In a tech-saturated world, it's hard to disconnect. There's always a text message alert chirping at us, or incoming e-mail popping up – and we don't want to miss out on Facebook. But what happens when we want to take a more minimal approach to social media? Thanks to the current angst over our digital mania, and what it's doing to our mental and physical health, there's plenty of advice – and more than a few apps – to help curb your cravings.
Know thy techie self
In his book The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang recommends keeping a diary of your screen time for one day. Ask yourself: How often did you effectively multitask? What were you feeling? Were you ignoring something (or someone) more important?
Take a break
Pang recommends a regular time (or an entire day) when work won't (or shouldn't) get in the way to stop checking e-mail or turn off the cellphone.
Get a real alarm clock
Don't keep your phone by your bedside, where you will be tempted to check it in the middle of the night, or before falling asleep, when screen time interferes with sleep.
Declutter your screen
One popular software is WriteRoom (or Dark Room for Windows users), which allows you to type on a full black screen, with a crisp green font – no margins or font options, no e-mail to poke at you, no excuses for procrastinating.
A ringing phone need not always be answered
For instance, Pang gives his family and close friends a few bars of Eric Clapton's Layla for their ring tone – it brightens his day to hear it. Everyone else gets boring elevator music.
Software that soothes the soul
William Henshall, a former member of the R&B band Londonbeat, likes to joke that he's a musician in the business of creating music that's only successful if people don't hear it. Henshall is the chief executive officer of Focus@Will, an online software company that has created a subscription music service designed to play in the background while people work. The website – and Henshall – claim the music selections are based on scientific research, composed with a "secret sauce" in the compositions that engages the brain just enough that the mind helps hold focus focuses for longer. If you subscribe, you get a list of music options from acoustic to classical. as well as You also get to choose your level of intensity. (The soundtrack for ADHD is a jackhammer-type beat.) The idea is that when you actually notice a song, you press the skip button, because that means you have been distracted by it.
Bring in a tech-based enforcer
Along the same line, Pang is a keen fan of Freedom, a program that blocks your Internet connection for up to eight hours, no matter how many times you click on it. (You can, in desperation, restart your computer.) There's also RescueTime, which tracks your Web activity (and will block sites you have decided are distractions) and tells you how you spent your time at day's end.
Your smartphone as breathing coach
There are apps that guide you through mini meditation breaks, or prompt you to record stress levels. But the most interesting one actually interacts with you. The Inner Balance app measures your heartbeat. If it senses you are breathing unevenly or too quickly, the screen prompts you to "focus on a calm feeling" and breathe in time with geometric shapes, until you are in "high coherence." You can also download pictures of your family to help focus. The idea is that, over time, users will learn to breathe more mindfully, which helps lower heart rates and deliver more oxygen to the brain. The company, HeartMath, has an entire line of products that have been used to help athletes and trauma patients.
Ditch the tech guilt
So what if you'd rather play Words with Friends on a weekend evening than go out to party? Part of living mindfully is owning your decision, without wasting energy making excuses, says Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University who has studied mindfulness for decades. "It takes a strong person to say there is time for everything."