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“Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.” ~ Dee Hock
Reality checks can be delivered to us in many ways.
Mine arrived in the form of an eye-opening, candid video of myself, captured by my laptop.
The kids had discovered some video software and, deep in play mode, left the camera running while gathering props. A few moments lapse before my impromptu walk-on.
I come into frame and sit—nothing extraordinary. I jot some notes in prep for a class, a creative process that I actually enjoy.
Then comes the first audible ping.
I see myself peer up and shift focus. I am sucked into a string of emails. Clacking at the keyboard, another chime comes in on my phone. As I glance into the messages on the smaller screen, then back to the computer screen, my placid expression gives way to something else, morphing and scrunching into this person I didn’t recognize. Between my brows, “mad stripes” appear. I gnaw my bottom lip, as my eyes fill with…worry? Fatigue? Confusion?
Internal stress visibly takes over and expresses itself physically, like a body snatcher.
My child comes into frame to ask a question, and I snap back for interrupting me. Interrupting me being interrupted.
“I just need quiet!”
Sensory overload has spoken.
Oof. My first impulse was to delete the found footage. But instead, I made myself watch it again. I needed to know this person, and to heal her. I needed to hug those kids in the background who just wanted dinner, and my attention. It made me feel sick to my stomach. And sad. Sad that, for someone who knows herself pretty well, the messages my body was sending me went unheard. And especially sad for the wall I let come between me and the humans I love most.
This is what we call a sh*tty gift.
It’s a gift that comes in a shadowy package, but carries inside it something valuable. Awareness sometimes shows up this way.
According to Nielson, American adults spend over 11 hours every day interacting with media. This potentially exposes us to thousands of ads per day, not to mention the constant deluge of text messages, push-notifications, emails, and countless other digital intrusions. We go about life on an electronic leash, at the beck and call of every person and robot with our contact info plugged into their device.
A vibrating alert can easily snag our attention from the task at hand, as if being present and accessible electronically usurps being present and accessible in real life.
Here’s the interesting thing: we are actually predisposed to distraction.
Our brains love novelty. We are conditioned by the increase in dopamine (a pleasure and reward neurochemical) that comes with newness. There are useful biological reasons for this that have to do with alertness and safety. The fact that we can focus on building a fire, but notice a bear coming our way is of great value to ensure our survival.
Knowing this about our human wiring could help us better understand, and perhaps forgive, why we do what we do. When something new is introduced into our space, i.e. the ping of a text, we have an inclination to respond. It may even feel good at first.
In excess, however, digital overload and this “rapid toggling” from one thing to another, can quite literally zap our energy, resulting in feelings of soul-sucking stress, fractured focus, and dissatisfaction.
Our gadgets are not designed to let us single-task. And by doing more, we are actually getting less done. As much as we want to believe we are master jugglers of all the things, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch tasks. Multi-tasking directly impacts our ability to achieve anything of great significance.
So to counter this, what is the opposite of multi-tasking?
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is the optimal state of consciousness when we feel and perform our best. Flow follows focus. Ego falls away, and we are fully engaged in the activity for its own sake. Athletes often refer to this state of peak performance as being in the zone. Since multi-tasking makes single-pointed focus impossible, it inhibits our ability to get into flow.
We want to be in flow. The goods live in the flow.
So when we were invited to participate in a mindful life challenge with Elephant Journal mentors and writing peers, I chose one I had already been working on for a while, but gladly welcomed the invitation to reinforce: no multi-tasking on the phone.
The irony did not escape me that my screen time would increase throughout the apprenticeship between writing, research, coursework, and interactions with our community on social media. What improved greatly though was my awareness in the quality and purpose of my screen time.
Quality over quantity was my mantra. I became more selective about what got my time and attention.
To shed some light on how to use social media in a beneficial way, I asked one of my first meditation teachers, Buddhist monk Venerable Bhante Sujatha:
“Social media is a tool, like a kitchen knife. We can use a knife to cut vegetables, or we can use it to kill. When we use social media, we need to have great awareness. Our purpose must be clear.”
And his purpose?
“I use it to help the world. I don’t allow it to be a time killer. It is not my hobby. My advice is to not use it for pleasure. Everyone needs to ask why they check social media. If it is for pleasure, go do something else for pleasure, something meaningful. Go to the gym. Take a walk in nature. Check once in a while, but do so with awareness, then move on to something else.”
I love Bhante. (You can follow him on Instagram. But only to get some inspiration or check when and where you can meditate with him. Then go do something else. Something meaningful, and with great awareness.)
For most, it isn’t realistic, practical, or even necessary to ditch our devices altogether, unless we truly want to adopt the life of a Luddite.
So how do we reasonably temper our technology usage with habits that create feelings of wholeness, presence, and purpose?
1. Create Awareness.
In order to create change, we must first get chummy with the beast. Here’s where we have to get real with ourselves. This isn’t about shaming, it’s about really noticing how we spend our time.
We can clock screen time with good old-fashioned pen and paper, preferable for its tactile, tech-free nature. Studies show that writing by hand calms the mind and boosts memory and creativity. Or for convenience, we can utilize the same beast that we’re taming (see how it is?) with built-in apps that track our screen time. Both are okay. Just gather the info. Note your reasons for checking social media or going online. Is it purposeful? Out of habit? Boredom? Note how you feel. Satisfied? Disrupted? Anxious? Do you scroll mindlessly, and for how long? Journal all of it. Note your patterns. Adjust accordingly.
When we are not distracted by the external, internal creativity has room to rise. Even a few minutes gives us a baseline for our day. Imprint in body and mind what an aware, overall sense of well-being feels like, so it is easier to notice when we stray.
This centered place of instinct and intuition guides us to make optimal lifestyle choices. Sometimes, we just need to retrain ourselves to listen. Meditation counters the effects of digital overstimulation, improving focus and quality of sleep. Make it simple. Find a comfortable, sturdy seat, give yourself a few moments of space and quiet with your breath, and observe. Experiences vary, and the effects are cumulative. Just practice.
3. Make sacred space.
Bookend your day with device-free time. Turn off, or physically remove, all electronic gadgets from places designated for sleep. At least a full hour of screen-free time before bed is ideal. If the alarm is needed, just move it far enough away from where you sleep that it doesn’t tempt you to mindlessly check social media or your newsfeed while in bed.
I make it a habit not use my phone until after meditation. Turn off notifications and put devices on “Do Not Disturb” in spaces where we want to give our full attention to a person, activity, or project. Watch the quality of your work, your productivity, and relationships improve across the board by doing this one thing.
4. Use devices mindfully.
Set parameters on your social media usage. Clogging the mind with digital trivial garbage, much like empty carbs, leaves us too full to digest the things that have more value to us. Clear out your feed and your email boxes. Mute, unsubscribe, and “Do Not Disturb” are your friends. Send everyone love, and protect your peace. You’ll pay it back tenfold by the good work you put out there once you’ve simplified your life some.
Connect to your body with movement. Connect with nature. Connect with people. Studies show that increased use in social media equates with a decrease in real social interaction, as well as a decrease in overall happiness. When online interaction replaces the real thing, we lose vital skills for our emotional wellness.
We can find balance though. Use social media in this way to meet people with common interests, then meet in person. Join a local hike, a book club, take up a new sport, or a pottery class. If you can’t find a group, create one. We crave to connect. Make it real. When we open up to what is right in front of us, and really experience it, we fully realize how abundant our lives already are.
We come into the world device-free, and complete. We are also creatures of the digital age. The two do not have to negate one another, and our devices don’t have to become our vices. With great awareness, and our ability to self-regulate, they can be used in many positive, productive ways. We can possibly have the best of both ever-evolving worlds.
It’s our choice: do we use our technology to build a wall, or to build a bridge?
We really don’t need more walls.
Meet you at the bridge.