Have you ever been chatting with someone when they glance over to check their smartphone? Of course you have. So you must know what always happens next: Distracted by their latest email, or text message, or tweet, or Facebook update, or Instagram pic, or Snapchat, or Pin (to name a few), your friend suddenly loses the ability to hear what you are saying, and stops engaging with you, the real person in front of them. You’re stuck there, waiting to feel as important as a Facebook feed in your friend’s life.
We’ve all seen it. Many of us have done it. What can we do about it?
Social norms around new technology often lag behind the innovations themselves, so today, researchers, spiritual leaders, lifehackers, and well, just ordinary device-addicted Americans like the rest of us, are contemplating ways to take what’s great about always being connected, and leave behind what’s potentially harmful (see also: always being connected).
“Part of the norm settings process is people trying to figure out out how to maximize all of the good things that those new technologies bring while while minimizing all the negatives,” explains Aaron Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center explains.
The good news is that Americans say that on the whole, people are “less loud and annoying than they used to be” on their phones, according to research from Pew. Part of that shift however, has taken place as the dominant form of cell phone communication has gone from talk (phone calls) to type. So too does the etiquette change.
Experts say we can start by creating some rules around devices—and actually sticking to them. We can also take breaks or fasts from our devices, partially as a mental break, but also to prove to ourselves that we don’t have to be so plugged in 24-7. Additionally, we can reprogram our smartphones to notify us less, leaving us to be more free to be present to the people in front of us at work and home.
From sunup to sun down, here are six ways to try disengaging with devices, to better reengage with the humans in front of us (including ourselves!).
1. “Don’t read emails first thing” in the morning, says social media expert Claire Díaz-Ortiz in an email. An early employee of Twitter and author of a forthcoming book on taking control of your time, Díaz-Ortiz echoes a surprising theme from an increasing number of high-octane leaders. “Although I scan upon waking (which isn’t great, but is a cheat I allow myself), it’s only after I complete my morning routine of reading, journaling, prayer, meditation —which helps center me for the day ahead—that I will respond to anything.”
2. Be intentional about how you use your smartphone throughout the day. Don’t let the phone’s default settings—which include push notifications, email pings, and high-volume ring tones—dictate how you live. By disabling the notifications, you’ll start to take a little of the psychic control back from a state of constantly reacting to the latest notification flying your way.
3. Set limits on when and where you let yourself use the devices. Do you really need to read emails while stopped at a red light? Do you really need to check Facebook in front of the cashier at the check out line? A good rule of thumb might be to not use the smartphone in situations where an interaction with another human is taking place. If your 452 Facebook friends are worth checking in on, it might also be worth engaging with the person directly in front of you.
4. Set a good example: Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa, also the father of two teen daughters, says parents need to demonstrate to their children how to have healthy relationships to technology, particularly since the ubiquity of these devices is so new.
“Control and conscious awareness is going to be the key in the future,” he says in an interview. “Our children are growing up at a time where the competition for attention from all these sources is increasingly going to be challenging. Unless children learn self-regulating ability, they will be living a life which is constantly reactive, always responding to something coming from the outside.” And for all the limits on screen time for kids, parents must start by themselves being in control.
Block out time for family in the evening. Keep smartphones off the dining table to connect with your family at dinner, and similarly keeping them out of bed to connect with your partner, or just to get some much-needed sleep.
5. Track your smartphone habits: Change can begin with keeping a record. Jot down when you start using your smartphone and when you stop for seven days. Jot what you were doing — like answering work email, checking out Facebook or playing Candy Crush five times in a row. Add up the time and divide it by seven and make a modest goal of cutting back — say 10 percent. Then track yourself again, taking care to stay under your previous daily average. Ratchet it back again if you dare.
Edward M. Hallowell, an expert in attention deficit disorders and author of Driven to Distraction at Work, about increasing focus and productivity, suggests adding notes as you go about how easing up on what he calls “screen sucking” is enhancing your life. What are you finding time to do instead? Hallowell also recommends making a list of pleasurable or productive things you can do when you’re not compulsively using your smartphone when you’re bored and keeping it within easy reach.
6. Go offline: Many experts talk about the productivity and personal-life boosting benefits of leaving our devices behind for an hour, or a weekend. “It’s essential to not stay on the screen if you know you’re not being productive,”Díaz-Ortiz explains. By taking a break from technology to reconnect with nature, our family and friends, and ourselves, we are actually super-charging ourselves to work more effectively when we hop back online. Humans were designed for connection, and that especially includes offline, in-the-flesh human interaction.
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