If you haven’t heard the term digital wellness before, well, you aren’t alone.
Digital wellness is a growing trend toward building healthy habits around technology use. More and more people are fed up with tech companies and social media sites prioritizing time in-app over user wellbeing.
What am I talking about? One easy example is how Instagram and Facebook’s newsfeeds don’t appear in chronological order. If content was shown from newest to oldest users would more likely stop scrolling once they hit something they’ve already seen—not an outcome that benefits Facebook, which depends on ad impressions for the majority of its revenue.
Not only that, but there’s a growing concern in the psychological community around the impact of so much time online. There has now been both a longitudinal study (5,208 participants) and an experimental study (1,095 participants) demonstrating that time spent on social media causes lowered life satisfaction.
Tech companies have been manipulating us to use their products more. So what can we do about it?
Delete: Understand what’s getting in the way of your digital well-being
I’ve spent the better part of two years looking for the answer to exactly that question. While I wrote an entire book on the subject, I’ll try to cover the best strategies I’ve found for focusing in an ever more connected world.
For many of us, the hardest digital habit to break is our tendency to reach for our phones every few moments. Especially when we feel bored.
The first place to start is to understand where your time is going.
While new OS-level features for iOS and Android have begun to reach consumers, RescueTime’s app (available for Android) has the advantage of connecting and comparing data from your phone with desktop use as well.
So what should you be looking for?
The first thing is to simply get a grip on how much time you spend on devices per day. Next, look at how your use is split across the different devices and websites you use. Do you spend most of your social media time on your tablet? Or do you become more prone to distraction right after you get home from the office?
Instead of coming up with a perfect amount of screen time, think in terms of your goals and motivations. Are you expanding your skillset? Exposing yourself to high-quality, diverse perspectives? Or, are you using screens for entertainment?
Using screens for entertainment isn’t all bad. But you may want to find ways to shape your behavior if you’re having a hard time turning them off.
Once you have a grip on your individual phone habits, try the following:
Clear your phone’s home screen of all but tool-based apps
These apps—flashlight, calendar, camera—are only used with you need one of their core functions. Social media apps and communication tools like Slack often need to be removed.
If you open your phone and are tempted to hop into an app without a specific purpose, chances are you’re using the app more for entertainment than as a tool.
Remove any app that features infinite scroll
Infinite scroll refers to content that automatically loads after you scroll to the bottom—like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. (Think of it as a thumb treadmill!)
This is a common design used to keep you from reaching a natural stopping point. Get rid of these apps entirely from your phone. This doesn’t mean you have to get rid of them completely (we’ll get into a better alternative next). But you don’t want easy access to them in your pocket.
Reign in your notifications or wear an old-style wristwatch
Many of us pick up our phones to check the time. Problem is, we often see more than just the time.
A few notifications—a text from a friend, a new email, someone tagging us in a photo—derail what started as a two-second task. Ten minutes later with our head full of new information, we put our phones back down oblivious to what happened.
To avoid being sucked into your phone by notifications, you can adjust the settings that control which apps can push notifications and which cannot. If digging into the settings doesn’t sound fun, keep your phone out of sight while working and don an old-style wristwatch for those moments when you need to know the time.
Divert: Shift the majority of your digital usage to your laptop
Technology is such an integral part of our lives these days. And the idea that anyone will just completely give up on it (social media included) is pretty unrealistic. However, the goal here is not to go cold turkey. But to take back control over your devices and your time.
To stop the temptation to re-install apps and notifications on your phone, I strongly recommend moving as much of those behaviors to your laptop.
Laptops tend to be better in two important settings:
- While you’re eating meals
- While you’re driving
No one’s going to pull out a laptop during a romantic dinner. Yet how many couples have you seen sat across from each other with their faces in their phones? Switching our digital time to our laptops forces us to be more purposeful with it and only use it when the situation allows it.
Plus, laptops are our go-to tools for producing valuable work (in large part because of the presence of a good-sized keyboard). This means that you’re more likely to scrutinize the time you’re spending on it in a way you wouldn’t with your phone.
Take stock of what you use your phone for and what types of activities you do on your laptop. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- Social media
- Creating a document
- Watching video content
Whenever possible, get rid of the apps, habits, and workflows that allow you to do these activities on your phone and leave them to your laptop.
Dilute: Use browser extensions and apps like RescueTime to take control of your digital time
You’re probably starting to see a pattern here. With each step of this process, the aim is to make it slightly more difficult to do things that harm our well-being (easily checking email/social media, getting sucked into checking our phones, etc…) While at the same time, becoming more purposeful and meaningful with how we use our devices.
Once you shift more of your time online to your laptop, there’s another way we can take this a step further: Chrome Extensions.
(While many browsers have ecosystems of plugins, I’m focusing on Chrome here, but don’t let that stop you. Many of the same or similar plugins exist on other browsers.)
Browser extensions allow you to curate and control the way you experience the internet. For our goal of increasing digital wellness, here are a few ideas:
Inbox When Ready for Gmail
How many times have you opened your email to do just one thing and then gotten totally derailed? By hiding your inbox by default in Gmail, you’ll avoid that feeling of “what was I trying to do in here?” after five minutes of reopening stale emails.
Inbox When Ready also has the ability to schedule times in which you are locked out of your inbox. If you are a compulsive email checker, this feature will transform your experience of email. You can still look up emails and attachments via the search tool, but no peeking at the inbox itself until you hit the end of your prescheduled lockout period.
It’s just way too easy to let my inbox set my day’s priorities. And I love using this tool to keep myself from starting my day by checking email.
As an alternative, you can use RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to entirely block email (and any other distracting sites) during your first few minutes to get your day off to a good start.
This tool is great if you have a hard time spending a modest amount of time on social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. (Disclosure: As the creator of this Extension, I’m probably biased.)
While you can still use all of the messaging features of those platforms, ScrollStopper truncates the infinite scroll on those sites so that you don’t get lost down the rabbit hole.
If you want to go all in on productivity, TextMode is a valuable tool to keep yourself focused. TextMode turns websites into a newspaper-like looking document—all images are removed and text is turned black and white.
There’s an entire group of digital specialists doing what’s called conversion rate optimization (in other words, using text, colors, and images to grab your attention and make you click on things). And while I feel bad undoing their hard work, giving all content on the web an equal playing field helps you decide what’s worth your time.
Digital tools are designed to take our attention. But it’s our choice to let them.
To be clear, taking control of your time online is not straightforward. And there’s no point getting too hard on yourself when you slip up or go down a rabbit hole.
What I’m suggesting here is more than just relying on willpower. I’m suggesting you change your digital environment. Reengineering your digital spaces to promote the agenda of your best-intentioned self will open up new time and energy to focus on where your effort is needed most.
Check out Pete’s website to learn more about him and check out his book, Digital Detangler: A guide to mindful technology use.