It’s no big surprise that over the past 12 months (and arguably, long before), we’ve grown helplessly dependent on screens for nearly all aspects of our working life and free time, for both our stressing and our de-stressing. There’s no escape.
Don’t get us wrong, technology has been a hugely empowering tool over the course of a gruelling year, allowing us to stay in touch with loved ones, to have our kids educated and to keep our jobs at a time of necessary social distancing. Yet as we cloister ourselves away from the viral threat outside, stationed in our bedroom offices, slumping in front of the TV or mindlessly scrolling through social media, the time we spend in front of screens is exacting a serious physical, mental and emotional toll that goes beyond “Zoom fatigue”.
The sedentary, hunched-over existence of the remote worker, lacking even that short walk to a colleague’s desk let alone the post work five-a-side match, is conducive to chronic hip, back and shoulder pain. Moreover, it increases the risk of obesity and heart disease.
We’ve all experienced eye strain and dryness after a long day on our laptops, but did you know that excessive screen time has also been proven to induce retina damage, blurred vision and an increased need for glasses? The light from our screens has also been seen to cause skin damage and inflammation, slowly breaking down healthy collagen and contributing to skin ageing.
Even sleep is no refuge from the all-pervasive screen; studies show that using our devices before bed increases the time it takes us to fall asleep and diminishes our sleep quality. Phones, tablets and computers emit short-wavelength enriched light, or “blue light” which reduces the production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness. Blue light lessens time spent in slow-wave and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, two stages of the sleep cycle crucial for cognitive functioning.
Lastly, with lockdown collapsing the boundary between work and home, with our smartphone culture rendering us inescapably “always online” and with a furious barrage of stress-inducing news and social media notifications flooding our down time, screens are impacting our mental health. On top of that, they’re damaging our relationships. How many of us have compulsively checked our phones during dinner with family? Or opted to binge a sitcom instead of discussing our day with flatmates?
Although designed as tools to help us manage our lives, our devices increasingly control our lives. To regain balance, health and peace of mind, here are five ways we’d suggest to reduce your screen time.
1. Get Outside
You won’t be surprised to hear this from us…
In the gap between Zoom calls, in that fifteen minutes in the morning before the working day begins or that brief half hour you have for lunch, it’s tempting to sit back and scroll social media, to check the news or to sift through unimportant emails. But not only do these distractions prevent much-needed relaxation, they hamper your ability to perform your job well, reducing your concentration and available cognitive capacity well beyond the fleeting seconds you spent reading tweets. They also impair your creativity and imagination.
Spending your breaks going for a walk or a jog is not only a fantastic way to de-stress and reduce the physical and mental toll of excessive screen time. It will also give your brain the space it needs to solve that complex problem you’re facing, to creatively generate ideas, to reflect over your priorities and regulate your emotions. It’s no coincidence that the great minds of history, from Charles Darwin to Haruki Murakami, came up with their best ideas away from their desks, while walking or running outdoors.
Remember – while outside, protect your skin!
2. Set limits
Allocate yourself a single window in the day for all your leisurely screen time, for example twenty minutes of social media use after work and before dinner. Your phone’s built in Screen Time function and apps such as RescueTime, Freedom and Self-Control allow you to track your screen time, to set maximum hours and to block certain apps and websites if you have trouble keeping away.
With regards to work, consider scheduling an hour or two of screen-free work per day. If possible, tell colleagues you’ll be unreachable (they’ will understand) and hunker down for some deep focus on that one knotty task you haven’t gotten round to addressing. Some corporate thinkers have advocated for “the Monk Mode Morning”: Between waking and noon you enforce a strict rule of no meetings, no texts, no email, no Internet. This may sound primitive, but you’ll be surprised at how clearly you’ll be able to think, complete tasks and plan the rest of your day. Not every job requires a 45 minute video call and back-and-forth emails.
3. Tech-free zones
Even during lock down, there are three places we can go to that should have complete and guilt-free respite from technology. The bedroom, the bathroom and the dinner table. Yet, as flagrantly unhygienic, self-destructive and antisocial as this is, smartphones are now occupying and ruling over these zones, refusing to let us switch-off. We keep working or browsing at the exact times when nature is telling us to take a break!
Turn parts of your home into strict tech-free zones. Leave your phone behind when you go to eat with your family or flatmates to nurture close relationships and be present for each other during this difficult time. Leave your phone on your desk during bathroom breaks. Enforce a strict no tech in the bedroom rule that will not only improve your length and quality of sleep and let you read more, but help your intimate relationships as well.
4. Screen-free activities
“Binge-watching” was one of the buzzwords of 2020, but rarely carries the negative connotations of similar terms such as “binge-drinking” or “binge-eating”. Excessive streaming not only extends your sedentary lifestyle but is known to impact mental health.
Try planning screen-free activities a few evenings a week. Play a board game, spend time journalling, drawing, reading, cooking something elaborate or attempting new home workouts. Allocate a couple days of the week to be your “screen-free” evenings. You might get bored, but boredom is good; in this era of overstimulation, we refuse to let our minds wander, to be alone with our thoughts. These things are important for our mental health and creativity.
5. Digital de-cluttering
We’ve all felt overwhelmed by the grip technology has over our thoughts and lives but few of us have sat back to reflect on what specific role our devices actually serve and whether they align with our goals and values.
Adam Alter, Professor of Business and Psychology at New York University has found that on average smartphone users spend three times as much time on apps that don’t make them happy (which tend to be social networking, dating, gaming and news apps) than they do on ones that make them happy (which tend to be apps to do with relaxation, exercise, health and reading). Maybe it’s time to refocus your relationship with technology towards what really makes you happy.
Cal Newport, the author of “Digital Minimalism” advocates a “Digital De-clutter Process”: Take a month away from your optional technologies before building your digital life from scratch. This month creates a “detox effect” that rids you of that strong twitch you feel to pull out your phone or open a new tab. You spend this time getting back in touch with your values and what you really want to spend your life on. You then select your digital tools, apps and sites on the basis of whether it’s something that supports your values. For example, WhatsApp might support your values by helping you stay in contact with friends overseas, but Instagram and Netflix may steal time away from other activities you could be doing to support your values.
While de-cluttering might sound like extreme rehab, and a month away from apps a miserable luxury few can afford, the principle that underlies this process, aligning your screen-time with your values, will go some way to alleviating the mental toll of excessive usage.