Among people in their early 20s, those who use their cell phones and computers a lot (defined by criteria such as receiving and answering at least 11 phone calls or text messages per day) are more likely to struggle with depression and problems sleeping, especially if they see that technology as stressful in the first place Mobile phone use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults — a prospective cohort study. Thomee, S. Harenstam, A., Hagberg, M. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweeden. BMC Public Health 2011 Jan 31;11:66. Computer use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults — a prospective cohort study. Thomee, S., Harenstam, A., Hagberg, M. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden. BMC Psychiatry 2012 Oct 22;12:176.. And sometimes we can grow so comfortable with swiping and tapping that not having access to digital technology can be a whole other source of anxiety. One survey of United Kingdom residents found that nearly half of respondents said they would be more stressed if they couldn’t surf the Web than if they were cut off from television or from basic utilities.
The worst part is that stress doesn’t necessarily disappear the minute we put our iPhone back in our pocket. People who feel overwhelmed by technology tend to be more dissatisfied with their lives in general.
The good news is there are at least 24 solutions to these issues, and none of them involve living like a Luddite. Email, texting, and social media shouldn’t drive us crazy—they should be tools to help us connect with people when and how we want. Read on to find out how to reduce the stress associated with modern technology—and don’t forget to share your favorite tips in the comments section.
Digital Down-Low—Your Action Plan
1. Sleep soundly.
Stop using the phone and computer a few hours before bedtime—the light from digital gadgets can interfere with our ability to fall and stay asleep. When it’s finally time for snoozing, keep those gadgets somewhere out of reach so you won’t be tempted to start emailing or online shopping (or sleep-texting!) from between the sheets. For a better way to unwind, pick up a (hard-copy) book or magazine. May we suggest Goodnight Moon?
2. Spread the word.
Once you’ve decided on some email- and phone-checking rules to keep you sane, let other people know about them. For example, tell coworkers, friends, and family that you won’t be checking email or returning calls after 8 pm so no one freaks out thinking you’re MIA.
3. Ease in.
We’re tempted to tell you to leave the phone at home all day, but we’re also not trying to induce a series of panic attacks. Instead, ditch the digital stuff gradually by first placing the phone in another room for a few hours and then running errands without it. For those worried that they might need the phone in case of an emergency, consider texting a friend before leaving the house to let them know where you’re going so that if anything does happen, someone will know where to find you.
“Phantom vibrations,” or the feeling that our phone is vibrating when it’s not, is a relatively new phenomenon. We can be walking down the street when a slight breeze blows past us, and suddenly we’re convinced that our phone is blowing up in our pocket. Instead, consider keeping the phone in a backpack, where vibrations can’t be heard or felt.
5. Shut it down.
Once you’ve designated those gadget-free time periods, be even bolder and turn the phone off completely. (Yes, checking into a restaurant on Foursquare counts as having the phone on.) Unless you’re expecting an important phone call or email, you’re probably just wasting the phone’s battery life by keeping it on all the time.
6. Face the filters.
Most email programs have options to filter out certain emails from the inbox based on addressee or subject line. Consider filtering out everything except relatively urgent messages (e.g. email from the boss), so that messages from friends, family, and coworkers don’t fill up the inbox and distract us from other tasks we might be working on. When it’s email-checking time (see number one), go in and check those non-urgent folders. Also consider setting up separate accounts for work and personal emails so you won’t be tempted to read the latest gossip from your BFF in the middle of a staff meeting.
7. Shut the windows.
We may think we have an unlimited attention span, but research suggests multitasking is actually detrimental to our productivity Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, A.D. Symbolic Systems Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 2009 Sep 15;106(37):15583-7.. Moreover, multitasking can actually trigger the release of stress hormones. When possible, stay calm and focused by working in just one window at a time. (So if you’re writing, Microsoft Word should be open, but the web browser shouldn’t.)
8. Don’t dawdle.
An overflowing inbox is no place to hang out. When an email comes in, spend just three seconds deciding what to do with it: respond, delete, archive, or add its contents to a to-do list. It’ll save precious time and brain space for projects that actually require a lot of attention.
9. Take off.
Research suggests taking an “email vacation,” or a few days without looking at the inbox, can actually reduce stress and boost productivity. Try it out over a long weekend and make sure to let everyone know you won’t be available. (See number two.)
10. Press pause.
You’re watching a movie, totally engrossed in the romantic attraction between Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, when suddenly the urge to check your phone strikes. Before whipping it out, stop and think about what you’re going to gain from checking, instead of waiting until the lovebirds finally get together (or don’t). That five-second-long pause is a great opportunity to realize that refreshing our inbox yet again probably isn’t going to make much of a difference.
11. Be present.
“Mindfulness” is a big buzzword these days, but the term has a lot of significance in our always-accessible age. During conversation with a friend or coworker, make a conscious effort to actually pay attention to what he/she is saying, instead of half-listening and half-scrolling through Twitter. It’s a way of ensuring that we genuinely get something out of every interaction.
12. Get your game face on.
When out with a group of friends, play the “phone-stacking” game. Everyone puts his or her smartphone in the center of the table, one on top of the other, and no one’s allowed to touch the pile. The first person to reach for their phone has to pay the whole bill!
Here’s one tip that caught us off-guard: The inbox is not the proper place for a to-do list. Either use a list-making app or some old-fashioned pen and paper, but don’t keep going back to the Medusa’s head of emails to figure out what to tackle next.
14. Get techy.
True, most of the suggestions on this list involve stepping away from our gadgets. But modern technology can actually be a great tool to help us stay calm and focused. There are lots of stress-management apps out there that make on-the-go relaxation pretty simple.
15. Swap out the screen.
Research suggests that we’re more relaxed when we look at nature through a glass window than when we look at the same scene on a computer screen. So see if there’s a place in the day when you can ditch the digital stuff and go au natural. For example: Like running on the treadmill while watching T.V.? Consider running in a park instead.
16. Take 20.
Digital technology isn’t just a source of psychological stress—it can also cause our bodies to freak out. To prevent eyestrain, try the 20:20:20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the computer at an object 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. It’s also a great way to clear the mind and re-focus when feeling frazzled.
17. Go ergo.
As if emails and phone calls weren’t stressful enough, spending all day hunched over at a desk can cause serious physical discomfort. We’re talking back pain, neck issues, and even carpal tunnel syndrome. Prevent these problems by learning how to design an ergonomic workstation (the fancy term for a healthy, comfortable workspace).
18. Tweak your ’tude.
Ugh, I just wasted so much time on Facebook. Or did I? Those who feel that their social media habits are unproductive will likely feel frustrated whenever they visit their news feeds. Instead, try thinking of social media as a great way to connect with people. (After all, psychologist and Greatist Expert Dr. Paul Zak has found that just 15 minutes of social networking boosts levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.”) See if that shift in mindset makes you feel any happier about the way you spend your time online.
Those reading this article may have already checked their inboxes and Facebook news feeds about five times each. When it’s near-impossible to keep that curiosity in check (what if someone poked me?!), try downloading a productivity tool such as an app that blocks certain websites while we’re working.
20. Hide the haters.
They post Emo song lyrics and complain that no one in this world really loves them. Almost everyone has some Facebook friends who are just way too negative, the kind who make scrolling through our news feed feel like wallowing in misery. Instead of signing off Facebook forever, use the site’s sneaky preferences to hide the Debbie Downers. (And don’t worry—they’ll never find out!)
21. Plan ahead.
We’ve all been there: Refreshing our inbox every five seconds, swiping our smartphones to see if anyone’s messaged us in the last minute and a half. To avoid this situation, plan to check emails and phone messages in batches every few hours. In the meantime, see if it’s possible to put the phone on silent.
22. Go away.
The past few years have marked the rise of “digital detoxes” and all kinds of retreats where people practice the art of unplugging. Consider checking into one of these camps for grown-ups and learning what it’s like to experience the Great Outdoors without an Instagram feed.
23. Gimme a break.
But not the chocolate-y kind. Try downloading an app (such as this one) that makes a specific sound (usually a bell ringing, or a vibration) at pre-established time intervals, as a reminder to stay mindful with whatever you’re working on at the moment. The sound can also be a reminder to meditate or breathe deeply for a few minutes.
24. Just say no.
Twitter feeds, Facebook walls, and constant email access can create the illusion that we can keep up with everything going on around us. But efforts to stay on top of international news as well as our family’s schedule can drive us nuts. Instead try to accept that it’s not possible to keep track of absolutely everything happening in the world.
While these tips are useful for reducing the stress associated with everyday technology use, technology addictions are a growing problem, and they sometimes require more serious treatment. According to psychologist and Greatist Expert Dr. Michael Mantell, symptoms of technology addiction include losing track of time or getting angry if your online time is interrupted with real-life activities; turning to online activities to cope with lack of affection or sex; and hearing friends say that they see you more in virtual reality than in real life. Those who suspect they might be suffering from these kinds of problems might seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, or other kinds of counseling Internet addiction: definition, assessment, epidemiology, and clinical management. Shaw, M., Black, D.W. Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA. CNS Drugs 2008;22(6):353-65..
In general, as stressful as modern technology might be, it’s unrealistic to think that we can hide from it forever. Luckily, there are lots of ways to stay sane, even while plugged in. Remember: Technology doesn’t automatically make us stressed. It’s all about how we handle it. So redesign your desk space, create an email-checking schedule, and know that technology is meant to improve your life—not ruin it!