How to Stay Zen in a Digital World
Text, email, and social media don't merely distract us. They plain stress us out. Here's how to manage the communication overload and delete the anxiety once and for all.
If you're feeling frazzled, it could be that you're truly busier than ever before. Or it may be because of the 38 new emails in your inbox, the constant pinging of your phone, and your friend's just-baked Bundt cake on Instagram that you "need" to check out. You may think that this hyperconnectivity has increased your anxiety by lengthening your to-do lists. But in truth, the stress stems from something far more profound. Our portable tablets and phones steal away not only time, but also the very things that we crave to feel grounded, like sleep and eye contact with other human beings. Clearing your inbox isn't the answer; changing your attitude toward it is. Consider this approach.
DON'T START THE DAY WITH EMAILS
You're just setting yourself up for a frenetic morning if you do. Pre-Internet, we faced just one or two pieces of information at a time that might spark an emotion, says Emma Seppälä, a psychologist and science director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research & Education. But today, the jumbled contents of a typical inbox -- comments from your child's teacher, requests from friends, a coupon for shoes you covet, a credit-card bill -- can be more than we're equipped to handle. "It's overwhelming," Seppälä says. Another layer of stress occurs after you've dealt with all the email: You realize that you're now running late.
To avoid feeling defeated before even changing out of your pajamas, resist the urge to grab the phone as you roll out of bed. Instead, seize the day and focus on offline activities like packing lunch. This way, you'll kick off your morning feeling productive.
STOP THE CONSTANT PHONE-MONITORING
You don't need to go cold turkey. Just check your messages less often. A 2015 University of British Columbia study suggests that by curbing the habit to three times a day, you'll feel as calm as you would from taking up a relaxation technique, such as visualization (that's when you picture yourself on a beach or some other tranquil place). You'll also become more productive: When the study's subjects dove into their inbox only at the designated three times, they spent 20 percent fewer total minutes on it, compared to those who were tackling documents as they popped up throughout the day. (This means that if you typically spend an hour each workday on email, you've just gained an extra 12 minutes -- and by Friday night, a whole hour, which is enough time to grab a bite with friends.)
This approach is tricky, of course, if you're expected to cater to a client's up-to-the-minute demands. The key is to figure out when you have to be plugged in and when you don't. For some of us, checking four instead of six times an hour is small but important progress. If you're concerned that colleagues might think you're ignoring them, create an auto-reply that lets them know you'll respond, just not right away. "It helps others understand that you're trying not to be obsessed with your email," says Larry D. Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University. You never know -- they may like your idea and change their habits, too.
BAN TECH BEFORE BED
It's bad enough that nine out of 10 Americans use their devices an hour before bed. What's worse, though, is that 49 percent swipe their phones on in the middle of the night when they're struggling to fall asleep, according to a 2015 study by Rosen. The problem? What helps you get to sleep and stay asleep is the buildup of the hormone melatonin in your blood after dark. However, the blue light waves emitted from your screen disrupt that process. So you end up tossing and turning for even longer -- and feeling awful the next day. "Sleep flushes away stress-hormone molecules," says Rosen, the study's author. With less of it, traces remain in the brain -- muddling up our thinking and wreaking havoc on our mood. We end up feeling forgetful (which in itself can be distressing) and testy. So wrap things up about an hour or so before bed, and don't take your phone with you. If you're worried about urgent calls, put it in a drawer and use the "do not disturb" setting, which filters only designated callers through.
HIDE YOUR DEVICES
If it's not your phone stressing you out, it's other people's. Scientists at the University of Essex, in the U.K., found that just having one on the table -- even if it's not being used -- keeps us from paying full attention to the person in front of us. Phones compete in the most nerveracking way: by cutting us off without warning, so we're kept on high alert, argues Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation (Penguin, 2015). So even as we're talking and listening to someone, we avoid asking thoughtful questions or giving detailed responses. Constantly being there-but-not-there destroys our ability for empathy. Conversation is critical to our collective well-being, writes Turkle; it's "the most human thing we do." Make efforts, then, to meet others in person, and mutually agree to leave those pesky disrupters in your bags. (Use the "do not disturb" setting, if need be.) You may find that, over time, you've fostered richer friendships, which, of course, are a great buffer against stress -- from tech and of any other kind.
With these enlightened apps, you can use your phone or tablet to manage your time on it.
This program (justgetflux.com) will dim the light emitted from your laptop, tablet, or phone to match your indoor lighting as the sun sets. It's not only a nice reminder to put your device away -- it reduces the sleep-diminishing blue waves coming from your screen.
Praised by numerous productive writers, including Nick Hornby and Naomi Klein, this Internet blocker (freedom.to) will shield you from any site you choose or the entire Web-whenever and for as long as you like.
Instead of scrolling through Facebook when waiting in line, meditate with the help of this portable mindfulness trainer (headspace.com). Choose your goal (such as stress reduction or focus) and the app will guide you through a two-minute (or longer) session. It's quite possibly more therapeutic than kittens on your Instagram feed.