In theory, the holidays are a wonderful time to slow down and connect with those we love. But how many of us, in practice, actually find ourselves doing the opposite—speeding up, rushing around in a flurry of activity, becoming disconnected from ourselves and those around us? I have certainly been guilty of this and it seems like the distractions in our world just keep growing. Is it just me or does our quality of connection seem to be diminishing?
This fall a dear friend shared an article from The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article, written by Jean Twenge, explores the effects that smartphones and social media are having on the psychological well-being of today’s teenagers. About halfway through, I began to feel rather bleak. Teens today are less likely to engage with their friends and others in person, and thus less likely to develop healthy social skills. Reports of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. The research goes on to directly correlate screentime with depression, showing that the more time a teen spends looking at a screen, the more likely she is to report symptoms of depression. In other words, despite offering the illusion of connectivity, technology could actually be contributing to the isolation and diminished well-being of an entire generation.
These findings are certainly not good news for our youth, but I was curious how they related to me personally. I would consider myself to be a below average smartphone user. I tend to limit my use of social media and I make a deliberate point to spend as much time in nature with animals as I can. Yet I do spend a lot of time checking email, responding to WhatsApp messages, and using my phone to listen to audiobooks, map out directions, glance at news updates, check the weather, and call Ubers. I started to wonder how all of these habits were affecting my quality of life and connection.
When I’m out in public I notice that people rarely look up to talk to each other anymore. Even when we’re together, it has become normal to have a phone out and be texting or browsing the internet. With our attention so split, it’s no wonder we are losing out on meaningful connection. We’re not present to the world directly around us.
Neuroscience provides insight into why our use of technology has gotten so out of control. Scientists have found that when we engage with our phones or the internet, dopamine is released in our brain’s pleasure center, making us feel good and obsessively seek out more. In the same way we can become addicted to alcohol or shopping, we can actually become addicted to our technology. Was this true for me?
I decided to test this hypothesis on myself and created a little experiment. Could I not pick up my phone or look at email before 9:30am and after 5pm? It seemed reasonable. I also wanted to make a point to notice how often I picked up my phone to check something when it was completely unnecessary.
Well, the results were discouraging! It turned out that my phone and email curfew was very hard to stick to and I found myself reflexively glancing at my phone way more than I needed to. My mind always seemed to come up with a reason for why I needed to check just this one little thing… that led to the next thing… and the next… I’m sure you can relate.
I concluded that I was indeed addicted to my phone. I hate to put words in the horse’s mouth, so to speak, but if I had to boil down a few of the key messages that horses continually communicate to me and my fellow Equus Coaching ® clients it would be the following:
- “If you want to connect with me, you first need to get grounded, present and in touch with yourself. Slow down and feel what’s happening for you.”
- “I won’t engage in that odd dance you do where you try to seek my approval or get me to accomplish a series of tasks in order to prove something to yourself and others. I’m interested in the quality and depth of our connection.”
- “Know what your needs and desires are. Be willing to set clear boundaries with people and environments that don’t support your well-being.”
- “Be willing to ask for help. Every living creature needs care and support from others in order to grow, learn and thrive. We were born to live in community.”
My little experiment woke me up to the fact that I was not engaged in a positive relationship with my technology. Even if I had great justifications for why I needed to be connected (like running a business and keeping in contact with friends and clients around the globe), I knew I was letting myself get sucked into habitual unconscious behavior. I decided to use my holidays to consciously form a new relationship with my technology, and created a December Tech Cleanse to ground myself back in presence and personal connection.
I took my lead from the wisdom of horses and decided that I needed to:
- Get grounded in myself.
- Focus on the quality and depth of my connections.
- Set clear boundaries
- Ask for help and support.
To help me stay grounded in myself, I turned down the colors and brightness on my phone displays and turned on the night shift features that help reduce the visual addictiveness of the screen. I also turned off all notifications and went through and cleaned out any apps that weren’t positively adding to my quality of life.
When I thought about connection, one of my big worries was that if I wasn’t constantly connected, if someone needed me or reached out and I didn’t respond right away, they might misinterpret my delay. So, I let everyone I speak to regularly know about my phone curfew. I told them not to worry if they didn’t hear back from me as quickly as usual, and I explained that I was taking time to be more connected with myself and others in person. The responses I received were overwhelmingly encouraging.
I also decided to create at least one interaction with my phone that I knew wasn’t causing me to disconnect. I downloaded a meditation app called Inner Balance from a company I know and love called HeartMath. The app monitors your heartbeat and teaches you to track and improve your heart coherence, which has been proven to help quiet the mind and balance emotional states, along with a host of other benefits. I decided to start my mornings with a 20 minute meditation and end the day with another 20 minutes.
Next, I got clear about what boundaries would help me feel more present and less inclined to let technology derail my day. I decided to keep the 9:30am to 5pm curfew and restructure my time outside of that in order to foster more connection. While I normally would have checked my phone first thing upon waking up and immediately gotten sucked into answering emails, I decided to focus on expanding my morning routine of practicing Qigong and meditation.
The final step was to enlist my community to support my new practices. I asked close friends to help me stay accountable to the changes I wanted to make and was stunned that more than a few offered to join me. A close friend committed to turning off the internet in her house after 5pm and another offered to join me in keeping her phone and laptop out of the bedroom at night.
So what were the results of my December cleanse? For one thing, my mornings became much less rushed. Since I wasn’t waking up to a flurry of messages and emails, my mind was more peaceful and expansive. I felt calmer and more present to myself and those around me and I got to be more intentional in how I shaped the rest of my day. The HeartMath app was a great tool for grounding myself and cultivating a genuine sense of well-being.
I realized that I had to prioritize what I would work on in my tech window and I had to shift from a mindset of trying to get everything done to being happy with completing as much as I could. I noticed how my initial anxiety around this gradually eased and I was able to embrace the fact that there would always be more to do, but I wouldn’t always have this day to experience.
Finally, my evenings were filled with more laughter and play. Instead of answering just one more email or responding to just one more message, I got my partner Boyd to teach me how to play chess. I went for walks in the bushveld. I played with my niece and nephew. I listened to and shared stories with friends. I really took time to connect, listen, share and soak in the love around me. As I drifted to sleep each night, it was these moments I thought about and I felt my heart expanding in gratitude at the beauty and joy of life.
As we venture into a new year, I encourage you to try your own tech cleanse or take some baby steps to create more presence and connection in your life. Even little changes can go a long way! My experiment taught me a lot about myself and how to structure healthy habits. It reminded me of the beauty of slowing down and the richness of embracing the world around us. I’m going to take what I’ve learned and use it to carry me into a great new year.