Q: Do you ever feel the urge to pull out your smartphone while someone else is making a point in a conversation?
Q: Have you ever realized that you were texting or checking your e-mail while your child was telling you about her day at school?
Q: Have you ever felt that something hasn’t really happened until you post it on Facebook?
Q: Does a flashing red light on your BlackBerry make your heart flutter?
Q: Are you spending time with your spouse or significant other without talking to each other because you’re each immersed in a different device?
If you answered yes to at least a couple of these questions, you’re among the millions of Americans being overrun by technology.
Trust me, I’ve been there (and on some days, I still am). I’ve covered technology for several television networks over the past decade, but while working at CBS News in late 2009, I realized that technology had gotten the best of me. I was more distracted and, ironically, more disconnected than ever before. I was so immersed in technology and work that I’d neglected several important life events: my father getting remarried, a good friend’s pregnancy, my stepbrother getting divorced.
So I spent one year untangling my wires and streamlining my digital life, including checking out of social networks for eight months. I rediscovered why I love technology so much — but now it plays a more manageable role in my life, improving it rather than cluttering it up.
There are plenty of anti-technology manifestos out there these days — Jaron Lanier’s“You Are Not a Gadget,” Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” among them — and many instances of people trying to pull the plug on connectedness altogether. But I’m not advocating an all-out war against technology. To the contrary, I say it is time to make peace with all our gadgets and fold them into our lives more effectively. We need a strategy that that puts us back in control, rather than letting technology overwhelm us. Here’s how.
Step 1: Rethink
Say you spend a total of two hours each day posting on Facebook or Twitter, mindlessly surfing the Web, sculpting your online image, or all of the above, in ways that don’t relate explicitly to your job. It doesn’t seem like much, but over the course of a year, that adds up to roughly 30 days — an entire month vanished in the ether. What do you have to show for it? What else could you have accomplished in that time?
Even multitasking — the preferred excuse of the gadget-obsessed — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A study published in the journal Science in April 2010 found that performing multiple simultaneous tasks leaves the brain somewhat baffled (the phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” comes to mind), while a 2009 Stanford University study found that massive multitaskers are easily distracted and have a hard time sorting out irrelevant information. This unfocused state often results in irrational decision-making. Our brains are, as Washington neurologist Richard Restak put it to me, being “sculpted” by digital forces.
That’s not to mention everything we’ve sacrificed in terms of privacy, personal identity and sleep. No wonder Microsoft’s ad campaign for its new Windows 7 mobile devices features the tag line “A phone to save us from our phones.”
Step 2: Reboot
If you’re due for a detox, it’s best done over a weekend.
First, take your digital devices and assorted tech temptations — anything needing a charger — and put them in a box (yes, an actual box; it can be a shoebox or a dresser drawer). Second, and this is scary, give someone you trust the passwords to your social networking accounts (never for your bank or credit card accounts, of course), so they can change them to remove any temptation to log on. Third, set a message on your cellphone saying you won’t be available to check in for a couple of days (let callers assume you’re on a remote vacation). Fourth, stop sending texts. You can check your e-mail, but just once each day, maybe in the evening. For one weekend, downsize the communications technology in your life.
You might enjoy checking the weather by stepping outside and looking up rather than tapping a smartphone icon. You can pick up a book rather than your laptop. You can exercise more, or engage in a conversation with someone face to face. Spend more time reading with your kids. Organize your closet. Pull out the musical instrument that has been gathering dust in the basement.
Over the detox weekend, get a regular old-school notebook and jot down your answers to the following questions: How are your face-to-face relationships with people close to you? How would you describe your reliance on the technology in the box? Are you terrified at the thought of disconnecting?
Revisit these questions constantly throughout your digital diet.
Step 3: Reconnect
The point of the diet is not to eliminate gadgets from your life but to assign them their proper place. One way to do this is by being vigilant about your e-day — the time you spend online each day, from when your digital use starts to when it ends.
During detox, the length of your e-day should be basically zero. As you build back to a healthy digital balance in your life, your e-day will grow — but it shouldn’t expand right back to where it was.
Slowly, start using some of your gadgets again, at first for just a one-hour e-day. Keep a record in your notebook of the time spent with each one. Notice how your usage adds up, and ask yourself why you’re using each device. Has technology replaced something in your life that concerns you? Is your identity being shaped through social networks? (When something happens, do you find yourself thinking about how best to describe it on Facebook?)
Begin to set some boundaries for your e-day. Establish limits on when people can expect to hear from you, for instance. (Even if you’re awake, don’t respond to work e-mails at 2 a.m.) Begin your e-day with a cup of coffee, sans gadgets, and end it by charging your devices in the kitchen overnight, not in your bedroom, where they will drain your personal energy and impede any snuggle time. Buy an alarm clock; if your BlackBerry or iPhone doubles as your alarm, it will demand your attention the moment you wake up. For one day, at least, set your smartphone to give no alerts for e-mails and texts. Check it when you choose to and on your own time.
Make a note of the times that you reached for your gadgets. Were you alone or with others? Was there a lull in the conversation, or were you just bored? Did you worry that you were missing something online — or something right in front of you?
Over time, set a conscious time limit for your e-day, whether 90 minutes, three hours or another realistic goal. If you feel your willpower flagging, you can always outsource your self-control. Ironically, and perhaps aptly, technology can help. In my book on this subject, I list dozens of sites and apps that can help you manage your tech time better. There’s the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, which assists in eliminating your various social network profiles. The management software RescueTime breaks down where all those computer minutes go and helps limit your time online. And the ValleyZen blog offers insight on how Zen principles can help you cut back: For instance, the “kanso” principle of elimination of clutter translates into keeping favorite sites to a minimum, closing down old accounts and avoiding having too many devices in your pocket.
Just don’t spend too much time with these sites.
Step 4: Revitalize
Going on a digital diet is also about reconnecting with people and renewing your relationships. It’s about finding the time for a coffee date, tucking your child in with a story, and looking friends and colleagues in the eye while talking with them. It’s about taking more control and recapturing a bit of sanity. After all, no one is forcing you to become so overloaded and frustrated. The answers are, well, in your hands.
I’ve developed some digital rules to live by that can help in this stage. Now, repeat after me:
I will live in the real world. It can be wonderful to learn more about the lives of my friends and family members through social networks, but I won’t let the screen become my only connection.
I must choose the human or the device. If someone is talking to me, I will do my best to put my gadget aside and listen to them.
I will not be afraid to disconnect. I can return to the detox stage every once in a while, perhaps one day a month. It can be a family event, a reminder of life without gadgets.
I will trust my instincts. If I worry that I’m spending too much time browsing social networks, texting or playing online games, I probably am.
I will avoid tech turds. I will not just dump my BlackBerry or smartphone on the table at a restaurant or at home. I will keep it in my pocket unless it is critical to have it out. (That’s a courtesy I’d appreciate as well.)
Finally, I will not be afraid to call out those people in my life who are burying their heads in technology too often. I will take a stand.
But I need to be prepared to have others tell me the same thing.
Daniel Sieberg, a former science and technology correspondent for CBS and CNN, is a contributor to ABC News, MSNBC and CBS News. This essay is adapted from his new book “The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life.”