Monday, September 25, 2017


Thanks to social media and smartphones/smart TVs/smart everything, we have access to more people and more “content” than ever. But the onslaught of technology entering our lives has a downside -- it can distract from enjoying real life. Remember, you’re still a person, not just an avatar.

But there are some easy ways to reclaim a sense of calm and presence in the world by being smarter about your digital intake. Here’s how to turn the digital firehose into a faucet and finally take control.   

Clean up your home screen

Your smartphone’s home screen is packed with colorful app icons made to be alluring to the eye. It becomes second nature to pick up your phone and single tap the purple & orange Instagram icon, or that white Facebook “f” on a field of blue, the Snapchat ghost in its yellow limbo. The next thing you know, you haven’t left the couch for 45 minutes and you’re going to be late meeting friends for a drink.

You can help eliminate some of that garbage-time social media browsing by simply rearranging your home screen so your twitchy index finger takes a few milliseconds more to access some of your most time-sucking apps… time enough for you to consciously consider whether you REALLY need to check your notifications from the past 15 minutes.

Here’s how: Keep only the most vital apps on your home screen -- maps, calendar, your favorite rideshare service, stocks (just kidding on that one) -- and jettison the apps you’d like to limit to folders on the second or third page. The more work you make, the less reflexive it becomes… and you can always move things around once you’ve internalized it.

Find a five-minute yoga routine… and actually, do it

Maybe in the back of your head, you think you’re going to hit the road today for a brain-cleansing three-mile run that’s even more for your mental health than your physical fitness. The problem: Add up the time for getting suited up, finding your workout headphones, and showering afterward, and it’s an hour-plus ordeal. Meanwhile, the day’s schedule is already packed and there are emails still to come in.

The solution: Cut your losses on that run but find a bit of focus and gain a limbered-up feel with a five-minute yoga routine instead.

There are plenty of ideas for quick bursts online, but the aptly-named Five-Minute Yoga app is a good place to start. Each session features five yoga poses with instructions on how to do them, plus illustrations. (If you’re a total newbie, you may need to look the poses up on YouTube.) Click through each of the five 40-second poses and you’ll feel like a human again, inbox be damned.

Don’t feel like facing your dog downward? Similar apps exist for bodyweight workouts you can do anywhere, quick cardio and high-intensity interval training, and free weight or machine workouts. In short, you don’t need a lot of time to score a lot of benefits, just some simple guidance from your phone -- and burning some glucose always makes you feel better.

Train yourself to put down the phone

If your first impulse is to pull out your phone to kill time when there are only two people in line in front of you for coffee, you might have a problem. You might be amazed how much time those brief moments that you’re checking your phone add up to.

The best way to shrink your smartphone addiction: First, quantify how much time you’re spending with it. Moment (iOS only) is a smartphone app that logs how much screen time you’re spending on your phone, and how much time you’re using each app. You can set it to alert you when you’ve hit a max number of hours in a day -- or even block you from using your phone by sending you repeated messages (part of the “Pro” feature set, $3.99.)  

The “Insight” function (part of the free version) will tell you what percentage of your waking life you spend on the phone, and how many times you picked the phone up over the course of the day.

Those figures may shock you. But the app may help you change your habits and redirect some of that time towards relating to the people right in front of you. If you’re on Android, check out Quality Time, which does something similar. If you can think of a self-help tip that better represents 2017 than “use an app to cut down on using apps,” we’d like to hear it.

Remind yourself to stop eating lunch in front of the computer

You may feel like you’re increasing productivity by getting udon delivered to the office and slurping at your desk during the lunch hour. It’s more likely that you’re just refreshing Twitter every thirty seconds and flavoring your keyboard with umami. And you’re not doing your body any favors by barely moving from your seated position all day.

The Pomodoro Technique, a time-management system that breaks up tasks into 25-minute chunks, forces you to take a breather for a few minutes while focusing your attention on the work at hand. You can get any number of free Pomodoro Technique apps for your OS. Or just set your phone’s timer. Since you know the clock is ticking, you’re able to stay focused, knowing a bit of rest and distraction is never far away. Conveniently, 25 minutes is about as long as you should sit for a single period anyway. After the fourth session, it’s time to take a longer break to clear your head. Go for a walk!

Though your lunch hour may be closer to a half-hour, don't be afraid to explore. When time is at a premium, it's more important than ever to spend some on yourself. Instead of following a computer's calculations to save 27 feet of travel to your local salad spot, find the path that looks best in midday lighting, or passes by the bakery that makes the road smells like fresh bread. The joy is in the journey.

By actually leaving the office and finding a calm spot -- whether it’s a bench at a local metro park or the bookstore café a few blocks away -- you’ll get a little bit of exercise and likely return to your workstation with a renewed sense of focus. A solution to that project might be just a venue-change away.

Restrict your TV habit in a rewarding manner

Americans are watching an average of more than five hours of television per day, according to a 2016 Nielsen study. That’s pretty staggering. We may be living in the golden era of TV, but there’s a downside to the binge-watching: It can serve as a distraction. Instead of taking the next step on a personal project, or calling a loved one, or having a real discussion with your significant other, it’s easy to go three or four episodes deep into a series you never intended on watching in the first place.

Getting control over your TV diet doesn’t mean you need to cut off the boob tube cold turkey. Try limiting yourself to just an hour and a half a day. Set a timer if need be, or an episode limit. You’ll be forced to trim the fat from your TV intake, meaning you’ll be able to focus on the content you actually care about and have more time to make progress on your in-real-life goals -- like planning a vacation.

Trim Down Your Notifications

Swipe down on your iPhone’s home screen and you’re likely to find a long scroll of notifications that aren’t urgent in any way, from the mostly non-headlines of News to new neighborhood restaurant intel from Yelp to a notice about a new WTF Podcast that was automatically downloaded to your phone anyway. You really didn’t need urgent reminders for any of that intel.

To curtail these distractions, go into your iPhone settings and find the “notifications” tab, where you can customize them for each app. On Android phones, notifications can be turned off in the settings for each app. And that notice that pops up every Tuesday about a standing weekly meeting that’s been canceled for months? Go in your calendar and delete it for good.

End the endless text chain

We all have friends with whom we’ve got long-running text threads, where inside jokes and friend-group gossip reign. But brief SMS bursts are no substitute for the richness of a real-life conversation. So instead of firing off endless messages -- or having to respond to them -- make an agreement with that frequently-texting friend that you’ll take note of everything you wanted to message them about. Use those talking points for a daily or weekly conversation over a beer or coffee meet up. The conversation will likely blast off towards even funnier places than a stream of texts ever could.

If money’s a concern, go for a walk in the woods, or play a game of H-O-R-S-E together. It could even be as simple as changing what video games you play to something turn-based, or -- *gasp* --savoring this board game renaissance that’s taking over an otherwise digital age.

Whatever you choose, let it make you more human. The important thing is that technology is meant to make our lives more fulfilling and our work faster, not our lives more filled and our work more furious. Take the time to get what you want from it, and that’s time you’ll never lose again.

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