By Gonzalo Cordova
Review the time you spent last week checking email, texting, surfing the web, engaging in social media, or binging on Netflix. How did this time contribute to your well-being or personal growth?
We are fortunate to live in a time in which technology is literally at our fingertips. More than ever, technology allows us to augment our performance and enhance our well-being. However, instead of utilizing the available technology for specific and beneficial purposes, we have allowed our screens to become shiny objects that control our attention.
How did we get here? During the last ten years, phone and web browser apps have evolved beyond pure technology offerings. They started as helpful tools. For example, they showed us how to get from point A to B without a map. However, through time, these apps became very proficient at capturing our attention and our time. We now have a relationship with our screens that resembles a moderate addiction, as detailed by Adam Alter in his book Irresistible. We have become dependent on the effortless excitement produced by checking for the latest news, email, text, or social media posts.
Picture your text app showing a red bubble with 99 new messages. How would you feel if you could not read these messages for the next week? I know, it would be torture. There is a reason that we would feel this way, and it has nothing to do with us lacking willpower. First, the bubble is red for a reason. It is a color alerting us that something needs our attention. Once we see the red notification, it is tough to forget about it. Second, we feel the social obligation to reply to the senders of those messages. Third, seeing new messages launches a dose of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, due to the hope of finding some social validation. We get this dopamine rush regardless of the notifications' content. Hence, the quality of information is no longer a requirement for us to feel good consuming it.
The text app example above helps explain why a person has an average screen time of three hours and fifteen minutes per day, as reported in May of 2019 by the RescueTime app. The actual time people spend on their screens is estimated to be higher, given that the people using an app such as RescueTime already have an awareness of their screen time. It is no surprise that Adam Alter, in his book Irresistible, estimates that controlling our screens could free eleven years of a person's life.
There is nothing wrong with downtime. As Aristotle proposed in Ethics about two thousand years ago, leisure activities are crucial to achieving a fulfilling life. However, in his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport explains a difference between passive and high-quality leisure. Passive leisure does not require any effort, such as watching TV or checking social media. On the other hand, high-quality leisure challenges us intellectually, physically, or socially, such as learning a new skill or having coffee with friends. Hence, active leisure leaves a higher sense of fulfillment and satisfaction than passive leisure.
Now that we have a better appreciation for the challenges we face with our screens, let's focus on addressing them. We need to start using screens as tools that enable us to become more productive while maximizing leisure time benefits. Here are some practical steps to accomplish our goal based on the ideas presented in Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and Irresistible by Adam Alter:
Use your phone/web browser(s) to achieve what is important to you
Take inventory of all the apps in your phone/web browser(s) - Keep/find the best apps to achieve your goals and delete the rest of apps
Develop screen rules - Be clear about how and when you use your phone/web browser(s)
Carve out time for solitude - Solitude is the time to focus and to reflect without external inputs
Embrace quality leisure time/activities - Plan for quality leisure time in advance and trying to avoid screens
Use social media like a pro - Log in to social media with a purpose and for a pre-determined time and using your computer web browser only
Notice that the steps above do not discourage the use of phones/web browsers. What is unique is the intention to use them as a tool to support what we value. In the last couple of months, I have applied these principles to test their effectiveness, given others' positive feedback. Here are the key points of my experience with digital minimalism:
1. Even well-intended and convenient apps led me to purposeless screen time
Non-work email on my phone was the main driver for distractions
I do not use social media except LinkedIn, but this "professional networking" app was subtly consuming time without providing any tangible value
I was spending precious time reading random articles fed by the news app algorithm instead of what I needed to read to be informed
2. After deleting the vast majority of my apps from my phone and computer, the first week was rough
I kept reaching out to my phone to get an update from my deleted apps
3. I turned off all notifications for the very few apps that I reintroduced into my routine after evaluating their value
Getting rid of notifications had a dual benefit as I do not get distracted by them when I am not using my phone, and there is nothing to draw my attention when I use my phone
4. I scheduled my interactions with email, LinkedIn, and news under pre-determined rules
I now check work email four times per day (instead of all the time), non-work email one time per day, news two times per week, and LinkedIn one time per week
My rules are simple - Avoid checking email between scheduled times, allow one click only from the primary source of information, limit news to pre-selected and reliable sources, and focus on contact updates only while checking LinkedIn
I have not missed anything important to date
5. I minimize screen time during leisure activities
I do feel a higher sense of satisfaction from quality leisure activities compared to passive screen time
I try to avoid screen time before going to bed
6. Results are tangible
I freed about one to two hours a day that I now use to read and write more
I sleep better due to less blue light before bedtime
I can focus faster and longer on any task
I do not feel the need to check my phone all the time
My family has noticed I am more present around them, which is the most valuable benefit to date!
Whatever level of interaction you have with your screen, I hope this information enables you to utilize technology beneficially. You will not regret managing your screen time as a step toward becoming the best version of yourself.
1. using screens as an entertainment source and its impact on social behavior: Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).
2. social media apps designed to capture our attention, red notification bubbles and social obligation to reply to the messages: Bianca Bosker, "The Binge Breaker: Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He's determined to make it stop", The Atlantic, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/the-binge-breaker/501122; see also Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (New York: Portfolio, 2014).
3. success metrics for social media apps: Jeff Orlowski, "the social dilemma", Netflix, 2020, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224.
4. moderate addiction and screen time over a lifetime: Adam Alter, Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).
5. dopamine definition and creation process: Trevor Haynes. "Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time", Harvard University – The Graduate School of Arts and Science: Science in the News Blog, 2018, http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time.
6. daily average screen time per person: Jory MacKay, "Screen time stats 2019: Here's how much you use your phone during the workday", RescueTime, 2019, https://blog.rescuetime.com/screen-time-stats-2018.
7. the importance of leisure: Aristotle, Ethics, translation J. A. K. Thompson, revised edition (New York: Penguin, 2004).
8. types of leisure time and digital minimalism philosophy: Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019).