Break. How to Have a Healthier Relationship with Our Technology

If there’s ever been a person you’d imagine has technology from wall to wall at home, it would be Bill Gates.

And you’d be wrong.

The billionaire founder of Microsoft is perhaps the most prominent member of a low-tech legion of high-powered technology leaders and executives. Gates has been preaching tech as a tool, not a lifestyle, for more than a decade; ever since watching his daughter get addicted to a video game and then curbing her use of it.

A growing number of C-suite executives in the tech industry are living decidedly low-tech lives and passing on that mantra to their children. They stay away from most apps, shun social media, and only use devices like smartphones when they specifically need them for a legitimate purpose.

The technology gains of the last two decades are powerful, but they are also addicting. And just like cigarettes, alcohol, and every other kind of addiction, there are cultural elements in place to keep perpetuating them.

Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum, tech abstinence, isn’t any more of a solution. The way forward is through a healthy relationship between you and your devices, based on the knowledge of how habit forming technology is built, and how it affects our day to day lives.

Addiction and the Feedback Loop

In 2013, Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked” introduced the idea of a feedback loop, and documented the process of building and understanding habit forming technology. As seen in the graphic below, Eyal’s Hook Model has four phases that show the process of habit formation.

The four phases are:

  1. Trigger Behavior
Nir Eyal’s Hook Model — Source: nirandfar.com

This model can be easily seen in both online gaming and social media. In 2016, Pokemon Go took the world by storm with its combination of virtual-reality gameplay layered on top of real-world GPS-based scavenger hunts. The game notified users of the location of a virtual Pokemon character (the trigger) and sent them on a mission to track it down (the action).

The reward is adding said Pokemon to your team of Pokemon, should you want to battle against other players. Regardless, the game reminds you, as it has since its inception, that you have to “Catch’em All” to truly win (commitment to product), thus sending the player off in search of the next location, and the next, and the next.

Most people are at least aware of the addictive power of social media. Facebook is the easy target here, so let’s deconstruct a different arena: Instagram, which some folks are still surprised to hear, is owned by Facebook. Instagram’s fundamental feature set is to allow users to be seen by their followers, through photos, video, or stories that combine one or both with text. Triggers can both be notifications from the app on other user’s following, or response to a post, or simply seeing something “instaworthy” and having the thought that you should take a photo, and show it to your followers. Users upload pictures and videos of themselves (action) doing literally everything, along with places they’re visiting, food they’re eating, items purchased, clothing worn, physical fitness and dieting success, their children’s achievements, etc. The rewards come from their fellow users in the form of likes, follows, comments, and on rare occasion, going viral. For many younger people, Instagram is the equivalent of social currency, and is their source of commitment to the product as they strive to become increasingly popular as counted by IG followers.

It’s not just games and social media that are feeding our Internet addictions. Notifications on your smartphone, even the ones that ostensibly help you be more productive during the day, shape your behavior. How many times have you stopped working to see what the latest beep on your phone is telling you? LinkedIn’s app will buzz you just because someone viewed your profile; not because they sent you a message or want to offer you a job — just looking!

But for many of us, that beep means interrupting our day, going to that person’s LinkedIn profile, trying to figure out why they viewed our profile, sending them a connection request, feeling rewarded when they accept it, then noticing all the other people you could connect with…and so the loop begins again.

You and Your Technology

Technology is a tool to do better at work, communicate with family and friends, handle your money, and enjoy your favorite entertainment. The problem develops both when excess is involved, and when unwanted interruption occurs. Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, many technologies are built to build addiction. How then do we go about having a healthier relationship with our technology? There are several factors to consider and understand in order to achieve this:

Quantity: Obviously a serious consideration when thinking about our tech usage and whether it needs to be changed, is sheer number of minutes and hours spent on it. However, it’s important to break that out into two different pieces:

  • Total time: What is the total amount of time you’re spending on different technologies.

These two are fundamentally different and also affect us differently. 15 minutes of phone usage straight is significantly better than 15 different 1 minute sessions. 15 distributed minutes not only is spending 15 minutes on the phone, but it is also detracting from the time before and after those sessions, by pulling you away from whatever you were doing, focusing your attention on the phone, and then also the taking additional time afterwards to refocus your mind on whatever you were attempting to do before you were distracted.

Total Time plus Occurrences show a more holistic view of the time we lose to tech by including time required to refocus

Intention: Beyond understanding how much we’re using our technology, another key element is why we’re using the technology:

  • Purpose: What is the goal or desired outcome of the session? Is it to make contact with someone? To stay up to date with news? To ease boredom? Whatever the answer is, we typically need to dig deeper to understand the true, underlying need we’re attempting to satisfy. Sometimes it truly is just to look up a piece of information, or to actually do your job. Often though, when we dig into it deeper, we find that we turn to technology to satisfy all kinds of emotions; loneliness, anxiety, insecurity, and more.

Taking an inventory of these elements of our of tech consumption in our own lives is the first step to making an improvement, if necessary. If we have taken this mental assessment, and we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re in need of making some changes, what then?

One approach to dealing with our tech environment and our response to it, is to simplify and change the environment that we’re responding to.

Apps to Control Your Apps?

Apps are a part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution. Take UrgencEase, for example. This human-centered app is focused on decreasing the amount of time you spend unnecessarily engaged with technology. It lets you dictate how your apps can notify you, including building profiles to fit your preferences by only allowing certain apps to create different types of alerts during certain timeframes.

Moment (iOS) does things a little differently, allowing you to set daily limits for usage on apps, even employing a setting that forces you to quit by filling your screen with alerts if you try to exceed your allotted time.

Summary

The advance of digital technology has been as transcendent as the wheel, the printing press, the electric light, or transistors. Yet its overuse can make it just as debilitating on your productivity and mental health as a reliance on drugs, food, alcohol, or cigarettes.

The difference between using it and abusing it can be a blurry line in the moment, but stepping back from the tablet, smartphone, and laptop can give you some much-needed clarity on how to benefit from, instead of be controlled by our technology.

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