Feeling Anxious? Your Technology Usage Might Be the Problem
Do you experience a constant, low hum of anxiety? Do you compulsively check your email/Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/texts? Do you find yourself spending hours scrolling through Instagram or watching Youtube and Netflix to unwind? Do you feel stressed when you are unoccupied and can’t access your phone?
According to Cal Newport in his new book Digital Minimalism, all of these are symptoms of a decade that espouses the idea that all technology is worth taking advantage of if it displays any benefit at all, a philosophy which Newport labels “digital maximalism.”
He defines the counterpart, digital minimalism, as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that support things you value and you happily miss out on everything else.” In other words, digital minimalism presents an actionable way to develop new habits and a healthier philosophy around technology use without demonizing it.
Newport’s book does attribute a host of negative effects to our current use of technology, but he does not advocate eliminating it or even deny its inherent usefulness and convenience. He just wants people to think more intentionally about how they use it and to recognize that a lot of the tech we use has been programmed to take advantage of our psychological hardware, keeping us locked in, whether or not that is what is good for us.
The primary disadvantage Newport sees with our current technology habits is that we do not engage in ‘solitude.’ Solitude is not simply isolation from other people, rather it is “freedom from input from other minds.” For example, being alone with your thoughts while sitting on a crowded subway without anything in your ears would be considered solitude, while reading a book in a remote mountain lodge would not be. This definition focuses on what your mind is processing rather than what your surroundings are.
It can feel uncomfortable or even repulsive to sit without looking at your phone or listening to music, but we underestimate the value of that time to ourselves. Solitude provides us with time for self-reflection and insight that helps us set our principles and values and to take action and make decisions that are in line with them. Solitude allows us to fully process all the information that we are constantly exposed to on a daily basis and to extract its full benefit. And there is evidence that our brains cannot function properly without solitude, leading to a host of negative side effects, including a rise in anxiety.
So how can we change this? How do we unhook ourselves from our refresh buttons and explore pages and become calmer and more introspective?
Here are some of the tactics Newport suggests that can help us all become digital minimalists:
Think about your values
Take a journal session, meditate, and reflect on what you value. Adventure? Loyalty? Cats? Then evaluate your technology use and only keep things that significantly support one or more of those values.
Find high quality leisure activities
We usually refer to these as ‘hobbies.’ Sewing, reading, running, gardening, etc. Find activities that you like to do just for the sake of doing them.
Schedule low-quality leisure time
Think about when you really want to watch Netflix. Saturday mornings? Wednesday afternoons? Put it on your calendar and feel free to enjoy for that period of time.
De-bundle your tech
Make your phone a phone again. Dumb it down to a single use computer as much as possible.
Have a regular schedule for calling and texting friends
Make time to reach out and make plans to meet in person. It’s easy to become disconnected from people you care about while feeling connected to a device all the time.
Turn on Do Not Disturb
This prevents you from responding to messages as soon as they come in and allows you to stay focused on who and what is around you. Only give certain people the ability to reach you 24/7. The rest can wait until you’re ready to turn off Do Not Disturb and deal with their communications.
Don’t click “Like” ever.
“Liking” something conditions your brain into thinking that social media is an acceptable alternative to conversation. In reality, it isn’t. If you want to comment on something someone posted, tell them about it over the phone, over text, or in person!
Hold conversation office hours
Sit in a coffee shop at a specific time each week and tell people that’s where you’ll be. Your friends or anyone who wants to talk with you can drop by to chat. Do some of that SOSC reading while you’re there too!
Have a specific time to check the news
And only check high quality sources. Facebook, Instagram, and the Snapchat discover page don’t count. Use a site like Allsides to make sure you’re encountering high quality sources from multiple perspectives and an app like Instapaper to gather the articles you want to read so you don’t fall down a depressing news black hole.
Play games with your friends
Playing games with friends is like supercharged social activity. Have a wine-and-board-game-night!
Join something new
Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
Have a seasonal and weekly leisure plan
This can help you make intentional decisions about how and what you want to spend your leisure time on.
Delete social media from your phone
Seriously. The app versions of these sites are designed to be way more addictive than the online ones. Instead, use social media like a professional. Ask yourself if Anna Wintour would do it like you are.
Freedom blocks certain websites when you want to focus or when you want to force yourself to be away from the internet and in the analog world. Which, for a student body with so much reading to do, should be an awful lot.
Take a 30 day non-essential technology break
I put this last because I didn’t want to scare you off! Try it! Take a month and only use the internet for the truly essential things you have to do. Writing papers, checking reading, responding to email, etc. Then intentionally add back in the tech that reflects your values.
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