Make a Resolution That Will Improve Your Anxiety
Take back control of your time and attention.
Posted Dec 28, 2020
I love New Year's resolutions, and birthday resolutions, and post-Labor Day resolutions, so I'm not here to give grim statistics about how unlikely you are to stick to whatever plans you make on January 1. It makes sense to periodically take stock and see where you might want to course correct and address what isn't working in your life. Of course, resolutions can be tough to keep. Change is hard.
A proper resolution is one that, if achieved, would make a big difference.
For example, if you have no concrete plans to visit Italy, no Italian friends, and no particular interest in reading Italian literature in its native tongue, it's going to be very hard to stay motivated to hit the Duolingo often enough to become proficient. Whereas if you're learning Italian to impress your Italian fiancee's parents, the impetus to study will be much stronger.
Likewise, if you are someone who struggles with anxiety, then making—and keeping—the following resolution will have a significant impact: Take control of your mood and attention by controlling your time on-screen. Research continues to pour in showing what many of us have already strongly suspected: Being tied to our devices and constantly pinged by email, social media, and the news is hurting our relationships, diminishing our quality of sleep, and cratering our moods.
Think of a time you had to go without your cell phone, tablet, or computer. Did it alter your mood? Did it affect your ability to focus? Did it make a difference in your ability to connect with the people around you? For the vast majority of us, the answers are yes, yes, and yes — all improved. Being away from our phones improves our mood, allows us to focus, and helps us connect to our people. These factors all have a profound influence on your anxiety.
Information highways and the devices they live on are monetized. Your attention is the commodity being sold, so keeping it as long as possible is the goal of almost everything on-line. There’s no doubt that improved communication and the democratization of information are amazing features of the digital age we are living in. But it should give us pause when we consider that, in 2019, the average American was in front of screens 11 hours each day. The statics for 2020 will undoubtedly be even grimmer given the pandemic and intense news cycle. Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of the book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, puts it like this: “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your 'likes' is the new smoking.”
The answer is not as simple as permanently disconnecting. Most of us probably cannot imagine navigating the world without google maps, texting, and Spotify at our fingertips. Taking a "Digital Sabbath," or unplugging for certain days a week or after a specific time in the evening makes a lot of sense. But we also want to stop checking and rechecking our devices during the periods when we need to have them available to us. One of the geniuses of smartphones is their endless functionality. If you receive a prompt to wake up, check the time, or take a picture with your phone, you're typically also triggered to check email, texts, and social media. It's too easy to fall into a smartphone vortex.
Instead, try this: Buy an alarm clock, a watch, and a camera.
Use an alarm clock instead of the alarm on your phone. Take the time to do a little research and find one you like. I loathe waking up to a blaring alarm or static-filled radio station, so I found an alarm clock that lights up gradually for 30 minutes before an "alarm" of birds softly chirping goes off. Who knew waking up could be so pleasant?
Phone scanning continues throughout the day because many of us check the time on our phones, which leads to noticing an Instagram notification, checking email, reading through texts, etc. The little dopamine hit we receive every time we check our phone seems to take the edge off our free-floating nervousness for a second. But in fact, our anxiety accumulates as we force our brains to toggle back and forth between online and offline lives. Curb this habit by checking the time on a wristwatch instead of your device.
Finally, when are you typically taking pictures? Probably when you have connected moments with people you love, see something beautiful, or want to remember something special. Your son takes his first steps, you grab the phone to take a picture, and you notice a text notification from your boss. You try to ignore the text because this is a big moment, but now you're worried about your boss. Grab a camera instead.
Stay in the moment.
Smartphones, tablets, and computers are amazing. I use them all. But it's too easy to engage with them compulsively. We need to carefully manage our screen time to live a productive, meaningful, engaged life. Leave your phone at home when possible. Turn off all notifications. Keep your phone on "silent" or in "airplane" mode. Make every default setting on your device a barrier to use instead of an invitation.
Having an alarm clock, a watch, and a camera changes your environment in a way that supports your goal of reduced screen time. This is much more effective than merely telling yourself not to check your phone so much. Some of the greatest minds of our generation have spent considerable brainpower making these devices addictive. Please don't waste your willpower trying to resist them all day.
Think of your new alarm clock, watch, and camera as boundaries protecting your mood, focus, and relationships.
Newport, C. (2020). Digital minimalism: On living better with less technology. London: Penguin Business.