Tech Cleanse: Keeping Life in Balance

Many people in this world are great at keeping technology in balance.  I am not one of them!  Technology swallows me up to such an extent that it takes willpower to not text and drive.  Don’t worry; I do not do that, but I do feel naked and alone without my phone.  I intend, for example, to spend twenty minutes checking email at my computer and then get absorbed, on a regular basis, in mindless Internet surfing for four or five hours.  I am a casualty of the Age of Technology, and I have struggled the last two decades to keep my addictive cyber tendencies in check.  Yes, I wrote a book on this topic, but no, I am not cured.  I am like a member of Overeaters Anonymous:  I have to use technology to transact my business, but technology often ends up transacting me.

One powerful decision I have made is to do a techfast.  Every so often, I spend three days without technology, which means phone, computer, Internet, and TV.  So if you find me absent from Facebook, this might be the reason.  Doing techfasts  has helped me enormously in my book projects, and in getting this 40-blog series finished.  Techfasts offer a restorative benefit that puts us more deeply in touch with others and ourselves.  Here are some of the benefits.

  1. Reflection. Creativity and imagination are aptitudes born of and enhanced by time to reflect.  Being plugged in, we lose this and thus deprive ourselves of the chance to come up with our best ideas.  Reflection also allows us to become more mindful, which is a gateway for greater peace and balance to life.
  1. Brain health. Often, screens with video games, TV shows, or movies, and many websites have very fast moving images. The speed of the images does not mirror the pace that our human brains are wired to move or process. In the same way that pornography doesn’t mirror the natural pace of a relationship, a good deal of our time in front of the screen does not mirror the natural pace of engaging with the world or learning something deeply.   The brain has an internal “gardener” that prunes away neuronal networks that are not used, and allows the ones that are more frequently used to flourish.  Research is starting to suggest that the cerebral networks needed for real-time, face-to-face communication skills are suffering.  Are we creating a nation of cyber drones?
  2. Avoidance. You might be running from something and not know it.  In my work with people across the country, and lately the whole world, I have found that many screen-oriented people are escapists; their screen time keeps them occupied to the point that they are able to ignore anxiety, depression, and a variety of dissatisfactions with life, whether work-related, or deriving from unhappy relationships.  The screen offers a cheap and easy means to stay “checked out” of discomfort.  The result is that many people have screen lives that keep them from ever resolving their difficulties and thus from having a truly happy life.
  3. Laziness. Children and teenagers can become frustrated with the steps and time required to develop mastery. They will ask, “can’t I just go to another game?” In a video game you can always start over and often you are able to go to a level you are comfortable. There are even “cheat codes” that can be used to “fake” mastery.  Obviously, the other issue is that as our screen time goes up, our physical activity often goes down.
  4. Balance. Taking a tech cleanse allows you to more effectively understand why you spend so much time in front of a screen.  And, since part of the tech cleanse involves doing other activities, you may find that there are many pursuits that you find much more rewarding.  As well, you will be giving yourself a chance at a more optimal and contented existence, one filled with a variety of interests, and people.

Ten Steps to Balance Technology

  1. Build up to a week. I recommend a week-long tech cleanse.  If you struggle getting to that point straight away, consider starting by having a tech-free Saturday or even a tech-free weekend.  Weekends are especially good times to start because you do not need your phone or computer for work (or least most people do not!).
  2. Brainstorm. Before you begin a tech cleanse, you have to understand that you rely significantly for screens for a great deal of information, entertainment, and distraction.   You will not be successful at the tech cleanse unless you brainstorm a multitude of other activities you will do in place of your screen time.  Come up with a big list.
  3. Challenge. It can be highly beneficial if you make some of your tech-free activities be challenging.  Stretch yourself and see the week as an opportunity to become a more adventurous, daring, and accomplished person.  Always wanted to go skydiving?  Have you wanted to start writing a book?  Is there a project you have been putting off for a long time?
  4. Support. Let your friends and family know what you’re doing.  I recommend having someone with whom you check in at least once a day to let him or her know how you are doing.  Do not try to do this alone.  When we are excessively plugged into screen time, our connections with others often suffer.  Let this be a week where you reach out to other people, especially those with whom you have not been spending time.
  5. Mindset. I have found that most people during the tech cleanse will find themselves bored.  There can also be a great deal of anxiety and negativity.  It is important to have a positive mindset, one grounded in the intention that the tech cleanse is being done to improve oneself and the quality of life. It can be helpful to keep coming back to that intention during the week, because there will be temptations to “sneak” some screen time.
  6. Tech-free zone. In the modern world we need a cell phone and most jobs require computers. To the extent possible, use those devices only when necessary for work.  When you get into the car from work, stop using your cell phone.  Do not use a computer at home.  While I recommend strict adherence to this principle during the cleanse, consider having at least one tech-free day per week.
  7. Schedule. Armed with your list of activities, projects, and adventures, come up with a schedule for each day so that you know every day is filled.  I have had many people use this schedule as a checklist that they check off every day.  This has proven to be most helpful at sticking on the plan.
  8. Journal. Because you are unplugging from the ubiquitous distractions of the cyber world, you will find that ideas, sensations, emotions, and perhaps even underlying issues will emerge.  Keep a small notebook with you at all time (not a digital recorder!) and write something several times a day.  This is a very fertile time.  Write down what happens and you will preserve many golden nuggets of awareness.  Remember: reflection is the mother of imagination!
  9. Exercise. Consciously break the sedentary trend and make sure you exercise every day during this tech cleanse.  This will help your brain function optimally, especially when you eat in a healthy and balanced way as well.
  10. Transcend. Whatever your spiritual path is, use this week to go deeper.  I have had many people start their tech cleanse with a meditation retreat, yoga workshop, or religious intensive.  There are deeper levels of consciousness and connection to the transcendent, however you define it.  Use this week to deepen your spiritual journey.  Incidentally, deepening your spiritual journey open you up to reflection and mindfulness.  These qualities always lead to a happier and more peaceful life.

Kevin’s Top Five Family Technology Tips

  1. Have at least some tech-free time as a family. Don’t allow smart phones at the dinner table, for example.
    2. In addition to tech-free time, have tech-free zones. Many families I work with choose to use the family room for this purpose. Cell phones, video game consoles, laptops, iPads, and computers are not allowed in there.
    3. Set a maximum time allowed on video games and the computer. I recommend no more than two hours a day.
    4. For each minute spent on the computer or video game, require a corresponding minute of exercise. This will allow you to combat the tendency for technology to createsedentary and obese children.
    5. No TV’s, computers, or video game consoles in the bedroom.

Technology: Destroyer of Dreams

I live alone and I am not self-motivated. Add high-speed Internet and a computer to that mix and hours of unproductive time in front of a screen easily ensue. I get up every morning and go out for a coffee. While in the car on the way to and from the coffee shop, my mind teems with ideas, but by the time I get back and plop down in my computer chair, the ideas all but vanish, along with the motivation that had seemed so promisingly potent just a few minutes before.

Today, I am noticing and observing my urge to surf the net, to repeatedly check email and Facebook, and to peruse flight deals on Kayak for trips I am NOT taking. I am in this moment plagued by that funk, that slightly sunken mood that renders me unproductive. I have notions about working on my book and brainstorming video scripts, but I don’t have that oomph that creative writing requires. I almost never have that oomph! This is the battle I struggle with every single day.

The ease of access of technology makes the battle harder to win, because the Internet soothes me by giving me something “satisfying” to do that I don’t have to work for, and that I can reliably do even when I am in the deepest of funks. When I click to refresh my inbox, there is a subtle and instantaneous anticipation that a new message could arrive. I feel that in my gut, a subtle sensation of expectation. If no new, non-spam messages arrive, I can check Facebook to see if there’s a new notification, friend request or interesting newsfeed piece. I might even espy an article that outrages me, and then I can get energized to respond. If these two sites provide no satisfaction, I go to LinkedIn, and check out stories about business and read articles on how to find a job, even though I am not looking for one.

Technology makes many aspects of my life easier, but it also messes with my mind. I have click-itis, that disease that warps the mind by giving instant satisfaction via a micro movement of the index finger. I can sit and click for hours upon hours, and I cannot, or do not, stop!

For me, technology quickly becomes addictive; it harms me by distracting me from what I really want to accomplish. I continue this behavior in spite of the negative consequences, which are nothing short of destroying, or at least delaying, my dreams. When I merrily click away, I am not writing; I am not doing the hard work of distilling my message; I am not in integrity with myself or the people who look to me for guidance. My relation to technology has an impulse-control aspect, because I often “play” online for hours, when I had simply gone on the computer to check and respond to email for fifteen minutes. Technology wastes my times, and lays waste to my dreams.

Here are some signs that you, like me, might have a problematic relationship to technology.

1. Time warp: inability to determine screen time.
2. Changes or disruptions in sleep.
3. Emotional disturbance when you are deprived of the screen.
4. Withdrawing from family and friends in favor of the screen.
5. Suffer from backache, carpal tunnel syndrome, stiff neck, nerve pain, eye strain, “texting thumb.”
6. Persistent inability to cut down.
7. Ever-increasing amounts of time spent in front of the screen
8. Prefer the screen over family and friends.
9. Household tasks and responsibilities are left undone because of too much screen time
10. You are afraid that without your phone or Internet access, you might “miss something.”
If you exhibit a few of these, I recommend a techfast, for which I will provide detailed information in next week’s blog. Technology sends my life out of balance. A techfast helps remedy that situation.

NOTE: This blog post started because I was pissed at myself for being in a funk. I simply decided to be honest about my internal process, and I also let the anger power me through. After having written this, I am 90% out of the funk, but beset with a strong urge to go back now and check email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I can do that if I set a timer. Five minutes, no more!