Why are we struggling to cope when it comes to our digital lives?
Dealing with a global glut of information is an immense challenge, and one we’re badly prepared for: time and information management aren’t taught in schools and there are few reliable sources of advice. I dislike the phrase ‘digital detox’, but the problem it points to is very real. We still have the same number of hours in our days as ever, yet we all carry in our pockets access to more information – words, sounds, sights, people, opportunities, truths and untruths – than can be digested in a thousand lifetimes.
Why are we attracted by the idea of a ‘digital detox’?
Many people can identify with the toxic feeling you get when you’ve consumed too much of something: alcohol, junk food, tobacco. You bitterly regret an experience you enjoyed at the time and want to purge, atone, rebalance the scales. This is exactly how many people feel about technology and media, and for similar reasons. The afternoon vanishes down the cracks between ‘just checking’ emails or catching up with Twitter or Facebook, and five minutes becomes an hour or two.
How can we deal with digital clutter?
We have different, complex relationships with different kinds of technology. Understanding what it means for you to negotiate better and more fulfilling versions of these relationships can’t simply be about ‘detoxing’. If you want to make an analogy with diet, my preferred metaphor is ‘becoming a digital gourmet’: filter and make choices on the basis of what you relish and care about, rather than from fear of contamination. Say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, rather than simply to stuff your face all day with content.
There may be individual technological experiences – a video game, an app, a social network – with which you have a negative relationship, and which your life would be better without. It’s important to be prepared to sever these bonds. I’ve uninstalled several video games because they weren’t good for me; I played them too much and they took up too much time. But this isn’t because they were toxic. It’s because my habits around them were destructive.
What about screen time? How much is too much?
‘Too much’ is one of those weasel phrases that can lead you in circles. Anything is too much if it is having negative consequences in your life; too much for one person may be a requirement for happiness (or employment) for another. What I try to be careful about is falling into a habit that cuts me off from other things I would be better off doing. I worry about habits like leaving a computer on all day, or having a phone permanently in my pocket. This isn’t ‘screen time’, but it’s still technology being a squatter in your life.
I try to make sure I carve out a sufficient amount of time for the things I value that can’t be achieved through tech: reading a book, seeing friends and family, walking and exercise, reverie and relaxation, cooking, eating or drinking in company. I feel that at least half my waking hours deserve this kind of time and attention.
What if we dedicate too much time to the digital world, or are too easily distracted by it?
Don't forget that many clever people are being paid extremely well to keep you browsing and clicking, to get your eyeballs skimming across one more advert or sponsored link. Your time is their money. So take a step back, but don’t call it a detox. You’re not trying to give up smoking here – you’re trying to understand yourself a little better.
Examine your habits. Do you think they serve your needs – or preserve bad patterns? Connect with others, and build new, better habits together. Don’t forget that – one of the genuine wonders of a digital age – you’re never alone.
Can we use technology to simplify other areas of our lives?
They say knowledge is power – but knowledge is a very different thing to information. I’m wary of most productivity apps. People are constantly inventing new problems to which they just happen to be selling the solution. Used well and highly selectively, however, technology is definitely a gift to those looking to simplify, understand and cope better with the world. Look for a manageable, small number of tools – hardware and software – that don’t turn your days into a self-improvement simulator. My single most beloved hunk of technology? A piano, and the total escape that playing it offers me every day.
Tom Chatfield is a British author, broadcaster and technology theorist. His most recent books are How To Thrive In The Digital Age (Macmillan, £7.99) and Netymology (Quercus, £12.99). For more information, visit tomchatfield.net
Read The call of silence by Mark Vernon on LifeLabs
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