Do these words make you short of breath? Set your heart aflutter? Maybe or maybe not, but I’m guessing the term ‘digital anxiety’ means something to you, even if you’ve never heard it before.
When I power off my phone or my laptop, I can actually feel it inside myself – as if I, too, am powering down. So while I may not be aware of my digital anxiety throughout the day, when it’s gone, I know it.
Technology is changing our minds
What is the proof that technology is changing us?
- Americans check our phones an average of 52 times a day.
- Relative to non-expert players, expert video gamers display increased cognitive abilities such as tracking moving objects at high speeds and switching from one task to another.
- Babies excessively exposed to screens may be primed for a lifetime of addiction.
But do you really need scientific data to know that all this stimulation is quite literally changing our minds?
Do you really need any evidence beyond your own life to know that juggling multiple devices all day long is interfering with the quality of your in-person relationships, your sleep, and your peace of mind?
I didn’t think so.
I love my phone as much as the next addict. But I’m open to implementing some changes to reduce my digital anxiety and improve the quality of my life.
Reduce technological stress by managing your attention, not your time
I’ve noticed that I’ll set aside a few hours to do a particular writing task, such as write this blog post. But then I get an email, notification, or voicemail that needs instant attention. Suddenly, my time has been hijacked. It seems everyone else is in charge of my time but me. This is a big cause of my digital anxiety.
What can I do to change this?
I consulted Maura Thomas, an international expert in attention management. Thomas, who speaks to an average of 2,000 people a year, explains:
I always ask, ‘Do you feel your attention span is shorter than it used to be?’ Every hand in the room goes up. Then I ask ‘How many of you feel you are less patient than you used to be?’ Again every hand goes up.
Maura tells me that we frame this idea of time management as ‘I’m not getting enough done. I’m so busy. I have so much going on.’ But she says the trick is to realize this:
We can’t manage time. We never could. We can’t slow it down. We can’t bend it to our will. The problem is distraction. Managing time is not the answer. Managing attention is the answer. I believe that attention management is the secret to living a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.
9 strategies to reduce digital anxiety
After I spoke to Maura, I was more determined than ever to find a less reactive way to operate and a more surefire strategy to complete my daily work. I researched solutions. Here are 9 methods I found to reduce digital anxiety and leave you more in control of your life:
1. Use apps to block distractions.
It’s come to this: We can’t rely on our own self-control. We’ll use every app on our phone while we’re working. So now we have to rely on another app to lock us out of the rest of the apps. Ironic? Yes. But perhaps it’s just the cure.
Do you feel you need to concentrate better during a certain time of day?
With distraction-blocking apps such as Freedom, Self-Control and many others, you can set the time you’d like your computer to NOT allow you to access other apps, your email, a certain website, or the entire Internet.
2. Turn off notifications.
Push notifications are the messages that pop up out of nowhere. You can get notifications on your laptop, iPad, or smartphone. They are usually sent by a company that is trying to get you to take a particular action, such as sign up for a service or come into a store to take advantage of a sale. Notifications are created with the goal of distracting you from whatever else you might be doing. They have no right to disturb you.
How to Disable Notifications on iPhone
To turn off notifications on your iPhone, go to Settings–>Notifications. You will then see a list of Apps loaded onto your phone. Click on the name of the app. Then turn the toggle switch that says Allow Notifications to Off. You will need to do this for each app on your phone.
How to Disable Notifications on Android
It may vary depending on your phone. Your settings may be in the Tools folder. Open Tools→ Click Settings–>Click the General tab on top right–>Click Apps & Notifications–>Click App Info–>You will see a list of all your applications. Click on an application. If that application sends notifications you will see App notifications. Click that.–>Turn the Toggle Off to turn off all notifications for that app.
3. Reduce digital stress by stopping email from loading automatically.
You know that you get a little hit of dopamine every time you check email and find a new message? A positive result. It’s what keeps you checking again and again throughout the day.
But consider how long it takes you to read each email, decide whether to respond to it, and then recover from the interruption.
Here’s a great idea: Take back control! Stop email from automatically loading.
This is a strategy to reduce digital anxiety that sounds quite promising to me. I can check my email whenever I want, but this way, I can set aside a particular time to retrieve new emails, putting me back in control of my information intake.
If you want to stop acting like a lab rat pressing the button and hoping for a pellet, here’s how:
The idea here is that you need to tell your phone not to push email to you, but rather you will fetch it yourself when you are ready.
When the toggle switch at the top is turned onto Push, it is telling your phone to automatically load all email from all accounts.
If you have multiple accounts on your iPhone…
Go to Settings–>Passwords & Accounts–>Scroll to the bottom and click Fetch New Data→ at the top of the screen, toggle ‘Push’ to Off to disable all email from automatically loading. OR scroll down and click each email account. Click ‘Manual’ for each account instead of ‘Fetch.’
When you want to retrieve your email for a particular account, go through the same steps but at the end, click back to ‘Fetch’ from ‘Manual.’
If you have one email account on your iPhone….
Go to Settings–>Mail–>Click Fetch New Data→ Toggle Push’ to Off. Then click ‘Manual’ instead of ‘Fetch.’
When you want to retrieve your email…
Go through the same steps but at the end, click back to ‘Fetch’ from ‘Manual’.
Go to Settings (which maybe in the Tools folder)–>Click the General tab on top right, then scroll down and select Accounts–>Toggle ‘Auto-Sync Accounts’ to Off. This will automatically stop loading all of your email.
When you want your email to re-sync…
Go back to the toggle switch for ‘Auto-Sync Accounts’ and turn it On.
4. Guess what? You don’t need to respond to every social media message.
Many studies find a link between social media use and increased depression and anxiety. On the flip side, there is also evidence to show that social media is beneficial in forming communities of people who might otherwise be isolated.
Studies find that people on social media suffer from digital anxiety due to social overload, Users of social media feel they constantly need to respond to posts. This leaves them feeling exhausted and depleted.
Knowing that most people feel this way, give yourself permission to scroll through your social media feed without commenting, sharing or liking. Even if you are directly asked for your opinion through a direct message, allow yourself to send a message such as, “I’m busy now. I’ll respond when I have time.” You can be sure the recipient will soon be distracted and forget all about your message in no time.
5. Lower technological stress. Use just one device at a time.
A study that appeared in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that “the growing trend of multitasking with media may represent a unique risk factor for mental health problems related to mood and anxiety.”
Before you say, “Hey, I don’t engage in media multitasking,” ask yourself what happened the last time you were in the middle of a task on the computer and your mobile phone rang. Did you close your computer completely as you began the conversation on the phone? Or was there some overlap there?
Next time, try to be mindful. Decide to close the cover of your laptop before you take a call, or better yet, power down your phone while you work.
6. Reimagine How You Use Out-of-Office Notifications
Your email plan comes with an out-of-office notification that you can send whenever you’re on vacation. You know, it’s the automated message that says, “I’m on vacation. Please contact Mary if you need immediate assistance.”
But why use the out-of-office notification only for true vacations?
You can use it when you just need a brain break. No one needs to know what you’re up to. Set your out-of-office notification to say, “I won’t be responding to email for 24 hours. If it’s an emergency, please give me a call at (insert your number).”
It’s your time. It’s your life. Own it!
7. Reduce Blue Light at Night
Our devices emit blue light that can trick our brains into thinking that it’s daytime. This messes with our sleep.
And as you probably know, sleep quality is important to overall health. According to Dieter Kunz, director of the Sleep Research and Clinical Chronobiology Research Group at Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin:
A growing body of evidence suggests that a desynchronization of circadian rhythms may play a role in various tumoral diseases, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
The blue light emitted from our devices disrupts the production of melatonin, which tells our brains it’s nighty-night time. Fortunately, there are several solutions. Wear blue-light blocking glasses for several hours before bed.
On Apple Devices
You can reduce the blue light using Night Shift. It takes just a minute to set. Click on Settings –> Display & Brightness –> Night Shift. You can now choose the hours during which you would like your device to reduce blue light.
On Android Devices
If your Android operating system is up to date, you can go to Settings–>Display–>Night Light to set up a similar feature.
8. Take the Phone and Other Devices out of the Bedroom
There are several reasons to remove devices from the bedroom for higher quality sleep.
First of all, even when a phone is nearby – even if it is turned off! – it will distract you and decrease your attention to the task at hand.
I can attest to this. For many months, I was based in the US but working with a company in Australia. Even though my phone ringer was turned off at night, I started to awaken at 2am each night when I subconsciously knew that the Australians would be emailing me.
The problem changed to the European time zone, when I started to work with a company there. The moral of the story is: The brain knows all.
Plus, the hum of your devices and the little ‘power on’ lights don’t help your slumber either.
So get an old-fashioned alarm clock and call it a day. Or a night.
9. Turn Off Your Router & Reconnect Your Family
Let’s face it. While you may have some modicum of self-control, it’s harder for teens to power down. If you want to help out the entire family, simply give some advanced warning that the router goes off at a particular time.
Then with the flick of the router switch, Wi-Fi access is gone.
It’s the perfect time to make a pot of tea, call a family meeting or pull out a board game. Though there might be some initial complaints, I’m betting the collective brain break puts everyone in a better mood in the long-run.
Digital anxiety solutions: You’re the boss
If you try one of these suggestions for 30 days, you may notice the difference. Let me know if there’s an impact on your level of digital anxiety. Remember, creating a new habit won’t happen overnight. It’s a good idea to write down why you want to make the particular change to your routine, and even get an accountability partner to check in with daily.
The main point here is to take control by being proactive rather than reactive. Who is going to be the digital boss in your life — you or your devices?
If you want to reduce your digital anxiety, there’s one right answer: The digital boss must be you!