Our devices are amazing when they’re used for things that matter: doing excellent work, facilitating relationships, aiding in connection, helping us stay organized, staying informed on important events and topics, keeping us entertained in moderation, etc. It’s not lost on me that I’m publishing this to a place to be read on screens and potentially accessed through a social media site.
Websites, social media, televisions, smartphones, and computers can be great things.
When devices and applications suck us in and act as barriers to meaningful progress, however, they become problematic. Ultimately, we have the agency to resist the temptation to overindulge in our screens. The responsibility lies, at least mostly, with us. But we also know the companies making our devices and the services they provide want us to spend as much time as possible using them.
How do we love our digital tools for their value and resist them for their vices? Refusing to give into temptation to say yes to distraction and mindlessness is the first step, but we can make resistance easier by adopting safeguards and better ways of thinking.
When you’re trying to eat healthy, you don’t give yourself access to a pantry of candy. You create boundaries around what you’ll buy at the grocery store. When you decide to start working out regularly, you make sure the shoes you’re wearing to run fit correctly.
The decisions to eat healthy and work out come down to whether or not we decide to actually say yes and do the work, but we can control variables to make taking the right actions easier.
The same is true for the way we use technology.
Here are a handful of the many ways you can help yourself maintain a healthy relationship with your devices.
Don’t leave your Bible on the shelf
I love what the Bible app on my phone makes possible.
I love the way I can look up any passage in almost any translation at any time. But when I have my regular time with God, I usually choose to open up the physical Bible. Interacting with paper makes it easier to stay focused on what I’m reading without the threat of something else popping up to pull me away.
As I read the Bible, I take notes in a physical notebook. In the same way, the simplicity of the objects I’m interacting with during my time with God keep me focused. I still battle a wandering mind and find difficulty praying at times, but the physical Bible and notebook help minimize distraction.
Try: If you’re using your phone, iPad, etc. to read the Bible—use your physical Bible instead for the next week and see what happens.
Don’t give away all your books
I love ebooks. I frequently read them and take notes in a physical notebook. Sometimes I just read them to be entertained by them. But I still enjoy holding a physical book in my hands and smelling the pages. For the same reason it may not be a great idea to exclusively read the Bible on your phone, your experience with a printed book has potential to be more focused without the threat of something else you could be doing on your iPad or Kindle.
Try: Buy (or borrow from your local library) a physical copy of the next book you read.
Practice physical hobbies
If you work on a computer all day and spend your free time scrolling through things on your phone, your brain can start to feel like mush. When I sit sedentary looking at my computer for too long or binge my Twitter feed, it just feels like the noise in my mind gets louder instead of more organized.
Go on a walk, start to bake, lift weights, play an instrument--do something that involves interacting with the world in a physical and tangible way. Moving, creating--simply doing--in ways that are primarily offline help reset your brain and give you space to process and enjoy the world God created in the way He intended.
Try: Sometime this week, intentionally do one thing with your free time that you won’t get paid for and doesn’t include your phone, computer, tablet, or television.
Turn off as many notifications as you can
I’ve written about controlling a smartphone addiction before, and one of the key elements of doing so is keeping your phone on Do Not Disturb mode at all times. Limit how much your phone buzzes and dings—you’ll find the urge to check it happens less frequently and you can stay more fully present with the person or task at hand.
You don’t realize just how much the vibrating and chirping has been controlling you until it’s gone. Of course, you want to be wise about this—you can change the setting on Do Not Disturb to allow calls to come through from the people you choose.
Try: Go through your notification settings and turn off as many as you can for as many applications as you can and try Do Not Disturb mode. If you miss your notifications after a week, turn them back on.
Keep your phone off the table when you’re with the people you love
Just the presence of a phone can make my mind wander to what I’m missing on it. It also tells the person I’m with they’re kind of important, but I’d easily check out emotionally or physically from the conversation if anyone else wanted to get in touch with me.
Giving full attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person. Keeping your phone in your pocket or in another room is a great way to set yourself up for success in this area.
Try: At your next meal, make sure your phone is in your pocket and not on your table.
Give your devices a place to rest
In some seasons of my life, this place has been in a closet.
Now, my devices have chargers on my desk in my home office.
I don't always do the right thing and leave them there for long enough periods of time, but I'm always happy when I do.
If your phone only lives in your pocket, you never get to feel the rhythm of being nearly unreachable. When you're playing with your kids and your mind isn't wandering to what might be happening in your phone, you may feel a twinge of anxiety at first. But it can turn into a flood of peace. This is the peace of being able to be more fully and completely in the moment. You can still get caught thinking about the texts that might be coming in even if your phone is across the house, but--in this case--distance makes the heart grow less fond.
Try: Plug your chargers into a space other than your bedside table. Leave your devices there one evening this week and see how it feels.
“My desire to always check email might come from an inflated sense of self-importance”
I can get obsessed with email. It’s like a drug. It’s easy to justify constantly checking my inbox by calling it a drive toward accomplishment or rapid responsiveness.
I’m realizing this urge to keep opening Outlook and Gmail is due in part to my own ego growing too large.
If I'm honest, it feels good to feel needed.
Some careers require email to be open all day. People in these careers don't inherently have larger egos. It's a job function. But for the rest of us, we just don’t need to check email as often as we think.
Consider this: if you send an email to someone in the morning and they reply in the afternoon, you still think they’re a responsive person.
Instead of keeping email open all the time, batch process it in intervals. Keep your email in offline mode (here's how to do it in Gmail and Outlook) most of the time. Go back online as little as possible. Ask yourself why you feel compelled to check email as much as you do. If you’re like me, you might come to the realization that it’s because I like to think I'm more important than I am.
Try: Over the next week, keep your email offline except for two intentional times each day (I recommend once in the mid-morning and once at the end of the work day). When you go online with your email, receive everything into your inbox and then go offline. Process the messages to zero, distilling action steps and processing from top to bottom without skipping a message.
Remember social media isn’t the only way to waste time on the internet
I can pat myself on the back for staying off of Facebook while pointlessly digging deep into CNN.com for no reason.
Turning off distractions without channeling that time and attention to things that matter is just trading one distraction for another. Because social media is such a punching bag in conversations like this, it’s easy to feel justified in wasting time in more subtle ways. I may not be 20 minutes deep into Instagram, but I’m being equally as wasteful by impulsively researching something on Google when I should be focused on something else.
Try: Turn off your internet completely for at least an hour each day for the next week and count how many times you catch yourself wanting to open a browser. Keep a tally.
Ask yourself for a reason each time you turn on a screen
If we could all just stop ourselves more frequently before we passively open an app or jump online, we’d be in a healthier relationship with technology. Mindless consumption can be easy to do and challenging to recognize. I can look at the clock and realize I went an hour clicking through time-wasting material without realizing it.
Scott Belsky has a great resolution to help solve this. "Simple New Year's resolution: [I'm] going to ask myself, “For what actionable purpose?” each time before I reach for my phone," he tweeted. "If I have no answer, [I'm] going to wait."
Sometimes I get in a rut, and here’s what happens:
"I can’t figure out how to write the next sentence"—open LinkedIn.
"There’s a lull in a transition between appointments or tasks"—fire up nytimes.com.
:I’m in the middle of a task that seems too boring or too challenging:—research a random health topic.
If I simply confronted myself each time I picked up my phone or opened Chrome with...
“Hey, self. I see you’re about to get on the internet/check your phone. What are you looking for, and is this the best time for it?”
...I’d be far less controlled by my impulses and far more wise with the way I’m stewarding time.
Try: I haven’t tried this yet, but I will/am scared to do it. For an entire day, write down on a piece of paper every time you open the internet or check your phone. Record why you’re doing it. If you catch yourself online or on your phone without a reason, log that, too.
When using devices to do meaningful work, do meaningful work
Modern work often involves inhabiting digital spaces.
I consider this website a meaningful use of my time and effort. I use my computer and phone much of the time to communicate with colleagues, friends, etc. I write, record podcasts, communicate, chat, snap photos, dig into spreadsheets, update slide decks, and use software in my vocation. Devices don't just make my job easier--they're essential for my job to exist and to be executed with excellence.
This is a good thing.
We should embrace our digital tools for the way they help our society, organization, and job functions flourish.
But when we're doing work on our devices, it's good to remember to actually do work on our devices. We could all do greater volumes of excellent work by simply working when we've committed to be working. Staying locked in on the task at hand can be hard to do, but it reaps incredible rewards.
Parkinson's Law says, "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." It's easy to focus a little bit, browse a little bit, waste time a little bit, drive hard a little bit, and back off a little bit during times we've allotted for work.
To do larger volumes of work that matters, stay focused and efficient by minimizing distractions and giving yourself time blocks necessary to get something done without being superfluous.
Let silence do the talking
When I'm alone with my thoughts, I'm usually itching to open something, check something, move through a feed, scan an article, etc. But when I catch myself in time and just sit instead of scroll, I'm always refreshed by what's on the other side of pushing back the urge to fill empty space with digital noise. It's refreshing to be alone with your thoughts, your feelings, your body, and--most importantly--with God.
Scott Belsky also wrote an article called "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space." In the piece, he notes:
"We are depriving ourselves of every opportunity for disconnection."
Is silence really an opportunity?
I can easily treat it like the plague. Judging by the way you'd see me jump to put on a podcast when I get in the car, you'd think a silent drive is my worst nightmare. But when I fight for the silence and do the work to kick back the rushing wave prompting me into another distraction, I find a deep sweetness. I hear the voice of God more clearly. I understand what I actually think about things more completely. And it's a gift.
As Scott Belsky says, we all could do more to see silence a blessing.
Try: As I've noted in this Today's To-Do--give yourself ten minutes of silence. Complete silence. No phone, laptop, music, or podcast episode. Just you, your thoughts, and your prayers.
Watch a funny YouTube video without feeling guilty
The goal isn’t to turn the internet into a place void of any fun. It’s also not meant to be a tool for shame or for fueling a self-righteous lifestyle. It’s about happening to your devices and internet connection rather than it happening to you.
Take a break and watch a funny YouTube video. Scroll through Twitter. Double-tap the Instagram photos you like. Even post a selfie every once in a while. That’s great. Just have a reason for it.
I’m having fun.
I’m taking an intentional break from my work.
I’m getting a pulse on what’s going on in the lives of people I know.
I’m sharing a part of what’s important to me with people who are important to me.
These are examples of reasons.
When they’re given in appropriate contexts, they’re great reasons. But we all could do better to have an intentional purpose for what we’re doing.
Try: Give yourself permission to spend 30 minutes on the internet or on your phone tomorrow at a specific time doing something entertaining. Practice what it looks like to decide in advance to simply have fun on the internet or with your phone. Set a timer, and when the 30 minutes is up, end the session.
This isn't an exhaustive list. There are many more ways you can lessen the power of the push toward your devices. Ultimately, however, the agency is with us. This isn't someone else's fault. We can do it. I can do it. You can do it.