I think it crept in insidiously. I saw others getting “addicted” to their phones, to social media, to needing to check their electronics constantly, and I wanted no part of it. I was the last stronghold to get a smartphone. I had no need or desire for one. While everyone else had one for years already, I was content with my “un-smart” phone, quite satisfied to set aside a few designated periods in my day to check emails, get on the internet, and do my other business from my computer — and only when necessary.
When I finally broke down and got a smart phone years ago, at first it was quite amazing and exciting — to be able to check my email whenever I was standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a train. I thought, “this is great, it will actually save me time because I’ll use these otherwise unproductive moments to get through emails so that I don’t have to do it later.” And for a while, I think that was true. But somewhere along the way I could feel it shifting from a convenience to a need, a sense that I am missing something if I don’t check more frequently.
Even without being on social media for other than professional purposes, I see how addictive our electronic devices can become. I can feel my brain seeking out that next “hit” of stimulation or novelty or something that pulls me down the rabbit hole I swore I’d never fall into. How unusual it is now to have an empty moment, such as on line at the grocery store, or waiting for someone to meet me for lunch, and not feel the impulse to want to check my phone. Electronics can create a compulsive need to fill every moment with something. And our brains did not evolve to handle this influx of constant stimulation that we are often bombarded with. No wonder it can feel overwhelming.
So what do we do about this? Clearly electronic devices are here to stay, so we need to figure out a way to live side by side with them, without losing ourselves in their grasp. Here are some suggestions:
- Mindful awareness is foundational for dealing with this inundation of social and electronic information at our fingertips. We can start to pay attention to our impulses to check devices constantly, and notice unease when we resist an impulse to pull out the phone (or other smart device) immediately. You might do this by setting up some small experiments for yourself. Notice what it is like to wake up in the morning and not check your computer or phone or smart device first thing. See how long you can last before doing this. Bring your attention and awareness into your body and notice what physical sensations are there. Is there any discomfort or unease, and if so, where in your body do you most feel it? Also notice what emotions are present, and what you are thinking to yourself. Do you feel anxiety, boredom? Is there a feeling of missing out, or a worry that something important is happening without you? You might also do this any time you have a few quiet moments or are waiting somewhere — in line, at a restaurant by yourself, in the car (hopefully as the passenger, not the driver), in the bathroom. Becoming aware of how electronics affect you creates a space in which you can begin to choose how you want to respond, rather than reacting automatically.
- Notice the pull of social media. Become aware of the ways in which social media is serving you, and in what ways it is not. When you are interacting on social media, pay attention to the ways that it helps you feel connected to others and enriches your life. But also notice any ways that it may create pressure or anxiety for you, ways that it may tap into insecurities or be an attempt to fill an unmet need of some kind. This is all helpful information. Don’t judge what is there, just notice it and allow it to guide you to listen to what might be most helpful for you. You might do this by, as above, dropping your awareness into your body and paying attention to the sensations and emotions present. When you are communicating with your good friend who lives 200 miles away perhaps there is a sense of warmth in your body, or openness around your heart, or a feeling of genuine happiness for some good news shared. Notice this. But also notice the urgency you might feel about checking to see how many likes you got, and how this creates tension in your body, and possible feelings of inadequacy or self-judgment.
- Create electronic-free moments. Find moments in your day when you can savor the spaces and pauses, and bring your awareness to the present without filling them by reaching for electronics. Make it a point, for example, of not pulling out your phone when you are in line somewhere tomorrow. Instead, look around and notice the people standing beside you. What kind of day might they be having? What might you notice in this pause that you would not otherwise see? Perhaps it is looking out the window and noticing the colors of the leaves, or the way the sun is glimmering behind the clouds. Bring your awareness to all of your senses and make contact with what is here right now. Try to do this multiple times in your day. See if you might set up designated periods of time to check devices during the day (whatever the frequency) — and then designate the other times as device-free, so that your day is not one continuous checking of devices. Turn off audible notifications on your smart devices at these times so that incoming messages and texts don’t constantly bombard you.
- Create electronic free spaces. Choose spaces and accompanying activities within your home that are electronic-free zones. For example, at the dinner table, make it a point to leave your devices in another room and silence them, so that you can savor your meal and give undivided attention to anyone you might be eating with (including eating by yourself and being fully present with yourself, which might be a scary thought for some, but one worth trying). Perhaps don’t bring your phone into your bedroom, or commit to shutting it off at a certain time of night before you wind down for bed. Set aside certain spaces for checking emails, texting, etc., (such as at your desk, or at a table) and other electronic free spaces where you might read or listen to music or enjoy conversations.
Whatever you choose to try, notice what this is like when you do this. What is difficult about it, and in what ways does it enhance your ability to be present in your life? Make a commitment to do what works and be willing to work on it daily by paying attention, on purpose, with your eyes open.