In a new brand-campaign video for the file-sharing site WeTransfer called Please Leave, Roxane Gay narrates a poem that extols the virtues of life in the real world, away from a screen, as a woman gambols outside. The software company surveyed creatives around the world and found, naturally, that they put a premium on the analog world where ideas happen, according to the campaign’s accompanying “Ideas Report,” which urges users to “switch off to switch on your ideas.”
But cold-turkey unplugging is overhyped. Unfortunately, nuanced moderation doesn’t make for as good a clickbait headline as “Are smartphones making us dumb?” After taking in all the philosophical and political underpinnings of articles and books promising some variation on how to be happier, smarter and more successful, we’re left sitting on the couch, phone in hand, with the practical problem of how to stop the tail wagging the dog. We have to live in the world we made. Realistically, that means better digital habit-management, not abnegation.
The idea of not having the time – to read more books, to cook a meal, to catch up with a friend – is bogus. But digital habits do suck up one of our most valuable resources: attention. That, in turn, has a profound effect on life and relationships, from employee burnout to sleep deficit, empathy to oxytocin, the hormone that plays an important role in social bonding. The pings, the push notifications, the seductive buzz in the pocket may seem to merit dramatic and drastic measures, but just as algorithms decide what content to surface and what to prioritize, so can we.
Figuring it out is important because our digital habit is on the rise. Ottawa research firm Media Technology Monitor’s first-annual MTM Junior survey of young Canadians’ media-consumption habits published last month found that 40 per cent of Canadian children age 2-17 own their own smartphone – that’s two out of every five (79 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds, and 24 per cent of kids age 7-11). And it’s only growing.
When redundancy and noise replace resonance and meaning, many posit the remedy to reverse it as a sort of “turn on, tune in, drop out” in the age of distraction (think digital-detox bootcamps). Yet, like extreme minimalism, the tech-free getaway is a luxury item. One can spend 10 days at Canyon Ranch Spa, where a phalanx of nutritionists, chefs and trainers reset habits, but does it last once you get home and have to get through the rhythm of your particular schedule? Likewise, ambitious promises for more meaningful holiday time have all the lasting power of New Year’s resolutions. But figuring out how to form better habits that will last is simple and free.
After minimization techniques to make your home screen look less like an invitation to the carnival of distractions – such as disabling read receipts, push notifications and going greyscale – having both a wristwatch and an alarm clock helps reduce the number of times you glance at a screen and get sucked in. And instead of investing in new tech, such as slightly less-smart phones such as the Light Phone (which just makes phone calls), which by design have limited functionality, start paying more attention to the ups and triumphant downs of weekly reports from Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellbeing, which track and measure phone usage.
Stanford University’s Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute recently completed a decade-long study of the effect of multitasking on cognitive function. It studied neural addictions and task-switching between streams of media not only because of the long-term cognitive cost but because it ups the stress hormone cortisol.
That’s what got me on the digital-mindfulness track, because I’ve always been a prodigious reader but began falling behind on the books in my to-be-read pile due to time spent mindlessly swiping. At the same time, I noticed how rapid digital access to immediate, vast information had started affecting my memory recall and deep reading/thinking. I wanted to wrest back control of both my attention span and the proof of all the lost minutes and hours I could have spent on things that I value more, such as reading.
The absent-minded bedtime swipe that lasts 40 minutes has replaced the nightcap. Dr. Imran Rashid, a medical doctor and IT entrepreneur, likens the appeal of that end-of-day scroll to “participating in a very unpredictable soap opera,” so that your brain keeps you slightly high on small doses of dopamine but with autopilot functioning “somewhere in that grey area just barely below your attentive conscious radar.”
The key to successful moderation of digital habits for me is not only to be oriented away from the tempting bad habit, but to actively replace it and orient toward another activity. Rashid calls these countermoves, and tackles our uncritical usage in a reasoned how-to called Offline: Free Your Mind from Smartphone and Social Media Stress, a bestseller in his native Denmark now translated into English. With my new-found offscreen time I’ve read a dozen similar books and this is the closest I’ve come to taking a self-defence class, because it uses the same “mind hacks” that Facebook, Apple, Google and Instagram used to turn us into habitual users.
Denmark, by the way, ranks high on the World Happiness Report that grew out of the United Nations’s meeting on well-being and happiness. The report relies on Gallup World Poll answers to life-evaluation questions and correlates unhappiness to economic markers – as well as to the increased use of digital media. Some of the blame also goes to how much markedly less in-person interaction we have (an hour less a day of true face-time interaction for iGen than Gen X in the late 1980s, according to the report), as well as fewer hours spent on other activities that don’t involve screens, including sleeping. WeTransfer’s campaign solution isn’t entirely cynical: The long answer is to put down the phone. The short one: Make more eye contact.
Live with style. We have a weekly Style newsletter on fashion and design trends, plus shopping tips and inspiration. Sign up today.