When I grew up, idle time was spent reading, playing baseball with my neighbors, or tracking mud into the house. My parents consciously and constantly encouraged me to “be outside” and not “sit there” in front of the TV.
However, with the advent of smartphones and ever-present Internet access, I adapted. I purchased phones and computers, started websites and embraced social media. This ability to change is good. We continue making livings and feel connected with our current culture by participating.
But adaptation sometimes has unintended consequences.
As I type these words, my phone is silenced and turned over. Despite trying to avoid notifications and create a distraction-free zone, I am pulled towards it. It is, after all, sitting right next to me.
Its power remains—even if I don’t respond to the device. My brain shouts that there are unexpected joys and pleasant moments possible if I would only embrace the device and press the screen alive.
What news, messages, loves, and likes might I be missing?
Of course, opening my smartphone now would prevent me from writing these words. I might swim in the infinite Internet of news, posts, articles, and comments—losing track of time or intention.
I’ve done it before. Far too many times.
Setting my sights on an individual, meaningful news article, clicking a link within the content, and then searching through other stories the company personally recommends for me. The “suggested articles” never end.
Before I know it, 20 to 30 minutes is gone. Never to be regained again.
Companies have become incentivized to keep your attention for longer and longer periods of time. Google, Twitter, and Facebook employ teams of psychologists and human-computer interaction experts to find ways to modify behavior and hook you. Thirty minutes of your time—of billions of people’s—makes the marketers happy.
Tristan Harris, formerly a Design Ethicist at Google, talks about this as a consequence of the “attention economy.” And if companies have their way, we’ll be watching even more cat videos, sharing “shocking” stories, and commenting to “outrage.” Our personalities are invested in these processes now.
Taking a break, minimizing distractions, and embracing simplicity is difficult in today’s world. Most of us aren’t ready to ditch our smartphones or social media, the isolation isn’t worth the departure. Nor is avoiding technology entirely the answer.
Many of us seem to be struggling to moderate and balance technology use.
Here are Five Signs You Need a Technology Detox
1. You spend more time than intended.
Technology can be like quicksand, sticky and challenging to escape. Haven’t we have all gotten hooked after one article and stayed for another article, comment, or share? If you clicked on this article through Facebook, you might have accounted about 5-10 minutes of time. But what if you continued scrolling down your Facebook news feed afterwards? Before you know it, you’ve spent 15-20 minutes mindlessly scrolling. By setting intentional blocks of your schedule for checking, you might gain an awareness for your use and find ways to contain it.
2. You feel guilt/dissatisfaction afterwards.
When I eat a bag of chips, I immediately feel the salt on my tongue. Eventually, the saltiness dulls and oils remain. The residue remains on my fingertips. But when I overeat on these empty calories, I feel dissatisfied. Technology use has a similar reward-regret curve. Each site and article provides a little nugget of instant gratification. Too many, and I’m inclined to regret this use of time. Reflection is the best medicine for examining how you move forward in the world. If you’re filled with negative emotions, it might be time to ask, was that “time well spent?”
3. You are motivated by a fear of missing out.
My event invitations, messages, and updates from friends and friendly make it crystal clear: I don’t have a fear of missing out, as I’m always missing out on something. I’ve grown to embrace this truism. It’s freeing. There’s always more we can participate in, but time is limited and being more busy is not the answer. Minimalism is attractive to so many because, at its heart, it is about intentionally finding ways to embrace that which gives us meaning, while removing the distractions that keep us from it. We don’t have unlimited space or time or energy. And the sooner we own this reality, the sooner we’ll focus on what matters.
4. You experience urges to check.
Researchers have found interruptions lead to major delays in the completion of projects. On average, study participants took about 23 minutes to get back on task after a distraction. Potentially, that “important” email could mean 23 minutes from what’s meaningful. From phantom vibrations to wondering whether the screen just flashed on, the motivation to check our phones is one of the strongest adaptations. Proactive preventions from checking might help curb cell phone addiction. For instance, you might choose to turn your phone off when socializing with loved ones or putting it on a do-not-disturb mode.
5. You never have enough time in your day.
Recently, I installed a little application (Moment) on my smartphone to track use. What I found still haunts me. I picked up my phone about 40 times, and spent nearly two hours working on emails, checking media, and text messaging. While some of that was purposeful work, distractions clearly continue to get me. At the end of days, it’s not uncommon to feel incredibly busy. This busyness and stress is real, but if you were to reduce smartphone usage, might it help you feel more calm and available for what matters?
Despite conscious efforts to minimize material goods, information and technology can weasel its way in, pushing out what matters. Taking intentional efforts to reduce your technology use might free up far more time than you realize for the things that matters most.
And isn’t that really the goal of all this? To live a life that matters.