It is my job to be connected. All day, I am at my computer or smartphone answering emails, managing social media accounts, and keeping up with current events. I know that this can’t be good for my wellbeing and sense of calm, but I have to do, well, my job. How can I create a healthy balance between my digital self and my real-world self?
Always on Call
Dear Always on Call,
Thank you for writing in with a question that I think is on the minds of so many of us. It seems that we have become increasingly connected digitally, but, unfortunately, at the cost of being real-world connected. This predicament applies both to the connection we have with ourselves and others. From my professional experience working with clients and based on a recent survey, I do know that you are not alone in your experience.
A 2017 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) states that 86 percent of American adults report that they are “constantly or often checking their email, texts, and social media accounts.” The authors of the APA article associated this kind of incessant use to higher levels of stress among these adults. They’ve dubbed this type of technology user the “constant checker.” The constant checkers outscored those who report less technology use by almost a full point on a 10-point stress scale (5.3 vs. 4.4). Those who are constant checkers of work emails on their days off report their stress level at 6.0, where a score of 10 represents “a great deal of stress.”
It is well established that higher stress levels have adverse health consequences. There is growing discussion in psychological literature concerning “Internet Addiction,” “Problematic Internet Use,” and “Internet Gaming Disorder.” These concerns are considered worthy of further study by many mental health professionals. Therefore, you are right to be seeking out a healthy balance!
Here are four strategies, based on existing psychological literature, for addressing the unwholesome use of technology. Interestingly, much of the research focuses on youth and young adults from many geographical regions. In my clinical work, this topic does come up, especially with concerned parents who are struggling to manage their child’s excessive gaming. It also comes up with adults. These ideas stem from the limited scope of research that mostly concentrates on younger folks. Nevertheless, the skills presented here are useful for all.
1. Practice self-awareness and self-monitoring.
These skills include increasing self-awareness and self-monitoring, setting limits and boundaries, examining the utility of tech in specific contexts and its related limitations, and coming up with alternative actions or activities that can help curtail overuse.
Mindfulness and meditation are effective strategies for increasing your self-awareness and self-monitoring. For example, by definition, mindfulness asks one to be present in the moment and non-judgmentally attentive to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. By increasing your sense of self-awareness, you will be more attuned to when you feel that it is time to put the devices away. Honor your feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, and separateness from real-world life.
Self-monitoring refers to our sense of how others perceive our behaviors. The topic of self-monitoring may connect to your experience if your use of tech is impairing your ability to attune to social situations. I have experienced no shortage of instances where folks (and, admittedly, myself at times) are glued to their phones while walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, or holding up the line at the grocery store. Technology has indeed created a sense of separateness in these situations, where what’s happening on the phone seems more interesting than the fantastic blooming of real-world life that is always happening and unfolding around us.
In these instances, we have to try our best to notice when the technology has pulled us away from reality, and force ourselves to come back. This kind of attention wandering is a very similar process as in meditation, where we learn to notice when our mind goes off, and then we come back.
2. Set limits and boundaries.
Setting limits and boundaries about usage is a straightforward strategy, but very difficult to implement. Therefore, you have to do your best to determine what is the threshold for healthy and balanced use for you on a given day. Ask yourself what is a reasonable amount of time to allocate to checking your devices throughout the day? Can you establish set increments of time at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, and then not allow specific tech usage outside of those times? Set usage goals and incorporate these kinds of time-management methods into your day.
In the same way, schedule stress management strategies. Determine how you can incorporate stress reduction methods into your day to interrupt your technology usage. You can consider inserting periods of mindfulness meditation into your day, going to a yoga class, or spending time outside as a way to disrupt the tech usage. You may find that regular meditation and yoga practice starts to create a balance for you.
3. Ask yourself what are the pros & cons.
If you are having a hard time making changes, it may be motivating for you to figure out what are the benefits of maintaining your current usage level and what are the costs? Think about what you are likely compromising about your overall health and well-being by ignoring your call for balance. Remember that stress is costly in the long run and now is the only time you have to initiate positive change and transformation.
4. Identify alternative choices.
Examine your workload and determine what, if any of these tasks, may you be able to complete without the use of tech devices. For example, can you use old-fashioned pen and paper to complete specific tasks when you feel that you have logged too much screen time? You can always type up your paper notes later, or perhaps you can use dictation software that can transcribe your voice rather than you having to stare at the screen while you type. See if there is any way that you can break up the screen time with alternative methods for task completion. Do your best to limit usage of tech devices to only necessary tasks and do not forget how beautiful and unique the real-world is.
Thank you again for bringing this question to light. I know many others will benefit from this exploration of such a timely topic. I wish you the best on your journey back to your “real-world self.”