How to Improve Your Relationship with Technology

Nowadays, it’s common to see people clinging to their devices (smartphones in particular) in public places. We may be physically present with our family and friends, but mentally we are elsewhere — a phenomenon known as “alone together”. We have forgotten what it’s like to just be with them.

Although the technology might have evolved from yesteryear, our behaviors to use these tools have not appropriately caught up. This is particularly true with the millennials and senior citizens.

Besides smartphones, social media is another example of such a tool. The more we use social media, the more we’re likely to feel lonely and/or isolated. It can leave us feeling inadequate while increasing our levels of anxiety and depression. Using them sub-optimally is fragmenting our attention and reducing our ability to concentrate, which is directly affecting the quality of our work. I would go so far to say that social media is making us anti-social. We have become increasingly isolated with our screens at the expense of community values.

Our phones are like slot machines while our apps are designed to be addictive by the so-called “attention engineers” hired by these organizations to make us spend maximum time in their apps. The addictive nature of these apps (including notifications) keeps us coming back for more and more intermittent variable rewards in the form of dopamine hits.

We often find ourselves distracted or interrupted at work versus getting work done. We consume so much information mindlessly all of the time that it becomes overbearing. We leave no space to just be. We don’t relax enough doing absolutely nothing. Our idea of relaxing is looking at a screen and consuming content. Heck, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to get bored. Because we are so quick to satisfy our every impulse, we have forgotten what it’s like to delay gratification. We have allowed technology to disconnect us from ourselves, our children, and our families. It has affected our ability to be fully present in the moment.

We were not designed for so much constant stimulation. This need for constant stimulation is reducing our attention span, increasing our stress and anxiety, and affecting our sleep. Our attention is getting fragmented and we are losing our ability to concentrate on things for long periods of time to produce any kind of meaningful work.

We’re increasingly moving toward a world with more and more things to consume on the web than we possibly could. And with more things to consume, there is an increased chance that we’ll end up consuming more. Unless we decide to do something about it now, we risk spreading ourselves too thin, which will ultimately undermine our ability to do good work on a consistent basis.

We find ourselves using these tools (phones, social media, information, etc.) as if they were our masters and we were their servants when it should be the reverse. We have lost control of our relationship with technology because we have allowed technology to become better at controlling us.

Here are some ideas for improving your relationship with technology.

Learn to be present. Slow the heck down. Meditate every day for 25 minutes. It’s a wonderful tool to temporarily defrag the mess of your mind and will help you be more mindful. Simplify your life. Treat your attention with respect and do the same for others. Have family/work values for spending that time together without technology.

We let tools get in the way of our relationships. The tool is never the problem. How we use them is the problem. If you think about it, today’s tools (such as smartphones) are no different than those from the past, such as newspapers, radios, telephones, etc. The medium might have changed or evolved, but their basic nature remains the same, which is to dispense information to us.

Tools are great servants but terrible masters. At the end of the day, we can blame the tools all we want, but it’s ultimately our responsibility how we use it. (Remember, with great freedom comes great responsibility). We might be quick to say that technology (such as our smartphones, social media, etc.) is clamoring for our attention, but it is ultimately our responsiblity to use it well and not to misuse it by constant use.

Learn to use your smartphone (and other devices) with some discretion.

With yourself, use it intentionally. Every time you find yourself reaching for your phone, pause and ask yourself if you have a reason to check or if you are just reaching for it mindlessly. More often than not, you’ll find no particular reason for reaching for it but to satisfy an itch/impulse that you feel because the phone is in front of you. Only when you know exactly why you’re reaching for it is when you’re okay. Speaking of feelings/impulses, try to relegate them to values.

With others, don’t let it get in the way of your presence. When you’re meeting someone, put the phone away and expect the same from them. If they refuse to do so, choose not to spend time with them in the future, citing your value difference. Your time and attention is as important as theirs (if not more so).

The same is true for spending time with our friends and family, who can often take our time (and attention) for granted if we let them, in which case, you have to let them know politely, yet assertively (by showing courage and sensitivity). You have to “teach” them how to “behave” with you.

We should never let technology get in the way of people. For instance, if you have a business and a customer is in front of you while the ringing phone is also clamoring for your attention, deal with the customer who is in front of you first. Even though there might be a customer on the other side of the phone, they’ll have to wait. A human in front of you warrants your attention much more than the one on the telephone.

When you find yourself in public places, always use your phone with headphones plugged in when consuming content, and never use the phone’s speaker, thereby respecting the space of others rather than violating them. I know this sounds so obvious, but it’s a lot more common than you might think.

Instead of arbitrarily taking calls all day, check your phone (like email) at set times. Either return calls when you check your phone or schedule calls with others. Regardless, you’re not answering calls all day and let’s not forget that your phone is for your convenience, period. How you use it is no one’s business. Others might still try to make it your problem, but it’s up to you to not let that happen.

When you’re working (or sleeping), keep your phone in a different room. There is research that suggests that the mere presence of a phone in the room (face up/down, turned on/off, in plain sight or hidden) can reduce our ability to focus and do things, as part of our brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

Create hard boundaries between your work and personal life. Remember, you’re not getting paid to check your email outside of your work time. When you physically leave your workplace at the end of each work day, your work should end there and it should not resume until the following work day, unless of course, you decide to work or check your work email. Anything else should be unacceptable.

Remove email from your phone. Checking your email all of the time is akin to pulling the slot machine to get a dopamine hit. This goes back to random positive reinforcement. Instead, choose to use email only on your computer to no more than twice a day.

David Allen has said:

One of the factors of creating addiction is random positive reinforcement. If you’re trying to train your dog…you don’t want a treat every time. The more random, the more powerful the addiction to the behavior. There is hardly anything that has more random positive reinforcement than email and social media. Any of you golfers out there: one good stroke, one good drive, will keep you coming back to hit 400 crappy ones.

Remove social media apps (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, etc.) from your phone. These apps are designed to be addictive. Better yet, quit social media altogether or learn to use it in a controlled manner. You could still use these services on your computer at a fraction of the original time if you wanted, and, by doing so, you would be making the most of these services while greatly avoiding the addictive nature of these apps. Also, let’s not forget that as compulsive as these apps may be, it’s still up to us how to use them.

Learn to consume information mindfully. Have a healthy information diet. Limit your inputs greatly. That means reading fewer articles, listening to fewer podcasts, etc. Try to get information just in time (when you need it and are ready to apply it) versus consuming it mindlessly.

The way social media services are designed is for you to consume breadth of information randomly (such as newsfeed) rather than learning about something in depth. For instance, when you want to learn about something (say, watches), you can go to YouTube and spend an hour learning exactly about something that you want, which is very different than going to YouTube and watching videos arbitrarily. Even though in both cases you’re using YouTube, only when you’re proactively deciding you want to learn about something makes the tool all the more useful. Heck, you might even choose to browse, then watch a video, then read an article, and all of these things would be fine as long as you’re sticking to the same subject (watches). The problem occurs when we consume information about different things mindlessly to no end. Always go for depth of knowledge rather than breadth. Avoid using the newsfeed in your social media accounts. Even better, unfollow everyone in those accounts so the onus is on you to check on those who are in your network.

When you’re learning about something, give that thing/topic your full attention. Then, it doesn’t matter how you consume information (by reading an article, watching video, or listening to a podcast, etc.) as long as you’re learning about that one thing for that duration.

Use notifications on your phone only for the most important use cases (such as phone calls or text messages) while you disable it for most of the apps.

Use a smaller phone if you can. It will help you limit your screen-time and discourage you from doing anything that requires a bigger screen (such as browsing the web and/or watching videos).

Stop using screens of any kind at least an hour before going to bed so as not to affect your sleep. iOS has a feature called Night Shift that does it automatically for you.

If you’re using smart watches like the Apple Watch (like I do), use them in Airplane Mode most of the time. Otherwise, you’re allowing yourself to be interrupted all day. I use my Watch primarily as a fitness tracker. Some times when I am traveling, I’ll turn off the Airplane Mode to get calls but I am deciding to do that and it’s proactive and intentional on my part versus having it connected to my phone all the time by default.

The tool is never the problem as it is often made out to be. We have not learned the new behaviors required to use the tools appropriately in solitude or with others. Unless we start using these tools mindfully, we risk putting our relationships and careers at stake in the long term.

Sign up to get my best advice on improving your personal effectiveness via my weekly Newsflash: