘addictive’ feature of apps are push notifications – the alerts that tell you that you have a new message or that your friends have posted something new on Instagram. 

A 2017 study by Urban Airship found that, simply by sending out a weekly push notification, apps could double their retention of iOS users.  For Android devices?  A six-fold increase.  And as most apps’ default setting is to notify you about everything, the chances are you’re getting much more than one nudge a week

And once you’re in the app, the tricks to keep you there continue. 

The time-limited, targeted Instagram stories might have disappeared the next time we come back.  The infinitely-scrolling Facebook feeds that mean we never reach the ‘end of the page’. YouTube’s autoplay feature that actually make it more effort to stop watching than to continue, the way Tinder encourages us to swipe one more time, in the hope this will be the one that reveals the love of our lives. The trick may change, but the aim is the same: to keep us on the platform.

The good news is that simply being aware of these ‘tricks’ and understanding our response to them means we’re better able to ‘push back’ and make the changes needed to control our tech use.  But more on that later: first, let’s look at the effect your current tech habit might be having.

Killer apps? The effects of tech overuse on your health

We don’t want to draw too strong a parallel between overuse of technology and – say – addiction to drugs or alcohol.  It risks trivialising the latter and underplaying the extent to which we have control over our tech use.  Nevertheless, the potential negative health effects of our tech habit are quite startling.  Various studies in recent years have linked excessive use of digital devices to, among other things:

  • Increased risk of depression, anxiety or impulsive behaviour, particularly in children and young adults.
  • Reduced physical fitness and increased likelihood of obesity due to the sedentary nature of much of our technology use – if you’re scrolling through Instagram, you’re probably not out jogging (and if you are, put your phone away and look where you’re going!)
  • Interrupted sleep – light at night interrupts the circadian rhythms that tell your body when it’s time to sleep.  And the blue light from the LEDs in your smartphone is particularly bad.  In the 2017 Deloitte study, over 40% of people used their smartphone at some point in the middle of the night – and it doesn’t take a scientist to know that if you’re busy texting you’re probably less likely to fall back to sleep.
  • The combination of blue light and staring at a screen for extending periods can also increase risks of tired or dry eyes (we tend to blink less when looking at a screen), blurred vision, headaches and – over time – short-sightedness
  • Social media use in particular has been associated with a reduction in self-esteem. It’s perhaps little surprise that seeing lots of (often edited) pictures of people “living their best life” – particularly when they are friends or peers – can make us feel less good about our own: one 2014 study by UK charity Scope found over 60% of people felt inadequate after using social media.
  • Developing neck, shoulder and back problems or poor posture from the increased strain of constantly looking down at a screen – so-called tech neck.

This isn’t to suggest of course, that everyone who uses a phone will suffer from depression, anxiety or some other illness.  Not all people are the same (some will have a greater underlying disposition to certain illnesses).

And not all tech use is the same – as we’ve already touched on, technology and social media can actually have positive effects.  An app might remind us to go for a run, or social media might help reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation. 

But the fact remains, we need to take care.  And in truth, even if none of these risks existed, there are still all sorts of positive reasons to step away from the screen. 

Better off: The benefits of taking back control of your smartphone use

Here’s just a few:

  • Your personal relationships will benefit:  Social media and messaging apps help connect us with people.  Of course they do.  It’s their essential function. 

But often, the way we’re using them can also reduce the quality of those interactions.  Clearly, if you’re scrolling through tweets from people you barely know, you’re probably missing a chance to talk with the people that matter – your colleagues, your family or your partner. But it goes further than this 

We’ve all been in a conversation when the other person’s phone buzzes and you instantly see that they’re no longer present in the conversation (we might have even been that person once or twice).  And we’ve probably all sent a generic (and possibly auto-generated) “Happy birthday” message to someone who we would in the past probably have at least called.  And if there’s a bigger mood-killer when you’re trying to be intimate with your partner than their phone buzzing, or them accidentally triggering Siri on their iPhone or Smartwatch, we’ve yet to find one.

  • You’ll be more productive: For many people, this will be the big one. To say that the fewer distractions you have, the more likely you are to get stuff done is hardly breaking news.  But just how distracting something like push notifications are might surprise you: reportedly, just knowing you have an unread email – even if you don’t check it – can cut your effective IQ by 10 points

Add to that that more tech use typically means more multi-tasking (almost 9 in 10 Americans in their twenties said they use two or more devices simultaneously), which has been shown to be less efficient than focusing on just one thing, and cutting back becomes a productivity no-brainer.  And that’s even before you factor in the benefits for your productivity and ability to concentrate of having slept better…!

  • It’ll help you be more creative and better at problem solving : The phrase “take a step back” doesn’t come from nowhere – it represents the idea that, if we’re buried deep in a problem, we find it much harder to spot connections, to see the bigger picture and get perspective. It’s the same reason why ‘sleeping on it’ can often help us find a way through a seemingly impossible problem. 

But if we’re constantly ‘online’ and bombarding our brains with new information, we lose that opportunity to reflect and chew a problem over.

  • You’ll free up time for other activities:  Even if you use digital devices no more than the average person (so around 4 or 5 hours a day) – and even if three-quarters of that is important or actively beneficial – that still leaves an hour or more that you’ve just “won back.” 

And then comes the fun part – deciding what to do with that reclaimed time.  Go for a run, meet a friend for coffee, read a book, practise an instrument, meditate –even just go to sleep.  It doesn’t matter what it is (indeed, it could literally be doing nothing), the point is that you’re making a positive choice to do something that you know will do you good. 

Ctrl + Shift + End: How to re-take control of your tech use

Much of what we’ve said so far may be familiar.  Indeed, according to a Deloitte survey last year, around two-thirds of us say we’re trying to limit their smartphone usage.  And yet only about half successfully cut back. 

So how can you make sure you’re in the successful half?  What small changes can you make to re-take control of your usage – and keep it that way?

Well before you jump into thinking about what changes to make, stop.  Instead, to think about why you are making the change.  Be specific – don’t just say “to have more time” or “to feel better” – instead, think in terms of specific goals, or a clear picture of what “success will look like.” 

Doing this will not only help motivate you to change your habits – and avoid falling back into old ways – it’ll also help you to focus on where you most need to make changes. 

Once you know your destination, you can work out how you’ll get there.  Here are easy ways to start yourself on the path to regaining control.

  1. Switch off push notifications, particularly for social media apps – you’ve seen the stats –  the real question is why you haven’t killed them already!  Another option is to delete apps so that you have to go via the browser instead.
  2. Leave your phone in one place when at home, rather than carrying it around – if you want to use it, you have to go to it.
  3. Keep devices out of the bedroom, and get yourself a regular alarm clock – you’ll sleep better, and there’s no risk of Alexa (or random Apple contractors) eavesdropping on your cutesy pillow talk (“Playing: Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”…)
  4. Designate certain ‘unplugged hours’ – it could be an hour, a day, or even a whole weekend. You can even get a helping hand from your phone: most now come with the option to disable apps between certain times.  

If it’s just a short blackout period, make it the times when you might previously have reached for your phone even though you didn’t need to – while you’re eating breakfast, while you’re commuting, or in the hour before you go to bed.  

One quick tip: if you’re going completely off grid for long periods, let someone know – otherwise you’ll be coming come back online to 30 panicked voice mails from your mom…!

  • Where possible try to avoid looking at bright screens less than two hours before you go to bed, or at least activate your devices blue light filter or switch it to grayscale/dark mode.
  • On a night out with friends, agree that only one of you brings their phone (so you can still get that Uber home). Or that the first person to check their phone during dinner has to pay for everyone’s meal.
  • Get yourself a ‘dumb phone’ that does little more than voice calls, and use it to go ‘tech-free’ during those times when still need to be contactable in emergencies (for older readers, think of it as a 21st century pager!).
  • Don’t use your personal phone for work emails – all this does is cause work to invade the moments when you’re supposed to be ‘off the clock’, add to the ‘digital noise’ from your phone and blur the line even more between important and trivial messages.
  • Think of something you used to do, or would like to do more of – and use your ‘unplugged hours’ to do that instead.  Exercise is a great one, but it could just as easily be cooking, playing an instrument, reading a (real) book or seeing a friend for coffee.
  • Leave your phone at home when going on vacation – it sounds weird (maybe even scary), but you’ll likely experience more while you’re away and feel more refreshed when you get back.

Some of these might just be things you do for a few days, others might become second nature.  And of course, it’s not an exhaustive list.  Use it as inspiration. 

Finally, we’ll say it again – this isn’t necessarily about going cold-turkey or swearing off technology altogether.  The idea is to shake things up and work out which bits of your “online life” you really need or value, and which you might be better off without.

Yes, part of the solution might be to remove temptations or put obstacles of reaching for your phone.  But fundamentally, it’s about breaking the default that we’ve all slipped into, and being more mindful of how and when we use our digital devices, the effect it has, and the things we could be doing instead.

And with that, we’re switching to Standby …