Thinking Outside the Box: Finding a Healthy Relationship with Technology

I remember when my family got our first computer. I was maybe seven or eight years old and my mom was running a business out of our house so she needed a computer for her company. On very special occasions, I was allowed on her computer to play "Reader Rabbit and the Fabulous Word Factory", a slow and clunky game that was supposed to help me hone my reading skills. It was the first hint at the future of technology, but none of us could have even have begun to imagine that just 20 years later we'd all be carrying around very fast and powerful computers in our pockets in the form of cell phones.

Since these changes happened so fast, there is a lot we don't know about the impact of technology on our lives. My guess is that in the not so distant future we will start to really understand the harm these systems have done to our brains, relationships, finances, and bodies...among other things. But here is one thing I know for sure- for all the good that technology has done for my life, it has also disrupted my sleep patterns, made me obsessed with data, and completely shifted my social relationships in a way that I am not proud of. And that stops now.

I just finished reading Adam Alter's Irresistible and it rocked my world. Go get a copy. read it twice. One of the numbers he cites that haunts me is the fact that the average American adult spends about four hours a day on their phone? FOUR HOURS. That's a quarter of your waking life spent staring at a tiny box. And that doesn't account for time spent staring at a bigger box- laptop, desktop, TV. A QUARTER OF YOUR LIFE, FOLKS. The current life expectancy in North America is 79 years old for men and 81 years old for women. That's 1,460 hours a year and 11 YEARS OF YOUR LIFE (assuming you life to age 81 and start using a phone at age 13). That is a lot of time that could be spent doing some really cool stuff. So how do we figure out if we have an unhealthy relationship with technology? And what do we do to start reigning it back in? 

My general life philosophy is that anything can become unhealthy if we let it- even things that were meant for good. When something starts negatively impacting your daily routine or relationships, it's unhealthy and you should try to get a handle on it. A few months ago I realized that I was thinking about my "real" life mostly in relation to my social media presence- thinking about whether an art project was pretty enough to go on the internet, taking multiple pictures of my kiddo until I got just the right one to share, etc. And not only was I thinking about the internet when I was "off" it, it was bleeding over into my relationships. I was spending time arguing with people on-line instead of having conversations with people in the same room as me. I was carrying my phone everywhere, checking it every single time I got a notification, obsessed with my "internet points". How many followers could I grow to? How many people had visited my Etsy shop that day? How many calories did I have left? It got to a point where it felt like my phone was running my life and I was no longer in charge. That's when I decided to do something about it. 

  • The first thing I did was turn off all of my notifications. Well almost all of them. I still get phone calls and text message alerts, but only until 8PM. Beyond then, only 3 of my contacts can reach me. I turned off notifications for Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and all of the things. No more notifications. Without prompting from my phone, I found that I was picking it up far less often. That's a key element to staying off your phone, because once you pick it up, it's so easy to get sucked into a black hole of scrolling..."let me just check Twitter for a minute..." and then an hour later you realize what has happened. 
  • The next thing I did was change the color settings to black and white. The color on our phones actually can be quite addictive to our brains. Our phones become far less interesting when they are not in color...which means less time on the device. 
  • Recently, I started tracking my usage. The first step to improving is to know where you are starting. I spend about 3 hours a day on my phone...better than the average, but not where I'd like to be. So now I have a goal to slowly chip away at that time. Less and less time on my device until I am only using it for essential tasks or for very limited time periods. 
  • My next project is to deliberately create physical space and time away from my devices. I am moving my phone away from my bed. No more laying in bed and browsing before I fall asleep. No more checking it right when I wake up. And I plan to structure "device" free times in my day. A sure fire way to spend less time on my device is to keep it out of sight and out of mind- to limit my access. But I need to replace that time with new habits- going for a walk, doing an actual puzzle, making something. 

I am just getting started on my journey, but I'd encourage you to carefully consider how you are using technology in your life. It's not so far fetched to imagine a Wall-E scenario in our lifetimes, especially once virtual reality technology is widely available, where we are all so locked into our devices that we are missing all of the wonderful things happening right in front of us. Put that tiny box down. Look around you. Life is happening and you are missing it. 

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