How digital mindfulness – and calling our friends – can help get us through
You might not expect the author of How to Break Up With Your Phone to be telling you to pick one up, but Catherine Price is all about using our devices in more meaningful ways. At a time when the need for connection has never been greater, we asked the author and science journalist how she’s been maintaining screen–life balance throughout the pandemic.
What changes, if any, have you made to your environment during this time?
Well, the biggest change is that my husband and I have essentially moved in with my parents as a way to minimize their exposure (we do errands and shopping) and to get help with childcare.
This means that I no longer have my own office, which has been a challenge. And also, it is possible that either my husband or I (I am not naming names!) spilled a glass of wine onto my laptop very early on in the pandemic, which immediately broke it, and means that I am typing this response on an iPad.
Our environments and devices have huge effects on our efficiency and ability to focus and be productive, and I’ve definitely felt those effects myself!
The part of our brain that is responsible for rational decision-making tends to be less active when we are stressed out, leaving us less able to resist our impulses.
When do you find it most difficult to focus? How do you overcome this?
It’s hard to focus when your anxiety is high—and this is a time of high anxiety. Physiologically speaking, this is partially due to the effects that stress has on our brains—namely, the part of our brain that is responsible for rational decision-making tends to be less active when we are stressed out (it sort of hides under a rock), leaving us less able to resist our impulses (for example, to check the news again and again and again when we are supposed to be working).
All this is to say that like many people, I find it the hardest to focus when there is particularly stressful or upsetting news. And there is a lot of it these days!
How do you deal with the emotional aspects of productivity? For example, lack of motivation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling unsafe or uncertain, etc?
I use a daily planner called Goal Crazy to identify ahead of time what I would like to accomplish each day. I particularly like this planner because every morning it encourages you to write down three things you’re grateful for, as well as three affirmations. Then at the end of the day, it encourages you to write down a positive sentence to describe your day and to list your three biggest accomplishments and best moments. I find that the practice of answering these prompts each day has really helped me remain more or less positive and motivated in the past few months.
The pandemic has lowered the barriers many of us feel about just picking up the phone and calling a friend.
Have you made any changes to your digital habits during this time? Why or why not?
See above re. wine-soaked laptop! But in addition to that, I’d say that I definitely have been spending more time on my devices than I was before the pandemic. I feel okay about that, though, because of what I’m DOING with that time. I am not on social media, and I do my best not to check the news more than once or twice a day (if that). I also don’t keep email on my phone, and in fact, I just activated an auto-responder telling people that I’m trying not to let email take over my life, and thus am answering emails more slowly than normal.
Instead of drifting into consumption mode, I’ve been using my devices to connect with friends and to create things. (I think of these 3 C’s — connection, consumption, and creation — as the main activities we use our device leisure time to do), and for me, connection and creation are much more nourishing than consumption.)
One big change that’s been great is that I’ve actually been CALLING more friends instead of texting (I hate texting!). The pandemic has lowered the barriers many of us feel about just picking up the phone and calling a friend. I’ve also been doing a lot more video calls, which can get tiresome—but it’s also been a nice way to get to “see” friends. Lastly, I’ve been doing a lot of musical collaboration with friends using an app called Acapella (you really can’t play music together over video calls — the lag is too great — so the next best thing we’ve found is to make music videos together). I’m extremely grateful for all of these uses of my devices.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is really struggling to find focus or motivation during this time?
First of all, you’re not alone. At all. Everyone is feeling that way, to a certain degree. And it really stinks not to be able to get together with people in person!
One thing that I’ve tried to do for myself is to reclaim some of the time that I might otherwise spend online—say, checking the news—and use it to do or appreciate something offline instead. Like practicing an instrument, or going for a walk, or even just staring at the sky.
In other words, I’ve been trying to find small, beautiful and/or nourishing things and work them regularly into my day. That way, by the end of the day when I fill out the part of my planner that asks me what the best moments of my day were, I have some material to choose from!
What are the rules or boundaries you have put in place for yourself regarding news consumption, social media, or both?
I really don’t use social media much at all. (And feel even more strongly about this than I had before, due to finishing reading Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.) I don’t have a personal Facebook account and rarely post to Twitter or Instagram—whatever posts are there are probably posted by my assistant.
I never check my feeds, and I also radically pruned the people I follow (though since I don’t check the feeds, I guess that doesn’t really matter). I just don’t want my life to be a performance, and I don’t want to suck other people into the stupid, vapid world that is most of social media. That’s why I launched social media intervention feeds — automated feeds that encourage you to get OFF of social media. (That feels delightfully subversive to me!) I also just launched a social media detox course.
As for news, I recommend trying to internalize that you cannot control the world—so there is no reason to keep checking and checking the news. In fact, there is a strong reason NOT to keep checking it all the time, because doing so is stressful and stress is bad for your health.
So I suggest starting by limiting your exposure to the news. Don’t leave it on in the background. Pick one device (ideally a desktop computer) to check from — not your phone! Turn off notifications. I personally keep the apps off of my phone entirely and do my best to only check from a stationary screen—I’m still perfectly well informed, but I’m nowhere near as stressed or upset as I would be if I were to be checking multiple times per day.
What tools or resources have you found most useful during this time?
As always, I find Freedom hugely helpful in helping me to keep me on track, especially in stressful times like this when the rational part of my brain may not be functioning as well as I’d like. (And I’m not just saying that because this is a post for Freedom!)
As mentioned, I have been using Acapella for musical collaboration. I also have a LOT of journals and notebooks that I’ve been using to write down thoughts — you can’t beat old fashioned pen and paper. I’ve also been doing virtual dance classes through Virtual Dance USA.
I’ve been doing as much offline with my daughter as possible. When I do go online with her, it’s usually to participate in live storytime (check out Sing-a-long Storytime with Liz Filios ) or to watch an interactive kids’ music show through Mr. John’s Music.
Catherine Price is a science journalist, speaker, author, teacher and consultant. She’s passionate about using her background as a science journalist to help people question their assumptions and make positive changes in their lives.
Catherine is committed to helping people achieve “Screen/Life Balance.” This means designing a life in which you control your technology, rather than the other way around—with the ultimate goal of increasing your happiness, productivity, creativity, health, and wellbeing. You can listen to two of Catherine’s most recent interviews on podcasts by NPR and The Happiness Lab.
To help you with goal setting and practicing gratitude, download the Screen/Life Balance quarantine challenge, sign up for the Screen/Life Balance newsletter. You can follow the social media intervention feeds Catherine mentioned on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.