Janine Lattimore has seven tips for pulling the plug on the time- and attention-drawing power of the digital realm and maintaining a healthy virtual versus real-life balance.
The internet is a big time- and attentionsucking black hole. You log on to just quickly check an email, then get side-tracked by a post on social media, and before you know it, an hour has disappeared into the
online vortex. Spending time online is not bad in itself; the problem is that it is extremely easy to waste time online and then feel unsatisfied afterwards. It is also easy to get distracted by our digital devices and neglect the people we are with in person.
Set a timer
Use a timer to set a time limit for use of digital/online devices. You can buy a fun one for the kids to use, but try using one for yourself as well. If your children or you have trouble stopping when a separate timer goes off, then you can create a shutdown shortcut on your desktop which turns the computer off automatically (search “shutdown timer” on the internet to find out how to do this). A shutdown timer can also be a helpful prompt to get you off to bed at night.
Prioritise and plan
It is very easy to open your web browser or look at your phone and get instantly distracted by email and social media alerts. These alerts often generate in us a feeling of urgency to respond; however, the truth is that most alerts are not urgent at all. To avoid being immediately drawn into the social media onslaught when you turn on your device, prioritise and plan before you switch on. Do what is important and necessary first, whether that be printing a recipe for dinner, writing a report, or working on a photo book for your mother’s birthday. If you have difficulty ignoring alerts, then change your settings so that they do not come up on your home screen or set off a ringtone on your phone. Set a regular time, and time limit, for social media and general email interaction, and deal with the most important items first before indulging in browsing your interests. Most email and social media items are not urgent and you can stay in the social loop if you only check them once a day, or twice a day for work emails. Be strong about what emails you really need to receive, and unsubscribe from any newsletters you do not regularly open. Be ruthless – your time and attention are precious, so only give it to what really enhances your life. The same principle applies to what you follow on social media and whom you “friend”.
Put it away
When you are not using your laptop, tablet, iPad, iPod, iPhone etc, put them away in a designated drawer/box/cupboard. Out of sight helps things to also be out of mind. If you have a desktop computer, cover it with a cloth.
Designate screen-free times each day. Dinner time is a good one to start with. Yes, your children may complain, but make it a rule that at least on weekdays, dinner is to be eaten together at the table with all digital devices turned off and put away. It is actually a healthy practice to make all mealtimes screen-free. Another beneficial place to be screen-free is the bathroom. Steam is not good for electronic devices anyway, and if you are having an extended toilet stop, then use the opportunity to rest your mind and your body– things are likely to, ahem, flow more freely if you do.
Get out and about
Book in commitment-oriented activities that do not involve the internet, such as taking a night class, joining friends for a regular walk, or playing on an indoor sports team. Set up some enjoyable regular activities with your children such as a Sunday morning adventure walk, or a board games afternoon once a week.
When you go out with someone in person, such as for a coffee with friends or dinner with your partner, at least put your phone away out of sight and switch it to silent or vibrate. Give your attention to the person you are with and the environment your have gone out to enjoy.
Keep digital/online devices out of the bedroom at night. Turn your mobile phones off completely and put them away somewhere in the living area of your house, or at least in a drawer if you are flatting/boarding. This helps you disconnect mentally and also reduces the amount of electromagnetic radiation in the house while you sleep. Also avoid using your mobile phone as an alarm. When you use your phone to wake you, it makes it very tempting to start the day checking your social media. Allow yourself time to gather your thoughts before you enter into the online fray each day. Putting these tips into practice will allow you to use digital/online devices to enhance your life without dominating it. Taking control to avoid your time and attention being sucked into online nothingness will free you to enjoy the people and places around you. And remember, surfing is more fun when you have good balance.
Janine Lattimore is a former teacher and youth worker turned full-time mum and part-time freelance writer.