Do you find yourself automatically checking your email in the evening? Do you catch yourself getting lost in a social media stream when you should be working? Do your device’s various notifications get your attention faster than anyone in your family can? Would you like to be more deliberate and intentional in how you use technology?
Based on the content of coaching sessions I’ve facilitated over the last five years, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you say ‘yes’ to at least one of these questions. Our relationship with technology is a complex one and while these devices can certainly make like easier in many ways, their ease of use can be a double-edged sword.
The most recent episode of our podcast focused on developing a more intentional relationship with our technology. We discussed the various reasons we can turn to technology automatically and, if this is something people want to change, some techniques to explore. The above examples are very common scenarios I encounter in my coaching work and the impacts can range from the mildly annoying to the very disruptive for the individuals concerned.
Even with an hour of podcast time (I’d initially aimed for a 30-minute discussion!), it’s a topic that could do with some further exploration as it impacts so many people. But before we delve into the detail, there are a few key points I’d like to make:
- Technology isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s how we use it that makes the difference.
- This isn’t about making you feel bad if using your favourite gadgets is what helps you get through a difficult time like home-schooling in a pandemic or dealing with lockdown.
- If you’re genuinely happy with your screen time and how you use technology to achieve your goals, then there no need for you to make any changes!
What do you mean by ‘intentional’ living?
When we do something intentionally, we do it with purpose in mind. We behave with intention when we know what we want to do and why and then consciously initiate a behaviour. Living intentionally means we’re connected with our values, our life’s purpose and what we do is pretty much aligned with these.
A lot of our behaviour is habitual or automatic. This is both amazing and scary if you consider the complex tasks (such as driving) you’ve done while simultaneously being ‘elsewhere’ in your mind.
Unintentional or automatic behaviours can get in the way of us being who we want to be if they eat up time, take us away from people and activities we value, or serve as a distraction from something we find difficult, unpleasant or uncomfortable. Automatically going to the fridge when bored. Automatically checking email when feeling anxious. Automatically delaying an important (but uncomfortable) task with busy work. Automatically turning on the TV as soon as you enter a room.
Our daily routines are full of habits, some of which serve us well, some of which aren’t so helpful. If we view our unintentional tech use as an unhelpful habit, that can be a great first step in making a change.
Why do I turn to technology automatically?
There are so many reasons you might automatically reach for your phone or the TV remote control.
It’s a welcome break
Because so much of our consumer technology is designed to be attractive, it can be fun and enjoyable to use, especially if we’re playing a game or using a social app. We can therefore associate them with relaxation. And they can be relaxing – if that’s what we intend to use them for. But these devices can also be difficult to back out of once we’ve started and we can find the breaks getting longer and longer. There is no ‘end’ to social media streams and we rarely get to the bottom of our in-box. Without an obvious end point to our scrolling, we can just keep going.
FOMO is ‘fear of missing out’ and it can strike when we believe there’s something happening in one of our social streams that we just ‘need’ to have a look at. Maybe it’s a trending hashtag on Twitter, some celebrity snaps on Instagram or some breaking news about your football team. The urge to check can be very strong and FOMO can amplify feelings of perceived loss if we don’t take action.
Just like his infamous cat, Schrödinger’s email can only be revealed once we check inside the in-box. Until we look, we can imagine all kinds of messages. We wonder what we’re not seeing, we wonder what people will think if we don’t respond quickly enough. Our mind can paint some pretty vivid images for us. The discomfort of not know what’s in our email in-box can be quite strong, such that it leads us to open the laptop or pick up our phone when we’re supposed to be off the clock. All because of an email that may not even exist!
Those persistent notifications
Notifications are great when they act as valuable reminders. But they can also be an incredible source of disruption and distraction when they’re not controlled. Yet many of use respond to them as if the notifications are in charge, abandoning our focus to see what’s behind the buzz or beep. This kind of task switching has a cost in terms of focus and productivity, as well as how we feel about ourselves when both of these suffer.
Why is this so relevant right now?
There’s a combination of factors that could make intentional use of devices a concern for lots of us right now. With millions working from home during a lockdown, there can seem little else to do but continue using work-related devices long after the end of the working day. We can also feel a sense of pressure to be responsive and ‘always connected’ to avoid the judgement of our colleagues.
Anxiety and upset about the pandemic and its impact can translate into automatic use of technology. And the sadness that can arise from inappropriate comparisons with how other people seem to be handling this episode can add fuel to the fire.
Is this necessarily a problem?
It’s useful to look at this contextually. There could be situations in your life where idly flicking through a social media stream is just the break you need from something very demanding. But if turning to your phone replaces doing something important or meaningful, then we can agree it’s not exactly helpful.
And if using technology results in emotions like guilt, frustration or worry, then it’s time to take a different approach and make some changes.
What can I do about it?
When discussing this with clients, I make the distinction between tactical action we can take to put some friction between us and the technology, and more strategic steps we can take to unpick the relationship between discomfort and automatically jumping for a gadget.
If you find you’re using your mobile phone automatically and in a way that’s disruptive, make it harder or less inviting to use. As we discussed on the podcast, social media apps and notifications are designed to grab our attention. So do what you can to bypass this. Some things you could try include:
- Turn the phone off completely while you focus on something else more important.
- Move the social media icons off your front screen so they’re not the first thing you see.
- Delete the apps that tend you suck you in for long periods of time.
- Make the interface less attractive and inviting by turning it black and white.
- Turn off your notifications, even periodically.
- Set a timer for when you relax over a social media app.
Looking at this experience through the lens of Psychological Flexibility, it can be useful to explore the roots of automatic behaviour and look at the results of that behaviour in context. In other words, what comes before the behaviour and does it even matter?
Lots of our automatic behaviour comes from the experience of, or attempt to avoid, psychological discomfort like boredom or worry. And if we can agree that psychological discomfort is a given in life, then it’s useful to develop ways to persist through it while we do something meaningful or important.
We can slow down and explore the experience by following the ‘Pause, Notice, Choose’ mantra.
Pause: When you notice yourself reaching for a phone or clicking on a social media icon, pause for a moment.
Notice: Bring your attention to what you’re thinking and feeling inside. Notice these inner experiences, labelling them if you can. Don’t try to change them or minimise them, but see them for what they are.
Choose: Then, based on what you know you would ideally do, using values as a guide, make an explicit choice for your next action. This doesn’t remove the discomfort, by the way. But it enables us to take action that’s helpful and intentional. Which is what really matters.
For example, it might sound a little like this:
“I feel worried that there are unread emails in my inbox. I really feel compelled to have a look. But it’s late in the evening and ideally I’d be focused on spending this time with my family. That’s what matters.”
“I’m frustrated with this document I need to read, so I’m tempted to have a quick look at Twitter. But I want to deliver this work on time, no matter how frustrated I feel. That’s what matters.”
With practice, this simple technique can help you notice the points in the day when you’re more likely to get distracted by your gadgets, and help you reconnect with your values to guide your next steps.
Intentional living: the bottom line
Technology is what we make of it. If we can become more consciously aware of our habits, and our attempts to minimise discomfort, then we can make more intentional and values-aligned decisions for how and when we use these amazing devices.