Start Looking Up Instead Of Down: Three simple tips to help you unplug and mindfully engage

10/18/2017 11:06 am ET

Have you noticed lately how many people are looking down instead of up? Maybe you’ve noticed yourself engaging in not-so-safe smartphone use, such as texting while crossing the street, driving or even biking. Who among us hasn’t had a moment when we turned to our phones while feeling anxious or uncomfortable at a party? Have you, like me, ever found yourself staying up late at night reading social media posts or online articles that you forget about the next day?

If you’re wondering if you’ve developed a consuming or even addictive relationship to your phone, you’re not alone. The research is overwhelming. This year the iPhone turned 10. And, in a decade, as a collective society, we have developed an obsession with our devices, especially our smartphones. Some of us incessantly check news feeds, email, texts and social media sites because we fear missing out on something important. Others are on their phones so much that the relationship they’ve developed with their on-hand technology is negatively impacting their “real life” relationships. Maybe, like many others, you’ve made promises to cut back, but find yourself unable to avoid technology in one form or another. It may be that it has become a struggle to enjoy reflective time without digital media, or you might wonder how your children and family are being impacted by the ubiquitous use of technology in today’s world.

Technology has evolved at an increasingly rapid pace over the past decade, and in many ways, we are constantly trying to catch up—or at least keep up—with it. We have gained remarkable tools and access to information, but establishing healthy boundaries with our phones, tablets and wearable devices has proven to be more challenging than almost anyone could have predicted. We live in a society that stimulates us to constantly plug into something, and too much screen time can wreak havoc on our personal and professional lives. The fear of missing out (FOMO), which many people suffer from in today’s busy world, can heighten stress, cause anxiety and insomnia, decrease productivity, and keep us from being present with what is going on in our lives in real time.

But, with these powerful and compelling devices usually just a hand’s reach away, it’s hard to turn off the phone and tune into real time. The majority of us spend so much time plugged in and operating on autopilot, rather than simply “being” with who and where we are, or just allowing for time to reflect. And while we are busy engaging in the seemingly endless parade of information and entertainment available at our fingertips, we often miss the things that are most important to us.

The good news is that there are ways to become more skillful in the use of your devices. You can operate from a place of awareness and choice, rather than on autopilot and/or from reactivity. The following mindfulness-based tips can help you develop more awareness around when, why and how you use the various devices in your life, as well as specific, actionable steps you can take to improve your relationship to technologies.

Resist the rabbit hole

Major aspects of human engagement have changed now that we have such nimble mobile technology. These changes are not only about how we seek out information, but also about how we process and share it. Take for example, social engagement. Before the birth of the iPhone, when we read articles or watched shows that we found worth sharing, we had to remember details and engage other people in real-time conversations about it. During those conversations, our friends might challenge our point of view or share personal stories that would create an emotional connection to the information. Our mirror neurons would fire up. We would empathize, and our limbic systems would be activated, helping us engage with the information on an intuitive level. Now, we don’t even need to read an article before we share it with someone. We can easily click “like” and “share.” We might tweet a link to it, use an associated hash tag a couple of times, or even post a picture of ourselves with a book. While these actions are quick and convenient, they are all forms of surface engagement. We haven’t processed the information or thought much about it before we move on to sharing it.

When you find yourself starting to go down the rabbit hole, pause, notice and reflect.

Most of the time, you may find that you reach for your phone without even thinking about it. And while you are scrolling and swiping on autopilot, you are tuning out of your own experience. If you’ve ever experienced neck pain after looking at your screen for too long, you know what I mean. While your brain is taking in a lot of information from your phone, apps tend to be designed to leave you little time for processing and reflecting. This means it’s up to you to take control of your attention. When you find yourself starting down the rabbit hole of the worldwide web, pause. Look up from your device and notice where you are in real time. Then, reflect on what you are doing. Close your eyes, take a grounding breath and check in with your body. What are you feeling? What is around you? What would be the best use of your time right now? If you decide to go back to your phone, take a moment to ask yourself what you are seeking there and whether or not your phone is the best place to get your needs met.

Practice downtime

We have an endless amount of fascinating information and entertainment— countless songs, photos, social media sites, news feeds and games— sitting in our pockets. And all of it seems more exciting than just resting in between tasks and quietly reflecting on things. We pull out our phones, and before we know it, time has passed. Sometimes, a lot of time has passed. Yet, we keep going to our phones, never quite satisfied with our experience or with what we find. And, while we are lost in our phones, we are missing out on life. We are missing out on opportunities to reflect, relax and restore. We miss meaningful connections with people or just to have downtime.

Downtime is essential for creative and innovative thinking. For so many of the world’s greatest innovations, the “ah-ha” moment happened during downtime—when the inventor was not doing or thinking about anything in particular. These downtime moments exist in between events, such as when we’re waiting in line, sitting in our cars, at the bus stop or walking through the grocery store.

Rather than give your downtime over to your device, set aside time everyday—or even once every week—to relax and recharge. Even if it’s just 30 minutes. Rather than incessantly checking your phone, spend time with just you. It might consist of simply doing nothing, or it could lead to the next great invention! Experiment with carving out some “intentionally unproductive time”—time when you reflect and are present without the pressure to do anything more than that. This is easier said than done, which is why it’s important to practice it. Doing nothing can actually be hard work!

Put your phone away at dinner

While this tip might seem obvious, fewer and fewer of us are putting away our devices during meals with family and friends, and research only confirms the obvious suspicions that phones can have a negative impact on relationships. Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex conducted a series of studies looking at this very issue. They found that the mere presence of a cell phone on a table between two people, even if nobody picked it up, could be detrimental to interpersonal connection, especially if the pair was discussing a topic that was meaningful. The people involved in the study reported feeling less trust and thought their partner showed decreased empathy when a cell phone was present.

This study’s findings make intuitive sense. Almost all of us have had an experience when spending time with someone who was consumed with his or her phone made us feel like a third wheel. And, maybe you’re guilty of doing this, too. For instance, have you ever been decompressing by scrolling through a feed or reading an article on your phone and someone comes in and interrupts you? And maybe you answer him or her without really paying attention to what’s being said? Furthermore, what unspoken messages do we communicate to our families or friends when we sneak a peek at our phones under the table? It’s become so ubiquitous, there’s even a name for it now: Phubbing—snubbing people to spend more time with your phone.

This tip is easy: Put your phone away when dining with friends and family, and ask that they do, too. Maybe make it a family rule, or ask another phone-fanatic friend out for a phone-free meal. Challenge your friends to put their phones in the center of the table when you go out to eat, and whomever grabs for his or her phone first picks up the tab. Try to notice when you feel the urge to grab your phone. Allow yourself to pause and ask yourself what sparked the urge to get it? Was it boredom? Anxiety? Fear of missing out? Understanding why you reach for your phone is an essential step to developing a more intentional relationship with it.

Make Your Phone Work for You

The above, simple mindfulness-based practices are designed to directly counter the impulse to fall into the rabbit hole of our devices. They can be used to set specific intentions and pay attention to our experience in the present moment, including the impact technology has on our state of mind, emotions, moods and physical being. By even slightly altering your relationship with technology, you give yourself more choice about how and when you use it. You can cultivate curiosity and compassion. And, ideally, you can reconnect with the things that are intrinsically rewarding to you.

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