How to detox from your tech dependence

4 mins

As we stand on the cusp of 2019, one aspect that stood out to me this year is our dependence on technology for instant ‘rewards’. Here are three concepts that we can take into 2019 to defy this trend. Let’s aim to live and work in a more meaningful way with technology as an aid, not a lifeline.

Technology has made the world a lot smaller.

A couple of decades ago, it was impossible to communicate in an instant. The ability to carry the Internet around in our pockets has revolutionised our lives. Technology generates a net positive effect, particularly in bringing our loved ones closer. But this is not always the case, especially when we talk about work.

In this brave new world of the ever-connected, our expectations have changed. We expect (of ourselves and others) rapid-responses to all stimuli on our mobile phones. With this, it’s helpful for us to bear in mind three concepts.

Concept 1: Your mobile is a slot machine

Mobile phones are addictive technologies. In the words of one ex-Google employee, they are like slot machines. (I say this with a dash of irony given that you are likely reading this on your mobile phone.) What I am referring to is the incessant pinging on the average person’s mobile phone, or phones.

This month, I attended a legal training session—always great places to observe humans in action. The lawyer sitting next to me had placed his mobile phone on the table, face up. During the presentation, he couldn’t keep his eyes and hands off his mobile phone as it pinged merrily away. I too, was distracted and curious each time his screen lit up. My tram ride later that day yielded similar observations. On a brief non-academic count of ten people, eight were glued to their mobile phones.

All this leads to an attention span of next to none for the user and, too often, those sitting around them. There is an opportunity cost for excessive mobile phone use. It takes up our time and headspace which can be used in more meaningful ways. The challenge, especially for lawyers, is to restrict our use to specific times.

2019 Challenge – Next time you feel bored, try and resist the urge to touch your phone. Look around you. Really observe your surroundings. Alternatively, bring a good book with you.

Concept 2: Protect your brain

We know that effective multitasking is a fallacy when it comes to matters of the human brain. It gets even harder to avoid the itch to multitask (cue: oooh shiny!) when we’re using our devices.

I used to work with a lawyer who boasted over canapés that his aim was to respond to emails faster than anyone else. While he bathed in the glory of his boast, I thought it pointed to a rather sad state of affairs. One can only imagine what keeping up with this goal would do to your mental state. It is akin to being condemned for an eternity to play whack-a-mole in a games arcade. Perhaps it’s not so dismal for some.

According to the author of ‘Deep Work’, Cal Newport, our dependence on our devices is reducing our ability to focus and engage in deep work. While I am not advocating for the path of the Technological Luddite, we know that excessive screen time pushes out meaningful work, rest and leisure.

It so turns out that there are benefits to slowing down and responding in a more thoughtful way. People respect your time more. Apart from one person that I can recall, no one has ever thrown a tantrum about not receiving an instantaneous response. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming the empty vessel that generates the most vacuous email responses.

Another way of thinking about this is to flip the perspective. After sending an email, I don’t sit around thinking about why Recipient X hasn’t responded within two seconds. I move on to the next thing. Within five minutes, I have forgotten that I sent that email.

Do you prefer to get an email that tells you nothing and where you need another eight back-and-forth emails to get the answer? Or alternatively, an email that doesn’t hit your inbox immediately, but:

  • is well-written;
  • presents clarity of thought; and
  • gives you the answer you want?

I know I prefer the latter.

2019 Challenge – Here’s your chance to use the power of time blocking. Can you plan ahead so that you only read and respond to emails during set periods of time during your day?

Concept 3: Think before you do

As you’ve already figured, the inhabitants of lawyer-land love instantaneous responses. This occurs in the misguided belief that it reflects a high level of responsiveness. Which in turn is a desirable quality in itself. All wrong. As a consequence of constantly firing from our hips, we reduce our capacity to focus on the relevant.

First, when we get caught up in responding, we fixate on getting through our micro-tasks and lose perspective on the bigger picture. It’s easier to indulge ourselves in busy work, believing that we are valuable, contributing members.

Second, in the Age of Information Overload, when everything can be Googled, information workers are spoilt for choice. Anecdotally, the legal profession has become less capable of sifting through information. This includes considering relevance and making decisions when faced with excessive choice.

All of this takes on a physical dimension when lawyers file voluminous folders in the courts. During a trial, lawyers throw every known case and citation at the judge. This happens without discernment about whether it supports a considered argument. It so turns out that only a small number of cases are relevant.

This raises some pertinent questions:

  • Are we finding more information? Yes.
  • Are we finding more information because of technology? Definitely yes.
  • Do we have information overload? Probably.
  • Do we have FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’? Given the vast number of cases that lawyers produce, most certainly.

Thankfully, some bright researchers answered the last two questions through some clever social experiments. We cover off on this in another post in 2019, titled ‘The curious case of the gourmet jams’.

For now, the final 2019 Challenge – Can you identify the BIG PICTURE goals you want to be kicking in the New Year? Are your individual actions aligned with these goals?