Digital Toxicity and Mindfulness

Adapted with permission from Digital Toxicity, Digital Dementia and Mindfulness by Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with a deluge of emails waiting for you at the start of each workday? Do you feel a twinge of excitement when your cell phone “pings?” Do you find yourself scrolling through a few Facebook postings only to see hours slip away before you stop? If your response to any of these questions is an affirmative, you may be suffering from techno-stress, or what some people are now calling “digital toxicity.” What was once considered to be a nuisance is now considered to be an epidemic both at home and at the worksite. The new epidemic is called FOMA (Fear of Missing Out). Sociologists call this “screen addictions,” the social addiction of the 21st century.

Even if you are not a fan of science fiction movies, it has become quite apparent to everyone that we are living in the “brave new world” of high-tech, digital information, where everything seems to be just a click away, and immediate (on-demand) gratification abounds in our 24/7 society. Today, even Swiss Army Knives come with USB flashdrives! Boundaries between home and work are extremely porous with 24/7 accessibility. However, just as cautions are forecasted in these sci-fi movies, serious and imminent dangers lurk beneath the utopian promise of a better life. The undercurrent of these dangers is stress, manifesting in a plethora of ways, well beyond heart palpitations and spikes of elevated blood pressure to panic attacks of sensory bombardment and unflattering addictive cyber habits.

A commonly heard expression at the worksite these days is TMI – code for “Too Much Information.” To be honest, this expression was coined over a decade ago, but when it was first used, it was a tongue-in-cheek comment interjected as comic relief.  Few people are laughing now. Between a tsunami of text messages, Facebook posts, LinkedIn updates, multiple emails, Skype conversations and countless tweets, and a multitude of YouTube links, the average person is so distracted with bits and bytes of information that it’s not only affecting work performance, it’s affecting work relationships, marriages, leisure habits, driving habits and without a doubt, one’s health status. The exact toll of techno-stress may be hard to measure, but the social impact is unquestionable. The negative impact on health and wellness (mind, body, spirit and emotions) is undeniable.

Here are some Brave New World facts to consider:

  • Research now reveals that the average person checks his or her email 37 times per hour.[1]
  • A 2010 study by Microsoft revealed that the average person receives over 110 emails per day and it takes over 15 minutes to refocus from the distraction of an email.[2], [3]
  • People cite more than 50 emails per day as “email stress,” with many people saying that reading and responding to email becomes a distraction to getting their job done.[4]
  • Facebook is now cited as the third leading cause for divorce.[5]
  • Vacations were once a means to leave office work behind, but now people take their laptops, smart phones, and iPads with them everywhere, never allowing down time. Many national parks are fighting the urge to install WiFi in the campgrounds yet visitors are demanding it.[6]
  • The repeated use of technology makes people less patient and more forgetful.[7]
  • Sociologists cite screen addictions as a significant reason for the decline of civility in America.[8]

Tips for Navigating Safely Through the Digital Age

It’s an understatement to say that stress and technology are an inseparable fact of life, particularly when things don’t work the exact moment you need them. Regardless of the many reasons why stress and technology are forever linked, here are some time-tested tips for maintaining a sense of balance with the conveniences we have become so reliant upon in our brave new world.

1.  Practice Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries with technology is as important as honoring healthy boundaries with eating habits, finances and relationships. Given its pervasiveness, perhaps even more so. There is no doubt that screen addictions are very real. Checking emails 37 times per hour or constantly looking at Facebook is nothing short of an obsessive/compulsive act. Healthy boundaries with smart phones include turning them off (completely) during staff meetings, meals at restaurants, meals at home, driving and of course, in movie theaters. Consider making it a habit not to check email until after 9:00 a.m. Make it a habit to only check Facebook at the end of each day, not 500 times in the course of each day. Healthy boundaries are constructs you live by, based on life values. It’s not enough to create healthy boundaries, they have to be enforced as well; otherwise victimization ensues. Create healthy boundaries and stick to them. Remember the motto:

“Once a victim, twice a volunteer.”

2.  Always Opt for In-person Communications

Communication experts are at a loss regarding all the way to communicate these days. Teens prefer text messaging, Adults over 40 prefer phone calls. Experts now see that due to the dynamics of the digital age, social skills, particularly face-to-face communication skills, are sorely lacking. The end result is stress from miscommunication.  Moreover, it is easy to avoid people through the use of smart phones and emails. Unlike face-to-face communication, the ability to misinterpret text messages and the like is not only easy, it’s quite common. The lack of face-to-face contact fosters less empathy, and more mistrust, cynicism, and backstabbing, traits unconducive to a healthy work environment. Remember this axiom:

The three keys to a successful business are: communication, communication and communication.

3.  Avoid Multi-tasking Errors

While you may feel more productive doing several things at a time, the research shows that when your concentration is divided, quality suffers and the number of accidents/mistakes increases dramatically. Get in the habit of completing a task from start to finish without diversions. If you catch yourself double dipping into other responsibilities, stop, take a deep breath and redirect your thoughts to one task and then finish it. Keep your mind focused on one thing at a time. Remember that distractions compromise quality work, no matter what you are doing.  Try this quick exercise to help you understand the negative impact on efficiency caused by switching between tasks.

Multi-tasking is a myth!

4.  Mindfulness: Maintain a Healthy Meditation Program

Technology didn’t create a wandering mind, but it sure does enhance the wandering, as anyone who has surfed the Internet or scrolled through countless Facebook postings for hours can attest. The practice of meditation increases one’s concentration skills which then leads to an increased awareness. Athletes know the secret of meditation (they refer to it as “mental training”) because they know that the slightest distraction during a competition can mean poor performance and defeat. In the business world, poor performance equates to poor work productivity. The “corporate athlete” needs meditation skills as much as, if not more than, the professional athlete.

The skill of meditation teaches the practitioner to not only observe one’s thoughts, but to observe oneself observing one’s thoughts. This is called mindfulness, and it is the tool to cultivate one’s conscience. It also comes in handy when honoring the rules of civility.

Meditation is as simple as closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing for several minutes. As distracting thoughts arise, simply let these go as you exhale. No matter how bored you may become, stick with this practice as a way to discipline your mind. Once you have mastered the power of the mind, the world is your oyster. As a side note, many people confide that they check emails, Facebook updates, voicemail and text messages because they are bored. Boredom is another form of distraction.

Meditation: It’s not what you think!

5.  Honor the Rules of Civility

Sociologists have noticed a disturbing trend over the past decade, now called the “age of narcissism”:  people are extremely rude and social manners are a rare commodity.  While the lack of manners may not be due to outright malice, the lack of civility is disturbing to many. Rude drivers, annoying dinner patrons, and inappropriate online behavior (Facebook postings, emails and texting) have become the norm. The backlash of such behavior puts people on the social defense raising the threshold of social stress.

Placing importance of yourself over your co-worker, colleague, or family is an increasing phenomenon. The end result is an over-stressed population who feel slighted time after time to the point of general frustration. The influx of social media and technology that has invaded our lives has created a society where mild rudeness is socially acceptable behavior.  While it’s not your job to be the civility police, you can begin by demonstrating the highest form of politeness to everyone in your environments, starting with home and work.

6.  Choose Quality Over Convenience

When polled about their behavior, people will often cite convenience as the reason why they talk on the cell phone while driving, or type on their keypads while talking on their cell phones. In the rush to get things done, convenience rules! The irony is that quality often suffers.

7.  Leave the Office During the Lunch Hour

It’s no secret that Americans live a sedentary lifestyle; a lifestyle that has become even more so as technology has become so invasive in our lives. Let it be known that humans were never meant to sit down for 6-8 straight hours a day and bang away on a keypad. Cardiovascular exercise is imperative each day. Make a habit to leave the technology behind and walk, jog, swim, bike, anything, without the electronic leash of the Internet. Not only will your mind thank you for the break in sensory bombardment, but your body will thank you for flushing the stress hormones (e.g., Cortisol) and setting the stage for a stronger immune system, a stronger cardiovascular system and a better night’s sleep.

Slave or Master?

When technology combines with the dynamics of human psychology a strange dilemma occurs. Technology always starts off as a means to improve our lives and serve us, with the inherent promise of adding hours of blissful leisure. This seldom happens. Instead, unknowingly, what first begins as a position of master, quickly reverses to a subtle form of slavery. We become hostage to the wonders of technology, ultimately giving our power away. Mastery requires a combination of will power and common sense; qualities we each have, but like muscles need to be exercised regularly. The consensus is in: technology is great. It’s just how we use it that makes us a master or a slave. A wise person knows the difference.

About the Author

Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder Colorado. As the author of several best-selling books including Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water and Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward, he is regarded as an international expert on the topics of Stress Management and Health Promotion. He can be reached via his website: www.brianlukeseaward.net.

Resources

  • HOT TOPIC Webinar: Digital Toxicity, FOMO and The Art of Mindfulness
    • Discuss the association between digital toxicity and compromised cognitive skills, and learn more about mindfulness meditation.
    • When: July 17, 9:00 – 10:00 a.m.
    • Speaker:  Brian Luke Seaward Ph.D.
    • Cost:  Free for HEC Members!  $15 for Non-Members
    • For more information and to register, click here
  • Seaward, Brian Luke, Ph.D., Screen Addiction and the Human Spirit (9/28/2018)
  • Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, The Benefits of a Mindful Walk (2/20/2019)
  • This quick exercise will help you understand the negative impact on efficiency caused by switching between tasks.
  • Be on the lookout for announcements from HEC about additional learning opportunities on Mindfulness!

________________________________
[1] Richtel, M., Attached to Technology and Paying a Price (6/7/2010).
[2] Robinson, J., Tame the E-mail Beast (2/12/2010).
[3] IT Facts (10/12/2004).
[4] Swartz, J., Survey Warns of E-mail Stress (7/16/2010).
[5] Adams, R., Facebook a Top Cause of Relationship Trouble (3/8/2011).
[6] Siegler, K., Tweeting With The Birds:  Pitch Tent, Switch To Wi-Fi (8/3/2010).
[7] Parker-Pope, T., An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness (6/6/2010).
[8] The Collapse of Civility, Dinner and a Tweet (8/8/2011).

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