How To Switch Off
Illustration by Mr Patrick Leger
Drowning in the demands of your many tech devices? Follow our five-step guide to detoxing in the digital age.
If it weren’t so stress-inducing, our relationship with our digital devices these days would be borderline hilarious. After all, technology is supposed to make things easier; email, smartphones and social media all promised to make life more convenient, efficient, or fun. Yet most of us – deluged by messages, distracted by Twitter and Facebook – regard our devices ambivalently at best. (A few of us even pay through the nose to attend “detox camps”, where web-connected gadgets are forbidden.) Whether your specific affliction is midnight emails from the boss or a new-found addiction to Pokémon Go, you’ve probably felt the longing to switch off or cut down on your tech intake. Fortunately, there are ways to make things saner without just lobbing your iPhone into the ocean.
CHOOSE YOUR EMAIL RULE
Self-styled productivity gurus have devised some amazingly complex systems for coping with crazy volumes of emails – but that’s mainly because they’re trying to sell books, and need to fill the pages. In reality, researchers have shown, you’re far more likely to benefit from one very simple rule, followed religiously (except for in genuine emergencies). If your job allows it, you might resolve never to check your inbox before noon – or at least not before you’ve spent an hour on some meaty project. Or if late-night emails are your vice, make 7.00pm the cutoff. Or declare a “digital sabbath”, spurning all devices for one day per week. So long as your offline hours are predictable – in other words, don’t switch rules every few days – you’ll find colleagues and clients remarkably tolerant of your “downtime”.
BLOCK THE WEB
According to Greek myth, Odysseus had his men bind him to the mast of his ship so that he couldn’t be lured to his death by the hypnotic Siren song. It was probably the earliest example of strategic pre-commitment – taking actions in the present to constrain your future self. For web addicts, apps such as Freedom and LeechBlock are modern versions of Odysseus’s trick. Set them to block your access to specific sites, or the entire internet, for a predetermined period. Then you won’t be able to tumble into a distraction rabbit hole, even if you want to.
EMBRACE ELECTRONIC MESS
We’re drowning in data: emails, texts, web bookmarks, work documents, 15 slightly different photos of the same group of friends doing tequila shots… and if you’re even a bit of a neat-freak, it’s tempting to think you’ve got to organise them all. But that eats up hours and, thanks to improvements in search technology, it’s also pointless. Replace your intricate set of email categories with a single folder, labelled “Archive”; file everything in there, then find what you want by searching. Use Google Photos to store your photos in the Cloud, where they’ll be automatically sorted into groups of similar images. Throw all your documents into an “everything bucket” app, such as Evernote, and you need never spend another minute on electronic filing again.
SELECT YOUR INNER CIRCLE
According to the evolutionary psychologist Mr Robin Dunbar, we’re each capable of maintaining a maximum of about 150 social relationships – and far fewer close friendships. Yet you probably have several hundred Facebook “friends”, or follow a few thousand people on Twitter. Restore balance by choosing the small group you really want to follow, and use the “list” function on either social network to focus on them alone. (The others need never know they’ve been demoted.) And remember not to take even your inner circle’s updates too seriously. Social media inevitably constitutes a “highlights reel” of people’s lives, liable to make yours seem pathetic by comparison.
ANSWER YESTERDAY’S EMAILS TODAY
Trying to stay on top of incoming emails is like walking up the down escalator: exhausting and futile, because new messages keep coming in. Mr Tony Hsieh, founder of the online shoe empire Zappos, has an alternative trick he calls Yesterbox: make it your goal, each day, to answer all the emails you received the day before (while keeping an eye out for truly urgent new messages). Yesterday’s email volume, unlike today’s, is fixed by definition, so it’s both realistic and satisfying to polish it all off.