Hi, friends! Today’s post and podcast comes from a reader email about a situation I’m guessing most of us can relate to: how to cultivate digital mindfulness, spend less time on social media, and more time on happy-making things that matter. I’ll share this reader’s email, then offer a few suggestions I’ve found helpful for cultivating more digital mindfulness (full disclosure: this is very much a work in progress for me).
This ended up becoming a mammoth post, so I’ve split it in two. In this post, I’m sharing some of the emotion-focused aspects of this issue. Throughout the week, I’ll also be sharing practical tips I’ve found helpful for being more mindful online on Patreon. This part will be available for patrons only and you can access it by becoming a supporter of Becoming Who You Are for just $1+ a month. Your support helps me keep this site running. To say thank you, I’m also offering supporters bonus podcasts, extra content, access to all BWYA books and courses, coaching, and more.
“There’s one challenge I’m struggling with which is letting my email inbox and social media feeds run my life and swallow up my free time. I know you can’t wave a magic wand but I wonder if you had any ideas, for example about putting boundaries around screen-time, or prioritising all the happy-making stuff which I keep running out of time for like spending time in nature and connecting with friends. I’ve very recently heard about Time Well Spent (http://www.timewellspent.io) which has helped me recognise how much this behaviour is costing me and how it’s become hardwired into my daily habits.”
Thanks for your question, I hear you on this one. As someone who works online, I understand all too well the benefits and the potential pitfalls of technology and our digital habits. While our digital lives bring us connection, pleasure, and opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have, they can also be a source of concern, regret, frustration, and self-recrimination—not to mention a big old time sink.
A phrase that stood out in your message was “letting email and social media feeds run my life and swallow up my free time.” It sounds like you feel like your digital life controls you, not the other way around. This leaves me wondering if social media and email have become ways of meeting your needs that have taken on a life of their own and become habits that doesn’t serve you.
I consider technology to be in the same camp as something like food. They are both necessary for participation in our modern world (or, with food, survival in any world). But our use of them can slip across the line from “pleasurable” into “emotional crutch” without us being aware. This is why cultivating digital mindfulness is crucial. Like all habits, those that revolve around our digital lives follow three steps:
Trigger -> Action -> Reward
Here, the trigger is some kind of feeling or experience. The action is social media and email (over)use. The reward (in the short-term, anyway) is a sense of comfort and familiarity, either through numbing out or through trying to pursue a desired feeling. Noticing and understanding each of these steps is the key to changing them, so let’s look at them in more detail.
Trigger, Action, Reward
I’ve noticed there are two underlying motivations behind my lack of digital mindfulness: avoiding feelings and pursuing feelings. These are the triggers, the things that spark the habitual behaviour of checking email, clicking over to Facebook, or mindlessly scrolling through whatever I’m looking at.
It’s hard to sit with ourselves without distraction. When we get home and aren’t sure what to do next, reaching for our phone, checking our email, etc. becomes a way of not having to deal with our own company. Why do we avoid spending time with ourselves? I think it’s partly to do with what might come up if we did: our fears, our current dissatisfactions, our worries and anxieties, our joys and gratitudes. All these things are uncomfortable to sit with in their own way. The more challenging experiences are uncomfortable for obvious reasons, but within joy and gratitude lies a sense of vulnerability too.
I don’t think the answer to this is to plan out our time with a rigid schedule. Instead, I’ve found it helpful to get curious about what and why I might be avoiding. For me, it’s often the feeling I need to be doing more. Sitting still and simply being isn’t “productive” enough. Reaching for my phone gives me the illusion I’m doing something productive because I’m at least doing something (even though I know the opposite is true). Rather than distracting ourselves, we benefit in the long term if we can sit with our moment-to-moment experience, whatever that looks like.
An acronym I find helpful to remember is HALT: stop what I’m doing and ask: am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? And, if not, what discomfort am I feeling? Turning to our devices or scrolling through Facebook might feel like it’s numbing those feelings in the short term, but it’s only covering them up. Because we’re not addressing the actual need (i.e. being hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or whatever else we’re feeling), that need is still there. Distracting ourselves is likely to only leave us feeling worse.
Identifying the needs behind our actions
Pursuing feelings and needs is the second motivation behind my digital habits. I want to feel connected to people, so I log on to Facebook to see if I have any notifications and to check out what other people are up to. I want to feel valued and needed and seeing new emails in my inbox provides a short-term ego hit.
While Facebook can be a source of connection, scanning for new notifications and lurking rather than engaging doesn’t give us that (in fact, according to this study, it’s terrible for our mental health). Moreover, there are a million better ways I can reassure myself about my place in this world than checking my inbox. Once we’ve identified what needs we’re pursuing through our digital distractions, we want to respond to our needs in a way that will fulfil them. This involves identifying activities that, for example, meet our need for connection (calling up a friend, impromptu coffee date, reaching out to someone we haven’t seen for a while, etc.)
One of my favourite resources for identifying needs is the Needs Inventory from the Centre for Non-Violent Communication. If you’re struggling to identify what you’re needing, use this list to hone in on the words that resonate and describe your experience.
This is the first, and most important step, to identify the trigger -> action -> reward cycle. What is happening when we turn to our devices? What are we feeling? What thoughts are happening? In which situations are we most likely to engage in mindless consumption? Once we’ve identified these things, we can move on to changing the different parts of this pattern to things that are more satisfying.
Changing the habit and creating digital mindfulness
Changing our level of digital mindfulness requires changing the way we respond to discomfort. Rather than feeling some kind of unidentifiable restlessness and turning to our phones, we want to change our response to one of questioning and awareness: what’s this restlessness about? How am I feeling right now? What am I hoping to gain from doing this? What need am I trying to meet? Turning our attention away from distractions and coping mechanisms and focusing on our core needs is something I talk about more in my book, From Coping to Thriving.
If, like the reader who emailed, you have a list of “happy-making” activities that are getting pushed back by their digital life, make a list of these and what needs each activity meets. If you don’t have this list, create one (you can download a free worksheet for this at the bottom of this post). Think about how you’d like to spend your time if you weren’t getting bogged down in email and social media. Put this list somewhere you can see it. Next time you notice you’re slipping into/have slipped into the digital habit default behaviour, stop, get clear on what you’re needing, and choose a happy-making activity that meets that need instead.
This process is simple, but it takes effort—especially if the habit is ingrained. The good news is there are simple hacks and changes we can use to make this shift much easier for ourselves. Next week, I’ll share some of the practical changes I’ve made that have helped me deepen my digital mindfulness.
What have you found helpful for cultivating more digital mindfulness in a connected world? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.