Most of our devices work 24 hrs a day and 7 days a week. Email apps sends us notifications round the clock to let us know that someone is trying to reach us. We have come a long way from the days when we were reliant on the natural cycles of light and dark to determine when to rise and when to sleep — digital devices are just the latest development in a process where we began to shape our environment and our routines with technology.
But, devices that are 24/7 can suck us into to trying to do the same. In order to not respond to the newest notification on my phone I need to actively make a choice: do I ignore it? turn off notifications? set them up with a schedule to leave me alone at certain time? or just look at my phone to see who it is?
Many times when I’m tired I find myself just mindlessly turning to my technology. I’ve been working on paying attention at those times, stopping, and asking myself what do I really need right now? Usually, when I check in with myself, I realize that turning to my technology at that moment just feels emotionally draining.
The Challenge Inherent in Our Technology
William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, notes that every new technology both solves problems for society and also creates new challenges. I think our smartphones/iPads/tablets are now providing us with the challenge to take more active control over shaping our lives and our connectivity. Yes, I can check my email (or Twitter, or Facebook or whatever) every few minutes throughout the day. But what are the consequences of doing that? And yes, now instead of waiting in a long line at the grocery store, I can get something done on my phone. But just because I can, doesn’t mean I have to.
Just because I can, doesn’t mean I have to. Just because I can, doesn’t mean I have to. Just because I can, doesn’t mean I have to.
Those words are becoming a mantra in my life. Instead of mindlessly doing something on a device, I can ask myself: What do I need right now? And when I say this, I need to actively check in with all of me: my body, my soul, my mind. And in order to remember to check in with myself, I need to notice what I’m doing and then be able to turn my attention inward and notice my physical sensations, my energy level, and my feelings and then use this information to ask what’s needed. And this is why our culture is now, all of sudden, so interested in mindfulness, the practice of noticing in the present moment. Without mindfulness, you are not free to make a new choice in the moment, you become simply a creature of habit and conditioning (e.g., my phone tweets at me and I look to see who’s talking to me on Twitter).
But does mindfulness=self-care? While mindfulness meditation might be part of someone’s self-care strategies, I think mindfulness itself serves a more foundational role in self-care. Mindfulness is necessary for self-care: if I’m going to take care of myself, I need to be aware of myself and make choices about what I need. But the self-care part consists of taking action, not just noticing, unless just noticing and being (being mindful) is what I need now.
What is Self-Care in the Digital Age?
So what have I learned about taking care of myself in the digital age? Here are a few of the things I’ve learned so far:
- I need to set boundaries for myself around technologies — times to be off email and other work-related contacts — time to eat and enjoy food and the people I’m eating with, especially toward the end of a day.
- I need to keep my body moving, taking frequent breaks from sitting still working on a device.
- I need experiences that are doing and being and interacting with the world (and the people) around me, especially being outside. This means putting the technology done at these times.
- I need to disconnect–even from fun things like games and Second Life–at least an hour before bedtime. I don’t sleep as restfully when I don’t, and the research on the impact of backlit screens on sleep confirms this. And, I turn off notifications on my phone then, too.
- And, I need to leave some “open” mind time for mind-wandering. Sometimes I just need to stand in line, or sit in the doctor’s waiting room and just let my brain wander, because my mind just feels too full. Sometimes I need to drive in silence, not listening to a recorded book, or to have my phone reading articles to me. And research suggests the need to allow for some mind-wandering, since it seems to enhance creativity.
- And, sometimes I need to listen to that recorded book or that article while I’m driving, or work on email in that doctor’s waiting room.
Yes, I do realize that my last two points suggest opposite actions. That’s because it’s not about formulas for living. It’s about stopping for a few seconds, asking what’s needed, and making choices. And it’s about observing how things affect me, so I can make choices and find the right mix to come up with some general principles to guide my life or create my own personal “Owner’s Manual” of sorts. You will probably never find me doing email at 5:30 a.m. But, I have a colleague who does that regularly and identifies it as something that works well for her. We have to allow room for differences among us, while working together to share what works and dialogue with each other about the process.
So what have you learned about self-care in the digital age? What guidelines have you come up with for yourself, and why?