Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Aside from publishing this site and our real estate arm, one of the chief things LifeEdited does is spread the less is more gospel at various conferences. This last weekend we–specifically Graham Hill with my assistance–presented at the Revitalize Conference organized by the good folks over at Mind, Body, Green. The name of our talk was “Signs You Have an Unhealthy Relationship With Technology.” While there’s undoubtably a crisis of excess affecting consumer goods and architecture, those things are well-matched by the attention crisis. We live in a world where people are glued to glowing LCD screens for many of their waking hours–some of those hours are used to good effect, many are not. The talk was an investigation into this relationship between humans and personal technology as well as a brainstorming session for possible ways through some of the more problematic aspects of that relationship.

We touched on the marvels technology has wrought (mostly portable and information tech–smartphones, tablets and to some extent computers). It has given us the ability to access vast amounts of information instantaneously; the ability to fit tens-of-millions of songs or books in our pockets; the ability for unprecedented levels of connectivity, which has changed the face of social activism a la Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and others.

But in line with the talk’s title, we spent a good deal of time elucidating some of the more problematic aspects of technology use. A bunch of this we covered a few weeks ago with the post “Distracted, Dangerous and Dumb: Why it Might Be Time to Check Our Cellphone Use,” which explained how our technophilia is making us bad students, thinkers, friends, lovers, community members and parents. Expanding on that, here are few more things we found about the deleterious effects of our overuse of technology:

  1. Portable tech is making us really, really, horrendously awful drivers. This can’t be overstated. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent–when traveling at 55 mph–of driving the length of an entire football field while blindfolded. They say driving and texting is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.
  2. It’s even making us bad walkers. Experts say distracted walking results in more injuries per mile than distracted driving. Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at ERs have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents in that time as well (though there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics).
  3. It’s making us nervous nellies. Americans check their phones, on average, 150/day according to study conducted by Nokia.
  4. Our technophilia is crap for the environment. The average American generates 65 lbs of e-waste every year–a yellow labrador’s weight in electronic waste–much of which does not get recycled.
  5. It might be bad for our health. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization, downgraded radiation from mobile phones from a category 3, which means “no conclusive evidence” of causing cancer, to category 2b–a “possible human carcinogen”–a designation shared with diesel exhaust, chloroform, jet fuel, lead and DDT.

When we got all the nasty stuff out of the way, we started seeking solutions. We explained that technology is not bad any more than a chef’s knife is bad–it can be wielded by Mario Batali or Norman Bates for very different purposes.

The thing that became evident is that in many ways technology use is in its infancy. For most of humankind, we have had incremental introductions of technology. In Europe, the lowly table fork took about 700 years between its first notable appearance and widespread adoption. Smartphones have been around for about ten years, yet 56% of Americans already have them–a number that’s only expected to increase. We haven’t had time as a culture to develop rules and etiquette around their usage. So we proposed a few strategies that might start fostering a happy, healthy, balanced relationship with technology:

  1. Regularly going tech free. This is an obvious, though seldom followed, suggestion. We suggested not only turning off your phone, but actually getting away from it–charge it away from your bed at night, keep it off the dining table, etc. Stay away from tech an hour before sleep and upon awakening. Also, we suggested taking a tech sabbath once a week or more. We also suggested going analog for certain things; sure, it’s pretty awesome that smartphones can do so much, but if checking the time on our phones sets us off on four hour Facebook binges, maybe it’s time to get a wristwatch. Likewise, we might play Scrabble rather than Angry Birds, talking to someone face to face instead of chatting online. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.
  2. Build your defenses. All of us have moments of weakness. If we’re straight about that, we can effectively defend ourselves from common dangers technology poses to our wellbeing. We suggested batching emails, calls and texts, choosing a time or two a day when we knock out all of our correspondences, rather than having a distracting drip feed of correspondences throughout the day. We suggested disabling push notifications–those (generally) useless reminders that come up on our smartphones telling us that Joe thought the new episode of Orange is the New Black was interesting. We suggested using the Airplane mode on our phones liberally. Most of us non-surgeons have few true emergencies. It’s okay to be offline for a while.
  3. Honor yourself and others. When we check our phones incessantly, what we are communicating to the world, in the words of Renny Gleeson, is that “you are not as important as anything that could come to me through this device.” When he said “you,” he meant the people we spend time with, but this could also mean ourselves. By continually checking our phones, we are communicating that our phones and whatever bits of information they transmit take priority over the present moment–whether that present moment is spent alone or with others. If we value our lives, if we value our friendships, if we value our surroundings, we suggested that we might all start acting that way, honoring these things with our “payment” of attention and putting the damn phone down. We suggested getting reacquainted with the art of being “in-between”–those gaps between activities that used to be filled with no activity but are now filled with information. It’s been said that 75% of Americans report using their phones on the toilet. We suggested practicing going tech-free waiting in line, sitting in a cab or taking a poop. Lastly, we suggested leading by example. If we want our kids to be less tech-addicted, if we want our friends to pay better attention, we must do it first.

We also pointed out that these are not fantasitc goals. There are many people living with no or minimal technology, some notable like Jim Jarmusch, Warren Buffett, Louis CK and Alain de Bottom. The latter figure announced to his 443K Twitter followers that they should delete their Twitter accounts. Our closing thought was the reasoning de Bottom gave to the Washington Post about his newfound relationship with Twitter. It’s a sentiment we think is applicable to most tech use. He said:

Twitter is of course a wonderful thing, but it is also the most appalling distraction ever invented. It sounds so harmless…[but] It denies us that precious non-specific time in which you can daydream, unpack your anxieties and have a conversation with your deeper self.

…We need long train journeys on which we have no wireless signal and nothing to read, where our carriage is mostly empty, where the views are expansive and where the only sounds are those made by the wheels as they click against the rails. We need plane journeys when we have a window seat and nothing else to focus on for two or three hours but the tops of clouds and our own thoughts.

We need relief from the Twitter-fueled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place, where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against a backdrop of the stars above us. FULL TEXT HERE

We couldn’t agree more.

  • Paul

    “It’s even making us bad walkers. Experts say distracted walking results in more injuries per mile than distracted driving.” … its worth pointing out (especially in cities) that not only having no/v.little awareness of your immediate environment (because you are walking along texting/reading an ebook/facebooking/listening to headphones etc.) means an increased chance of accidental injury it also means you are much more likely to be attacked/mugged.

    • David Friedlander

      great point. i didn’t see any research about this topic, but it’s a pretty logical conclusion…unless the criminals are distracted as well ;-)

  • Darcy Hudjik

    Excellent article! I definitely agree that phone overuse (having to be on the phone constantly about trivial stuff with equal air of being on a business call), especially when you are being waited on (which makes others wait unnecessarily) is horrifically rude.
    While I have to agree that both distracted walking and distracted driving are unsafe, the part of Canada that I live in distracted driving is the greater safety issue of the two. many engaged pedestrians have either been hit or nearly hit when they had the right of way myself included) when the driver was either on their phone or reaching on the floor for their phone (while turning, no less).

  • maggie crehan

    We should be donating used equipment to people who could use them. They could reform education and farming and personal safety in so many places. They need the basics and the parts and from there people with obvious skill can do upgrades and repairs..i dont mean just dump a boxcar of junk on a place but there should be a way for them to describe what they need.

  • Ilana

    Does anyone have an app to recommend to curb cell phone use? A la the StayFocused Chrome extension.

    • rumurphy

      Why an app? The simplest cleanest solution is to turn it off, leave it in another room, or at home.

      • Ilana

        Cuz I still want access to Google (I need to look things up while I study), phone calls, and texts.

  • Christopher Tilley

    My name is Christopher and I am a Phone addict. I have my phone with me almost 24/7.

    But, my phone has replaced my paper planner. I used to have a Filofax that had my address book, calendar, to do lists, maps, public transit timetables, etc. That was also with me almost 24/7.

    Because of its connectivity, a phone does have the potential for much greater distraction. One of the apps I have on my phone is a Do Not Disturb app. It will send callers to voice mail, unless they’re one of the callers I always allow through or they’ve called me 3 times or more within a short period of time. It’s turned on most of the time.

    Also, I have all notifications, except for text messages, turned off. I check mail on my phone 2-3 times a day. There’s rarely anything urgent. If it’s urgent, people will usual text me or call me.

    I do see a lot of distracted walking with people listening to music and talking on the phone. But I also see distracted walkers (tourists) with their heads in guidebooks.

    Bottom line, we need to be responsible for our own phone usage / abuse and personal safety.

  • Josh

    Good article. I want to be pernickety about something. I found it funny that “Experts say distracted walking results in more injuries per mile than distracted driving.”

    That actually makes complete sense. A driver can cover a mile in a minute at 60mph. While it takes a walker, even a very fast walker 15 min to walk a mile – and I’d suggest longer if they are using a phone.

    A better metric would be injury per period of time. One would think experts should know this.

    Thanks for the space to be picky:)

  • Jessie

    Alain de BottoN… not Bottom!

  • Jeff

    Nice piece, very timely and needed. Strategy #1 is excellent, but for the adventurous I would suggest a fourth option: How about just don’t own a phone? I’ve never had a cell or smartphone and lo and behold, I’m still here. Mobile technology is a manufactured need and not nearly as essential as people think.
    Between a computer at work, one at home, and a landline with an answering machine, I can’t imagine needing more stimuli. We’re the most stimulated citizens in the history of the world, and our DNA is not equipped to handle it. I look around me and see virtually everyone becoming cyborgs, encased in a digital realm to such a degree that they don’t even notice their neighbors walking down the street. Smartphones and digital media atomize and isolate us as much as they supposedly connect us. They are also an efficient way to outsource one’s own intelligence—if your phone is smart, what does that make you?
    I grew up in the analog age and have adapted as needed to the digital realm, but I always remember that I run my technology, not the other way around.

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