The Device Diet

Five years ago I’d never had a client request coaching around social media compulsion and “device addiction”. This is a phenomenon that has been around for awhile but is more recently emerging as a relevant topic for all of my clients, despite demographic or the primary coaching goal they came with. It seems we are all united by this common distraction and our desire to gain control over it.

It’s convenient to point the blame at technology the way we’d like to make fast food companies responsible for undesired weight gain, but this just side steps the issue. From my perspective the fact that we have such easy access to food without stepping out of our car is amazing. Even though I’ve chosen not to eat fast food for the last 25 years, it’s existence is still an impressive sign of advancement from our hunter gatherer ancestors. I’m not much of a device guy either but I love that I can bust out my phone during a conversation and bring Google’s opinion into the mix. Im in awe of the ability to instantly share pictures and videos with every person I’ve ever known, Face Time with clients across the country, access the amount of music in an entire Tower Records Store and have infinite information at my fingertips. All this was Sci-Fi fantasy while I was growing up so I definitely understand the compulsion toward our devices.

But just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should. And yet, we do. All that alluring power and connection in our pocket is being abused and more and more people are feeling the impact. So what is the solution to device addiction?  Gambling, drugs and alcohol are addictions we can abstain from with the right guidance and support structure. But for most, completely eliminating their device would be like eliminating food to solve a sugar addiction. Our devices have already become a fully integrated part of business, family and culture. For many, going on a full on “device fast” could mean missing appointments, blowing deals and alienating themselves from friends.  But what about a “device diet”?

The path to creating a healthy, intentional relationship with your device is no different than the path to weight loss, performance enhancement or any other lifestyle change. The first step is beginning to recognize that there is a personal cost to being hyper-connected. We can begin to wake up, as one client recounts, in the middle of a device induced coma to realize that one of four friends who were dinning together at a fancy restaurant had been sitting alone at the table for ten minutes because his phone had died. The others un-phased by this odd social occurrence continued ignoring him for their virtual relationships while the Server patiently waited to take their order. Other clients have recounted less rude but equally bizarre behaviors such as secretly texting for extended periods in public restrooms, stopping in the middle of a circuit-training workout to check Facebook or holding up traffic at a green light while texting. Sadly, some of life’s most precious moments are lost in the attempt to capture them for others. After being overly concerned with getting a good selfie to show everyone the steep mountain she’d hiked, one client questioned whether she’d really ever fully been there herself.

Mindfulness of Using Devices

From a mindfulness perspective, any moments we become present to the absurdity of our behavior is actually something to be celebrated. When viewed with non-judgment, each of these moments becomes an opportunity to observe what’s not working in our life. It’s the accumulation of these mini mindful moments that fuels the motivation for change.  With this new self-awareness we can begin to regain control, choosing when it’s appropriate and how much attention to invest in our devices.

Each time we catch ourselves in the midst of being pulled out of the present moment into a cyber trance, we’ve arrived at a crossroads. There is the choice to indulge the impulse or the choice to do something different. Practicing mindfulness, we can begin to notice the first subtle sense of craving to check messages or surf the Internet. The alerting sound of an incoming message can trigger a sense of urgency and importance. We may feel the anxiety of missing an email, the desire for attention, or the need to escape the present moment into the safety and entertaining fantasy of our sleek little screen worlds. At these crossroads moments the practice is to pause and take three breaths while feeling the inflating and deflating of the ribs and abdomen.  Then lean into the experience rather than trying to make it go away. Feel whatever you're feeling, noticing energy in the body, thoughts and emotions. My clients have found that bringing curiosity to these moments can offer insight into what’s driving the impulse so we can directly address their deeper inner needs. Ultimately this practice creates the pause necessary to make a wise choice rather than habitually pulling out the phone at every dull second. If you’ve got nothing better to do, maybe you choose to check some emails. If you’re in the middle of a meeting, maybe you don’t. The power is in the choosing.

Your Diet Program

Mindfulness is a capacity that is cultivated over time so if you’re new to mindfulness or in quick need of results, it may also help to create boundaries around the usage of your device.  Anyone who’s attempted to make a dietary change is quite familiar with the process of setting rules and guidelines for their behaviors. Similar to a food diet, a more personalized plan will always work better than a cookie cutter approach. So although I have some ideas of where to start, I invite you to tailor your device diet to your own needs and lifestyle.

  1. Build some momentum. Begin with the lowest hanging fruit by committing to not text while driving. Although everyone on the planet is fully aware that it’s illegal and dangerous, I’m shocked at how often I can personally justify doing it. Notice the boredom of a red light and simply let it be.
  2. Take a break. Consider not getting on your device at certain times of the day, or during specific activities. Perhaps make mealtime a device free zone or try unplugging an hour before bed for a week.
  3. Feed your mind healthy information, not junk. Ask yourself the question, is what I’m doing right now enriching my life or killing brain cells? There is a thick line between wishing a friend happy birthday on facebook and scrolling YouTube for Twirking videos.
  4. Enjoy life the old school way. Abandon your device if you’re in nature or with friends. A hundred virtual “likes” doesn’t equate to even one real one.
  5. Keep it to yourself. Try taking a mental picture in silence. Then smirk because you have your own little secret.
  6. If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Pay attention to your emotional state when online. Are you feeling grateful, happy and connected or dull, jealous, upset and judgmental? Track your emotions for awhile bringing curiosity to why you might be feeling that way.
  7. Play a little hard to get. Train your friends that you’re not always available. My friends know that if they really want my attention they need to include in the message, “this is time sensitive”, “please respond ASAP” or “urgent”, otherwise I will get back to them eventually, but probably not now.
  8. Practice saying to yourself, “I’m not missing out”. A lot of the anxiety around the need for chronic connection comes from the idea that you’re going to miss something. There will always be more and it’s only speeding up so let go of trying to be at every party at once.
  9. Practice mindfulness of the “ding”. Every time you get a notification bell, let it be a reminder to pause, take a breath, feel your body and then choose how to respond.
  10. Use your device to tune in rather than to tune out. There are many apps that will teach you to meditate or remind you to be present at random intervals throughout the day. 
  11. Outsource your self-control. Use a device blocking software to limit your screen time.

Remember that rewiring the brain to make lifestyle change takes time, patience and commitment. If all you do for a week is become more aware of how distracted you are, that’s a great start. Eventually that sustained awareness will translate into action. Another approach is rather than trying to limit usage, simply set the intention to be fully present to using your device.  Every time you turn it on, practice bringing gratitude to the fact that you have access to this magnificent technology. Imagine it sending a signal all the way to space just so you can have the pleasure of seeing an image of a cat hugging a squirrel in Taiwan.  Check and respond to messages with full mindfulness, appreciating that you didn’t have to get a stamp or walk to the mailbox. Allow yourself to be fully entertained on YouTube and play your video games with the enthusiasm of a child. As with food diets, if you’re going to eat cake anyways, you might as well enjoy it!