Finding Balance in a tech focused world

Recently, a good friend and I met for lunch to catch up what was going on in our lives. While we made our ways through our greens and grains salad bowls, the topic of technology and social media came up. We had a lengthy discussion, sharing some of our own experiences of how it’s affected our day to day functioning and the way we communicate with others.

Our attachment to smartphones, iPads, apple watches, etc. actually changes the way our brains are wired, but I don’t need scientific proof to know how I’m personally impacted when spending too much time checking email, Facebook, Instagram or endless other distractions.  It’s apparent in my attention span and the noticeable decline in the ability to focus on one thing, and one thing only.

I often find myself bouncing between tasks, checking email while simultaneously watching the news, doing housework, or trying to having a conversation. This level of distractedness can take a toll on productivity and on relationships. Constantly toggling between social media or news feeds along with multitasking gives a nebulous sense of productivity and connection but it can also have the lingering effect of anxiety or restlessness.

The ability to focus completely on the present, otherwise known as “being in the moment” has become a lost skill for many. The competitive nature of social media encourages people to care more about documenting experiences over actually experiencing life in real-time. It’s also had a devastating effect on the self-esteem and mental health of young people.

But this isn’t just happening to millennials and x, y and z generations. Middle aged baby-boomers are also lulled into technology addiction. The difference is that we older folks still remember what life was like “before” when we only had face-to-face (and landline phone) interactions. We can recall communicating before texts were a thing. And we proudly tell stories about our wall mounted, rotary dial phones, boasting that we managed to survive without being tethered to a smartphone. And yet, we too are tethered.

Social media and all the conveniences of the internet pose a double edged sword. There are so many helpful apps and instant access to useful information. Focusing on technologies “good” aspects and eliminating the “bad” time-sucking, esteem-crushing experiences can help us strike a healthier balance.

It comes down to having the ability to moderate and occasionally disconnect from technology. This is easier said than done, as multiple studies have shown that our brains become addicted to the dopamine hits produced by the notification “dings” when we get a like, text or email. This is why even the most disciplined among us find it hard to put down our phones and not check for messages. We are literally fighting the reward centers in our brains.

For a fascinating yet chilling dive into the topic, I recommend reading “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari. The author shares a personal account of his attempt to disconnect from technology. He also interviewed many high level engineers and founders of social media platforms. Their insights and comments are surprising.

Likewise, “The Social Dilemma” – the 2020 documentary about the addictive and manipulative nature of these platforms was an eye-opener for millions who viewed it. Still, I wonder if we’ve made any meaningful progress in reducing our social media consumption or if we’ve just becomes resigned that this is the new normal?

Understanding what we are up against at least gives us some tools to prevent social media and technology taking over our lives. We can change settings to silence notifications. We can use apps that track our screen time. And when we meet up with family or friends, we can all agree to turn off or put away our devices.

Here are some other ways I’ve been able to moderate my personal technology and social media use. Maybe they’ll work for you too.

  • I take social media breaks if I find it’s affecting my mood. Sometimes, posts can trigger the FOMO phenomenon – or the “my life is really boring” narrative.
  • Any form of exercise – or just being out in nature, provides a much needed break from the constant barrage of notifications – so putting down the phone and engaging in physical activity daily is a must for me.
  • When I do “plug in” I tend to gravitate to news sites, which are often negative and depressing – so I try to balance that with more uplifting reading; travel and food features, healthy lifestyle websites, feel good stories about people doing good things. Look for the positive – it is out there!
  • I postpone responding immediately to every notification – and instead finish what I was doing before the “swoosh” so rudely interrupted.
  • I often leave my phone on a charger in another room – pleasantly surprised by how much better I can focus when it’s not nearby.
  • I silence my phone when I’m in a meeting, at an appointment or visiting with friends. Unless someone is in the hospital or I’m expecting an important call, it can wait.

Circling back to the start of this column, I’m happy to report that my friend and I enjoyed a lovely lunch, complete with face to face interactions and free of technology interruption. Neither of us had our phones out and the conversation was relaxed and genuine. I left with a feeling of true connection – and isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

So, the next time you hear that swoosh, beep or ping, ask yourself if it can wait. It’s highly likely that what you’re doing (and who you’re with) in that moment is where your focus needs to be.

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