One of my favorite hobbies is listening to slightly alarmist tech podcasts. From “Reply All” to “Land of the Giants,” I love hearing about the strange inner workings of the internet and all the things that can go wrong if you’re not careful. I like to think about the effect technology is having on our society and culture, and to be conscious of its effects in my own life. At times, this can lead to drastic changes: uninstalling Slack, ditching Facebook, rigid email rules.
But really, like most people, I’m somewhere in the middle regarding technology. While there might be reasons to run away screaming from technology, there are also advantages to technology, and more importantly, the digital world is part of the way we live our lives now. We have a responsibility to make informed choices about our technology use with full awareness of the world we live in now. After spending a lot of time thinking and too much time reading, I’ve found some methods to appreciate the ways that the digital world enriches my life without going full Twitter addict.
Fighting the addiction: making your smartphone a tool
Smartphones are designed to be addictive. Like slot machines, apps on your phone harness the reward systems in your brain to keep you coming back. Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, makes a concrete suggestion to help fight your devices’ power over you: switch your phone to grayscale. You’ll see the display in black and white; everything is totally still readable, just missing the candy-colors that add to the addictive experience. If you, like me, have tried this before and it didn’t work, I’d strongly recommend Harris’ one-two punch of switching your phone to grayscale and then setting up an easy phone shortcut (explained in the above-linked article) to switch it back for the occasional YouTube video or photo-op. Because this process forces you to think about it every time you switch your phone to color, it puts you in the driver’s seat: you’re controlling your device rather than your device controlling you.
An easy way to step outside the addictive structure of social media apps is, of course, to delete them from your phone, since the majority of these companies’ addictive technology is focused on mobile apps. But what’s essential is to ask Cal Newport’s simple question: what value is this app adding to my life? Instagram could be worth it to you, but Snapchat less so. We have a limited amount of attention to spend. If you want to look more into the topic, Newport’s book Digital Minimalism makes the argument for selecting only those apps that add major value to one’s life.
Baby steps to a simpler internet life
You can also find a middle ground. For example, a lot of people (myself included) go back and forth on deleting Facebook accounts, since they’re such a valuable resource for networking and event planning but can also be addictive and stressful. I’ve finally settled on a “feedless Facebook.” Since I find the news feed overwhelming and FOMO-inducing, I bookmarked a go-to page (mine is Verily!) and put it in my bookmarks bar to click whenever I need or want to interact with Facebook. I don’t think I’ve looked at my normal Facebook feed for years—I still get all the event invites and friend requests without the targeted ads and the emotional roller coaster of the feed. If you want to go further, know that you don’t have to give up Messenger when you deactivate your Facebook account. Friends can also invite you to Facebook events via your email address, even if you don’t have an account.
Another simple way to simplify your internet life is to give yourself constructive alternatives to social media feeds that are contributing to a sense of overwhelm. Try downloading a language app or article-saving app like Pocket to read in the downtime when you normally reach for your phone. (You can start with Verily’s list of apps like these!) Or, take it to the next level and start carrying a paperback, or take up a new hobby.
The buzz: taming notifications
One of the things that I find most intrusive about my phone is the fact that it can always command my attention. No matter how late at night it is or how engrossing my current conversation, I can’t forget that little buzz that means I have a phone notification. It turns out there’s brain science to back this phenomenon: a notification on your phone triggers cortisol, the stress hormone, and this stressed state can persist until you check your phone.
The simplest way to deal with this, of course, is to set your phone to “do not disturb”—but sometimes that doesn’t work well since you also miss phone calls from your mom and update texts from your best friend. But you can also turn off notifications for specific apps: try experimenting with your notification settings to see what works for you. For me, turning off email and Slack notifications on the weekend is a great way to signal to my type-A brain that it’s time to relax. My Samsung-enthusiast brother tells me that you can schedule these notification “off times” on Android phones! If you’re not getting banners or alerts but you still feel stressed when you look at your home screen, try turning off “badges” completely—that little red number at the corner of your app icons can increase your stress level.
Controlling your email—not letting it control you
And then there’s email. I hesitate to offer any ideas about this one, because speaking of stress level, the displayed number on my phone inbox tends to give my friends panic attacks. There are many apps and services meant to help you with email, and I’ve tried many of them, with mixed success—in the end, you have to make email decisions for yourself. What sparks joy for you? What emails delight you to receive, and which add to the stress of a busy day?
Here’s a counterintuitive way to simplify your email habits that I’m giving a try lately: making a “newsletter” email address. See if you can nab an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org, and then spend some time carefully curating the newsletters and offers you want to receive. You can check that email separately from your work and personal accounts—just like in the “old days” of newspapers, the activity of catching up on the news is done at a different time from staying in touch with friends and family. Like social media, email can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster and separating out the spaces devoted to personal, work, and newsletter communications could give you some relief.
For my email newsletter “digest,” I’m really looking forward to having a central location for the meal plans that I’m using regularly from Verily Table, the work advice from Verily Work, and the other Verily Yours emails that come on a regular weekly schedule, since they’ll help give my inbox a rhythm. I’ll fill in with the offers that I want to receive (can’t miss those Michaels 40 percent off coupons) and a few trusted news sources. I anticipate that checking this email will be fun and relaxing, not a burden since I’ll never get urgent work emails or personal messages at that address.
Learning to live a digital life lightly is a process. As much as I wish I could find one, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach or fix-everything app to provide me with a healthy relationship to technology. But these little changes have truly lightened my digital load, making life on the internet easier—and maybe even a little bit fun!
Editors’ note: Verily is an online destination that facilitates deeper meaning and connection for women in their lives offline. Our Verily Yours membership content is specifically aimed to lift the load and elevate a woman’s daily life. Learn more here, and subscribe to support our mission and elevate your daily life.