Strategies for a Mindful Engagement with Technology

With some small yet powerful changes, we can get more out of our screens.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

The use of our screens is getting out of hand. Of course, we all use our screens for many legitimate purposes (e.g., finding information, connecting with others, blogging), but we all have experienced the endless checking, scrolling, and YouTube wormholes that can suck up much of our time. Through the use of persuasive design (or persuasive technology), many tech companies get us to reflexively and compulsively check our devices. Like any organism, a company's goal is to survive, grow, and multiply. The "scorecard" for companies is usually measured in financial outcomes such as total revenue and profits. While companies might indeed have goals like improving the world, making our lives better, etc., ultimately they need to make money or they die off.

Darwinism in the Business World

Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Snapchat make money by getting and maintaining our attention. Basically, the more time we spend on their respective platforms, the more money they make (e.g., ad revenue, online purchases). But our attention is a finite resource, so tech companies are fighting one another to acquire and keep it. In order to win the war for our attention, they employ psychologists, neuroscientists, and other experts to use every means at their disposal. Our interactions with their various platforms provide the data they need to refine their algorithms so they can more effectively capture our attention.

Let's face it, this is a form of business Darwinism. If one company decides not to use persuasive design to gain our attention, they will lose out to those companies that do. In a way, tech companies are in an "arms race" for our attention. Tech companies are not inherently evil. It's just survival of the fittest in the business world. 

The Irresistible Pull of Screens—By Design

When tech companies use persuasive design to gain our attention, they often do so by exploiting the more primitive parts of our brain. Some of the mechanisms that tap into these primitive parts of our brain include classical conditioning, variable reinforcement schedules, and supernormal stimuli. We will not win this fight against the primitive parts of our brain (well, not often enough). Just as the obesity epidemic in America is a testament to the irresistible pull of unhealthy foods, the amount of time we are spending on our screens is a testament to the power they have over us.

The Mindful Engagement with Technology

In my recent blog post, Was Steve Jobs Like Dr. Frankenstein?, I introduced Mindful Engagement with Technology (MET). The idea is that by using MET we can more effectively get our needs met. Our habitual, compulsive use of our screens can result in some of our basic physiological and psychological needs getting squeezed out. These include sleep, physical activity, and in-person interaction. We want a more mindful, purposeful use of technology so that it is serving our needs rather than we being servants to our screens. 

The good news is that small changes can still yield big payoffs. Through a mindful engagement with technology, we can get more out of our screens in terms of happiness and productivity. Here are some strategies to try:

  1. Use the "Screen Time" feature of your iPhone (or Digital Wellbeing for Android users) to track your screen time and set reasonable limits. When you set a time limit on your screen use, you can still bypass this, but it takes an extra step. That is often just enough to restrain ourselves from habitual checking. 
  2. Become very familiar with the "Do Not Disturb" feature of your phone. Use this feature to create sacred spaces. You are setting boundaries on screen use so that you can honor the people you are with or the work that you are doing with your undivided attention. 
  3. Turn off as many notifications as you can. The less often our phones ring, chime, or buzz, the better off we will likely be. We can always enable some of them temporarily when the need arises. 
  4. When not in use, silence the phone and put it out of sight. The mere presence of phones, even when not buzzing, diminishes the quality of our in-person social interactions as well as our cognitive capacity
  5. When you walk, just walk. Put away your smartphone when you are going from Point A to Point B. Make this your default mode. Instead of looking down at your screen, look around you, notice your surroundings, connect with nature, and perhaps you will see an old friend or acquaintance. Who knows, maybe you will meet the love of your life. They are more likely to be behind your phone and not inside your phone. Also, these day-to-day little social interactions "grease the wheels" of our overall well-being and longevity. It's known as social integration, and we are missing out on this when we have our heads down and eyes on our devices. 

The Takeaway?

Our habitual, compulsive use of our screens is causing some problems. At times, our phones seem like portable parasites. We tend to overuse our devices, and this has a way of quietly leeching away our happiness and productivity. The good news is that some small changes can help us get the most out of our screens. We can think of this as the Mindful Engagement with Technology (MET). With a more strategic, purposeful use of our screens, we can capitalize more on their many benefits while reducing some of the negatives. We must remember that our undivided attention is our most precious gift, so we need to use it wisely.