Last week, we asked this question:
What are the most overwhelming areas of my life? If I were proactive in these areas (instead of operating in a default, reactionary state), how could I clear the excess and focus on what matters most?
In this post, we’re going to get really practical and tactical.
Understanding the (Designed) Problem
I used to think my life was overwhelming by default, and that I simply didn’t have enough time and mental energy to do everything I believed I was called to do. I didn’t sit around and watch TV, and I’d even turned all of the notifications off on my phone, but I still found the days to be far too short. But I’ll never forget the sucker punch of conviction I felt when I was standing in my kitchen, peeling potatoes, and listening to Greg McKeown (author of Essentialism) tell Allie Casazza in an interview:
“Pick up your phone and don’t get distracted by it…. [Look at your screentime usage]…. Now this is one tiny but factual resource for how people are spending time…. You can’t believe it, can you?…. But you could be above average in today’s world and still, in fact everyone is, still sucked into nonessentialism. This is the power of nonessentialism. It’s everywhere. And it’s not everywhere by default, it’s everywhere by design.”
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the constant stimuli of your electronic devices and yet unable to live without them, you’re taking part in what’s becoming the universal anxiety of the developed world.
“People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable…. we seem to have stumbled backwards into a digital life we didn’t sign up for…. it’s probably more accurate to say that we were pushed into it by the high-end device companies and attention economy conglomerates who discovered there are vast fortunes to be made in a culture dominated by gadgets and apps.” — Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
Here’s the thing about technology and our precious time: our devices are amazing tools that can be used in powerful ways to help us become time-efficiency-ninjas. But every screen you own is also battlefield for your time and attention. The tech industry has invested untold amounts of cash into consulting with brain scientists to take advantage of user psychology and break down the natural mental boundaries that protect our intention and our focus. This is not a conspiracy theory—it’s a well-documented fact. Many popular apps interact with your brain’s dopamine loop, delivering unpredictable rewards and duds at just the right balance, so that it addicts you in much the same way playing slot machines would. Their #1 objective is to keep you on their app, and to keep your focus fragmented enough that you keep scrolling and tapping, consuming more information, and depositing your own data into the app so they can track your interests and optimize your advertisements.
“You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers.” — Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook employee
And that’s the key right there—the advertisements. This digital battlefield is called “the attention economy,” and these companies who are deliberately engineering medically addictive apps are coming under a lot of fire, even in mainstream conversations.
And while solutions to the unethical aspects of all of this ought to be found, I want to zero-in on the one thing you absolutely can control: your personal responsibility as a consumer in the attention economy.
A New Approach to Technology
Here are some enduring principles and strategies to empower you as you navigate this uncharted territory:
- You have personal responsibility and power over how you spend your time. You may have been pushed into an addiction because you never realized the way these apps were engineered to monopolize your time, but now that you have the power of knowledge, you have the responsibility to take your time and attention back. You don’t have to give into impulses, you can decide how much of your mental bandwidth you’re willing to sell to these platforms, you can set up strong boundaries, and you can take charge of your days.
- You don’t have to believe that all technology is evil to become more intentional. Anyone could recite a hundred ways that technology (and even social media) have benefited them. There’s a lot to be gained from being connected to a global marketplace, having immediate channels of communication, and enjoying open access to quality information. Technology is an incredible toolkit. But each tool in the kit must be used with intention.
- Your approach to technology should always support your overarching goals and never distract from them. Your overarching goals need to be clear to you (journal them out!), and each technological habit and activity needs to be carefully evaluated for how well it supports those goals. Even slower, long-form media like podcasts can be overwhelming you with information and giving your brain zero bandwidth to process the information that’s already loading it down. Taking an extended break from social media, video streaming, email lists and loops, and other non-essential screentime habits can help bring a lot of clarity to what is actually advancing your goals (especially if it’s long enough to break addiction cycles and detox effectively—Cal Newport recommends 30 days.)
- You should trade techno-maximalism for an essentialist approach when it comes to technology. Digital Minimalism, a critical book by Cal Newport, radically changed the culture of our home (for the better) in under a week. My husband has this section underlined: “[After the digital declutter], for each technology that you’re considering reintroducing into your life, you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools back into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant—the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.” Start by turning off all notifications (banners, badges, and popups) and setting aside time in your day and week to be completely unplugged (e.g. charge your phone in a different room when you sleep, consider taking a break from social media on Sundays, stop sharing homeschooling photos on Instagram during school hours, etc).
- You don’t owe your friends and extended family anything via social media. Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and personal growth is mutually supported. If you want to take a step back so you can become radically intentional about your social media usage, you’re not harming anyone by no longer sharing your thoughts digitally, by missing the life updates delivered publicly, or by foregoing posting your children’s photos so that they show up in your family members’ feeds. Your friends and family members may react in a confused or negative way, but you can gently communicate that you’re taking a break from social media to reevaluate your priorities.
A Practical Approach
You can leverage the power of habit to reverse the negative effects of hyperconnectivity starting today.
Here’s my personal strategy for beating screen addiction and cultivating a technological space that drives my goals forward instead of distracting me from them.
- Firstly, I engage in technology fasts frequently. I clear the mental and emotional clutter by avoiding every single digital tool and platform that isn’t necessary for me to do my job (and then I put strict time limits on when I can engage the tools I am required to use for work).
- Secondly, I optimize my digital work landscape in order to streamline and protect my focus. I use the power of habit to do so. Habits are a three-part automation: the cue, the activity, and the reward. (Engineers use this to addict you to their apps: a notification is the cue, the social interaction on their platform is the activity, and the dopamine response is the reward.) I often set a timer for five minutes and engage in this cycle—but I use it to the advantage of my future focus. Here’s how: I open my work environment and let the first thing that catches my eye (the cue) direct my attention. Then I skim the content and ask Cal Newport’s question: “does this [content] directly support something I deeply value [in my business]?” If the answer is not a resounding “YES!!,” then I immediately unsubscribe or unfollow (the activity). Then I visualize all of the mental bandwidth I just freed up to focus on things that do matter to me and lean into the empowered feeling that comes along with exercising self-control (the reward). Using this strategy, I’ve found that decluttering itself can become addictive. But unlike the overwhelm that comes with maximalism, an essentialist approach vastly improves your quality of life by putting you back in charge of your time and attention. Once my timer goes off (it’s important that it’s only five minutes long so I don’t start experiencing decision-fatigue), my intention-muscles feel stronger and I can dive into the task I sat down to do.
Use your planner to timeblock the following things: your responsibilities, space for engaging in the deep work needed to advance your most important goals, ample time for in-person relationships, adequate rest and self-care, and then pad everything with margin. Then see how much time you have leftover for optional tech habits. When I did this exercise, I found that I had about four hours per week that could even reasonably go to social media. And then I thought about what else I could do with four hours per week: I could write more, read more, or spend more time outside. The allure of social media dampened considerably as I imagined how it felt to use all of my discretionary time scrolling versus getting out to hike with my kids or curling up next to my husband with a good book.
You may have unwittingly been a target of the engineers of technology in the past, but now that you understand what’s happening, you have a choice to make. You will never get back the minutes and hours spent in a mindless scroll. Become ruthlessly honest with yourself. Get Cal Newport’s book. Fast from social media for a season and deeply relish the time with your family. Ask the Lord to help you overcome any addictions that strip you of your power to be intentional. Connect to your core calling and show up as a leader in your own life. You got this.
Are you ready to launch into an entirely new way of planning? We created the Evergreen Planner System because we needed a tool that would help us use the time we’ve been given intentionally, and it has become something we can’t live without. The Getting Started Kit is the perfect way to try two of our core products – the Annual and the Monthly. Don’t wait until we launch our next subscription box – get the tools you need today!