For some of us, it’s hard to remember a time without smartphones. These days, they’re in our hands or in our bags all the time, and it’s no secret that we spend a lot of time tapping, typing, and swiping. In fact, from the moment we wake up to the time we hit the sheets again, we check our phones an average of forty-six times each day.
It’s worth asking: Is that time well spent? Social media has allowed personal connections and business opportunities that folks a few generations ago would have thought impossible. On the other hand, research shows what we’re taking in has an effect on us—and not always for the better. Overindulging in social media can result in overeating, spending too much money, and—perhaps most commonly—unnecessarily comparing ourselves to false ideals.
When used in moderation and with thoughtful intention, contemporary technology doesn’t have to mean disaster. Setting boundaries and engaging with the more “social” aspects of social media can pave the way for getting the greatest personal and professional benefit from every account. Take stock of your relationship with your apps with these tips.
01. Pay attention to when you reach for your phone.
Keep a notebook by your side for a day and record how you’re feeling each time you reach for your phone and again each time you set it down (tally marks make this quick). Are you lonely? Tired? Bored? Hungry? Do you feel better after you’ve checked your feeds or worse? Alternately, set aside a designated fifteen minutes each day to use social media. Use a timer and stick to it for a week. Record how you feel before and after.
If you notice a pattern in which you don’t feel so great before or after checking your phone, ask yourself why. Were you looking for a pick-me-up, but found a feeling of inferiority? Were you bored, and now you’re craving a monster milkshake? What non-digital means might you have on hand to help improve your mood instead? Consider doing a few quick stretches, drinking a cold glass of water, or putting on your favorite music to ease your mind and de-stress.
02. Trade stalking for sincerity.
Our culture jokes about “stalking” people online: We can find out a whole lot about a person without actually talking to her. The alternative is to use this information to contribute to a more genuine approach to your relationships. When you see something of interest on a connection’s page, make a thoughtful comment (preferably longer than a single word) rather than scrolling on. You might also send a direct message or an email (or, gasp! a letter!) to establish a more personal, intentional dialogue.
Should you have an opportunity to see the person for real, make a note to ask her about it offline, where your conversation isn’t accessible to the masses or communicated in emojis and GIFs. We are all encouraged when we know we are seen and heard, and showing a friend you are paying attention to what’s important to her can make her day.
03. Commit to face-to-face interaction.
When you feel the impulse to pull up Facebook, Instagram, or another app, tap to your texts instead and ask a friend or colleague to catch up over coffee. Better yet, call or stop by. When you do, stow your phone and resist the urge to post during your time together about where you went or what you ate. Compare how you feel after a completely in-real-life interaction to how you feel when your phone is the main attraction.
On the days when a social visit isn’t an option, make a conscious choice to look the other people you interact with in the eye. Whether it’s your colleagues, the person who does your dry cleaning, or the commuter next to you on the train, take a phone-free moment to acknowledge the human being in front of you—even if she’s got her eyes on her tablet.
04. Purge your accounts.
It’s easy to tap “follow” on a friend of a friend’s account because of a cute image or on a designer’s page because you saw a dress you liked at some point. But is the content in your feed still as relevant now as it was when you first added it to your account? It’s just as easy to tap “unfollow” and to curate a collection of images and messages that feed you, rather than deplete you.
After you’ve done this, try the tally exercise again with your new feed. Are there still things that aren’t encouraging or inspiring you? Is it because your interests have shifted? If you have a new goal you’re looking to achieve (a race, a craft project, a business endeavor), carefully select a few accounts that could help you stay focused and on track.
05. Have other activities on hand.
You have a doctor’s appointment and you know you’re going to spend time in the waiting room. Sure, you could play another round of that addictive, competitive word game . . . or you could pack a book of sudoku puzzles, that book you’ve been meaning to read, or an adult coloring book and pencils. Science confirms the benefits of creative pursuits to relax and rejuvenate us in the midst of a hectic culture—which may be just what your doctor orders.
Keep a list of fun things to do, so that you’re not drawing a blank when you finally get the opportunity. It may be short stories you’d like to read,movies you’d like to see, drawers in your home that need clearing out, or paths around your city you’d like to run, walk, or bike. A spare half hour can be hard to find sometimes, and being prepared is key to using that time for your priorities, rather than visualizing someone else’s.
You can manage your social media, or it can manage you. When the emphasis is on “social,” that is, on actual interactions with other people, the technology can be a means of enriching your life and even your work. But don’t forget to respect your own limitations as a human being who needs real downtime. Most notifications can wait for your attention. The present moment doesn’t offer the same luxury, so hold on to it and savor it IRL.