From our televisions and laptops to our smartphones, we have a world of convenience and seemingly endless optimization opportunities at our fingertips. We know our screen time affects our overall sense of wellness, as well as our relationships. But as it turns out, it also affects our space.
In an article for The Atlantic, writer Ian Bogost explores the way our phones have influenced our sense of space, particularly our homes. Rather than being defined by the activities we do in them, our spaces now blur together. Bogost writes:
Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?
He goes so far as to call the home “a prison of convenience.” Of course, most of us prefer to think of the home as a haven, a respite, a place to experience restoration. It stands to reason: if our phones can reshape our sense of space, might our space be able to influence the way we use technology?
Often, discussion about changing our tech habits focuses on actions like deleting social media accounts or downloading one of the many apps designed to curb our screen time. But when we focus solely on deletions and timers and good old-fashioned self-discipline, we may be missing out on another helpful aid: the richness of our lives and the world around us.
The home is a good place to start. By being intentional with the way we design and order our homes, the physical space we occupy may aid us in breaking bad habits, creating good ones, and striking a balance between enjoying technology and its conveniences without being ruled by them. Here are some strategies to try in your own home.
Surround yourself with beauty
The things that fill our home are so much more than mere possessions. As Verily’s Fay Schaeffer writes, having and using pretty things can help ground us: “Having things about you that you delight in will make you want to slow down and commit to the here and now in front of you.”
For example, Schaeffer explains that drinking from a coffee cup we love may inspire us to sit down and actually enjoy the coffee. A tablecloth can make a meal feel more special and prompt us to savor the experience alongside the food. Flowers not only add color, but are a sign of our presence, since they require our care and attention.
This is part of the draw of Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering. It’s not about minimalism, but rather, surrounding yourself with things that “spark joy”—things that excite you and hold meaning for you, regardless of what others think of them.
Our things aren’t a sure answer to our overdependence on technology, but they are tangible reminders that life is good and beautiful. Taking the time to use and appreciate those things may help anchor us in our reality, rather than escaping to the world inside the screen.
Another way to fill our homes with beauty is to use color with care. Color is powerful; it can evoke certain moods and shape our perception of a space. As designer Shelagh Bolger explains in an edition of Verily Home, “When you walk into a space, your brain first processes color, not necessarily the textures, shapes, and sizes of things. The bedroom should be soothing, the kitchen energizing, the office productive, living room communal, and so on.”
Thinking about how we want to use a space and what moods we’d like to inspire can help us make such choices. For instance, Bolger explains that, for a calming and rejuvenating bedroom, light blue, sage green, lavender, and white are all good choices. Viewed in the context of our tech habits, it’s possible that using calming colors could be a subtle reminder that the bedroom is for relaxing—not checking work emails.
If you find yourself reaching for your phone when you’re in certain moods, or if you simply don’t like your space (and therefore feel the need to escape to Netflix and Instagram), maybe it’s time to consider a change in color palette to create an environment where you’re content to be unplugged and happy to be present. Create an environment that inspires you, whatever your style may be.
Designate a space for your phone
Tidying expert Marie Kondo advocates giving every single item in your home a space. As many times as I’ve read her books, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I had neglected one very important object: my phone. It didn’t have its own designated space, but rather, followed me around—on the bathroom counter when I got ready for the day, on the changing table when I played with my kids in their room, on my nightstand when I slept. The realization that I had forgotten to find a home for my phone opened my eyes to just how deep my attachment ran.
It was only recently that I found a spot to declare my phone “put away.” For me, the place that works best is a small basket on the kitchen counter. This idea that my phone is put away has helped me treat it more like a useful tool, and less like a constant nagging companion.
Giving the phone a designated space can also help us stick to boundaries for where and how we use our devices, just as we create boundaries for other areas of our lives at home. For example, in our house, we have a rule that food stays in the kitchen and dining room—not in the living room. Keeping food out of the living room has dramatically cut back on the amount of time I spend cleaning, and it protects our couch from spills and stains. It also protects meal time, making it something we do around the table together.
Maybe we declare the bedroom a phone-free zone, at least at night—a choice that has been the topic of myriad studies and articles. Maybe we don’t use our phones at the dining room table at all, or we limit at-the-table phone use to times when we’re dining solo, or to certain times of day.
When developing such boundaries for yourself, it’s helpful to think about the “why” behind them. Just as identifying financial goals can help us stick to a budget, reflecting on lifestyle goals can help us create more meaningful tech use boundaries. For example, “I’m going to keep my phone out of my room so I can use it as a place to rest,” or “I’m going to put my phone away during lunch at the office so I can give my eyes a break from the screen” will likely be more motivating than “I need to use my phone less.”
It’s important to keep in mind that such boundaries are meant to enhance our lives, not to stress us out with their rigidity. Even my rule about food staying in the kitchen has some wiggle room. When my husband and I have an at-home movie date after the kids are in bed, we often enjoy a bowl of ice cream on the couch. My toddlers know they can have a sippy cup of hot cocoa in the living room if they sit on their “cocoa blankets,” little fleece blankets I spread over the rug. Similarly, we can give ourselves room to relax on our tech boundaries.
Ultimately, the important thing isn’t the boundaries themselves, but the way they help us enjoy our homes and be more thoughtful about reaching for our phones.
Make offline activities easy to access
In an editor’s letter, Verily’s Emily Lehman wrote about how she was stressed while waiting for an evening phone call, so she took out her watercolor paints. This tangible act helped ground her in the moment and relieve her of her stress.
“When our minds threaten to run away with us, sometimes the best thing we can do is come back in touch with physical reality, whether by taking an outdoor walk, making art, or putting together a delicious dinner,” she wrote.
Those moments of waiting, like the one Lehman described, are the moments when I most frequently turn to my phone by default. But doing so only makes the wait feel longer, and I end up feeling as if I’ve squandered time that could have been used for something else.
Keeping supplies for much-loved activities easily accessible is one strategy we can use to alter our habits. For instance, rather than keeping your creative supplies stashed in the top shelf of the closet or tucked under the bed, consider putting them in a pretty basket on a bookshelf. Making them easy to get to (and easy to put away) may inspire you to reach for them more often.
This idea can extend to pursuits beyond crafts, as well. You might try keeping a basket of notecards and pens nearby, so you can jot handwritten notes to friends. If you want to read more, try keeping a few good books within easy reach. Whatever you love to do, make a space to do it.
One woman I know grew tired of relying on her phone when she wanted to check the time. I can relate—picking up my phone to check the time usually leads to texting, checking email, searching for recipes on Pinterest, and browsing the IKEA app. None of those are bad activities, but none of them need to be done at that moment, and they only distract me from whatever I was trying to focus on before. This other woman had a simple solution: clocks. She bought a few and placed them throughout her apartment. The clocks freed her from her phone and doubled as classy decor. Her simple change has inspired me, and I’m on the lookout for some pretty clocks for my own home.
Using clocks may not seem like much, but small changes like that can be an effective way to alter our habits. As Verily’s Laura Loker explains, guilt and time-tracking alone aren’t enough; we have to confront our “cues,” the things that prompt us to pick up our phone in the first place. She writes, “If we really want to carve out any time away from our tempting distractions, away from rude notifications, away from constant connection, we need to free ourselves from some of those minor use cases—which might mean returning to the single-purpose, analog items that smartphones made obsolete.”
There are plenty of other ways to go analog at home, like using a paper notepad instead of a note-taking app. I’ve started keeping a flashlight on my nightstand, so when I check on my kids at night, I don’t have to use the flashlight on my phone.
That’s not to say that using a cell phone as a clock or a flashlight or a notepad is bad in and of itself; those are all practical and convenient uses of our devices. But if those practical uses are gateways to other uses that steal our time and sap our energy, it may be worth finding some replacements.
Just like any other recommendation on being more mindful of our screen time, these ideas aren’t guaranteed to magically make our bad habits disappear. But they do offer tangible ways to reclaim our time and space, and to make our home a haven for intentional living.
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