April 27

Six effective ways to reduce screen time

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Monika Narayanan

“The average Adult will spend 34 years of their life looking at screens.” a poll in an Independent British newspaper claims.

It sounded scary. I was reminded of the famous quote by Author Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. It set me thinking. If we are spending the majority of our waking hours on screen, it’s logical that we will be spending the majority of our life looking at screens. A general observation of the world around is proof. The number of lowered heads and with fixated eyes speaks louder than any poll result.

Not surprisingly, “how to reduce screen time” is a question many of us ponder.

Screen time is the amount of time spent using a device with a screen. It includes, smartphone, computer, TV & Video games. Our days are filled with news, media, forwards, emails, tweets, posts, likes, texts, pings, notifications, buzzes, phew!

We are online all the time and available to everyone. When will we have time for ourselves, to rest, to reflect and to live the life we have.

There is no doubt, that we all need to cut down on screen time. It is essential for good physical and mental health and for an overall better quality of life.

Gloria Mark, studies digital distraction at University of California, Irvine. She says it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption.

Mutiple studies have confirmed this alarming statistic. People are working longer hours and getting less done as they allow disruptions from screens. This is leading to an increased feeling of guilt & self-doubt.

If you are reading this post, you realize what’s going on and are looking for ways to reduce your screen time. That’s a good start.

These are some of the ways to reduce screen time.

1.Use screens to manage screens

Install screen time apps

Apps like freedom, moment, space, off the grid, Flipdapp, there are many apps being added each day- this is the easiest way to control screen time on smart phones.

These apps are being developed in response to the need that is being felt. Technology is addictive and luckily some people from the tech world itself are helping to limit its hold on us.

Turn your phone display to grayscale

It’s a simple trick that is very effective. Our brain is attracted to bright and shiny colors, when turned to grey, the screen loses its grip. According to a former google design ethicist Tristan Harris “going grayscale removes positive reinforcements and dampens that urge to keep loading up social media feeds and mobile games”.

Tristan is also featured in Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma”. Tech experts sound the alarm on dangerous human impact of social networking in this documentary.

Turn off notifications

Do this for all apps except, text messages and phone calls for urgent matters. This will help you focus on the task at hand and remove a lot of stress and unnecessary distractions.

Set Limits on apps

Explore free screen time monitoring apps. Digital wellbeing for android phones & screen time tool on IOS. Make it a point to check your screen usage on a regular basis. Put limits on apps you visit compulsively.

2. Use Time Management techniques to reduce screen time

Screen Time management, is time management. Productive people take the time to think, plan and set priorities. They allow themselves to enter the state of flow. Brian Tracy in his popular book “eat that frog” has shared several techniques for better time management. I apply them and also share them with my clients who want to get better control over their devices.

Plan every day in advance

Always work from a list. Anything new that comes up, add to the list before you start doing it. Think on paper, this is a productivity tip, when you are focused on your goals there will be little scope for distractions. Productive people discipline themselves to start on the most important task that is before them, it minimizes the chances of going down the rabbit hole. As Goethe said “The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least”

Use ABCDE Method

This method is a powerful priority setting technique which is very simple to use. Start with a list of everything you must do in a day and then assign A, B, C, D, E next to each item. 

“A” is defined as something which is most important and has to be done. “B” is task that you should do but it has milder consequences if not completed. “C” is task that is nice to do but has no consequences e.g., calling a friend, having coffee or lunch with a coworker etc. “D” is task that can be delegated & “E” is task that can be eliminated altogether. Once you have ABCDE list ready, you are completely organized and you will not fall for any distractions. Highest priority tasks will get done and you will feel good about accomplishing them.

Assign big chunks of time & get big tasks done earlier in the day

Plan each day in advance. Select the most important task and then start on the task first thing. Work for 90 minutes with no distraction and then give yourself 15 minutes break. Start again and work another ninety minutes. Finally after this three hour work period you can reward yourself with a shot of dopamine by checking your feed/email.

Customise this to your nature of work, spend time on devising a plan that will work for you. Tweak it until you find the best match.

3. Incorporate Screen Fasting (e.g. 1 day screen fast every week)

To stay calm, clearheaded and capable of performing at best, it is important to detach on a regular basis from the technology that often gets overwhelming.

Author Tiffany Shlain gave up screens one day a week for over a decade. In introduction to her book "24/6" she says, “Before living 24/6, I was on screens 24/7”.

She gives out a practical roadmap to unplugging for 24 hours. Shlain introduces readers to what she calls a “Technology Shabbat”. It is the one day every week, where she and her family turns off all devices. That will reduce screen time by 14% instantly.

Shabbat is Judaism’s day of rest on the seventh day of the week. When the day of the rest originated, it changed the world. Before it was endless day after day of work, there was no rest day. Shabbat is what actually gave us the concept of week.

We in Indian subcontinent are familiar with “vrat”, “upvas” or “fasting”, it is similar in concept. We can adapt and apply it to our devices. Pick a day that suits your work/schedule to go 24/6.

Neuroscientists tell us that by resting and relaxing and by slowing down the input from new information, our brains get a chance to recover and sort. The result is improved memory and better recall. It is like we are cleaning our mental file cabinets every week.

Shlain writes “Living 24/6 isn’t just about unplugging for twenty-four hours. It has the benefit of affecting how you interact with screens and technology the other 144 hours of the week. Inevitably you become more conscious of it”

I would urge all readers to try it for themselves and see how it helps. I would also like to encourage them to take up screen fast once a week as a family. Parenting is about modeling behavior and doing this delivers a powerful message. It gives kids a chance to experience how rich a day can be without distractions.

4.Ask yourself questions?

Any unstructured moment is being filled, we all are familiar to the phantom-limb sensation of reaching out for a smart phone that isn’t there to look something up or check email.

To reduce screen time, it is important to ask yourself these questions anytime you are reaching out for a device or when you catch yourself scrolling mindlessly.

“What is the most valuable use of my time right now?”

“What’s important here?”

“Is this helping me achieve my goals, or is it just a distraction?

While on social media apps, ask yourself, “Why am I on social media right now? Is it to connect with family and friends? Who am I following and why?”. Remember your feeds are shaping your thoughts and your mind. Unless we consciously detach, we will keep clicking/scrolling. We have given our free time away; we need to reclaim it.

5. Know thyself: Pursue your interests /passions

The more time we spend following our interests and passions, less time and energy we will spend looking for approval from others. Draw, paint, sing, bake ,cook, dance, read, write, find what works for you. It also allows for the time to be utilized effectively and productively.

Engaging in mentally stimulating hobby reduces stress.

Mathew Zawadski, is a health psychologist at the University of California. His study shows that immersing in leisure activity has many health and psychological benefits like improved focus, happiness and a longer life.

6. Practice Mindfulness to reduce screen time

Don’t start or end your day with screen

Keep your devices out of the bedroom, get an old-fashioned alarm clock. Don’t look at your phone for atleast fifteen or thirty minutes after you wake up. It will give you time to start your day on your own terms.

Also, don’t let screens be the last thing you do before you sleep. The blue light interferes with sleep onset. Read a book instead.

If you have a hard time going to sleep, think of three things you are grateful for when you close your eyes. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus, which cues the release of “dopamine” the reward hormone.

Connect with Nature

Take a walk-in park without your phone. There is a scientific reason that spending time in nature makes us feel calm, centered and connected. Its known as “soft fascination” and it happens in nature where the brain is engaged but not overtaxed. Studies suggest that people who live near green spaces have lower levels of stress hormone cortisol.

Yoga

Have you ever noticed how good you feel-mentally-when you are practicing yoga regularly ? The ancient sage Patanjali describes in first lines of Yoga sutras, the purpose of yoga is to still the turbulence of the mind. The constant starting and stopping of movements found in yoga, the constant planning –moving from one position to another with control and mindful attention puts mind in a relaxed state. Breathing deeply calms down the nervous system. Practicing yoga leads to a disciplined mind and can help in better control over screen use.

Meditation

Meditation quiets the brain, reduces simulation and stress, improves blood flow and balances hormones.

Innumerable scientific studies have been proving the effectiveness of meditation, a practice that reins in the mind. It helps relieve anxiety , depression and improves attention, concentration and overall psychological well being. It helps cultivate moment to moment awareness and intentionality that is needed to manage addictive technology. Apps like Insight timer, calm are excellent for anyone new to meditation. Meditation in my opinion if not already, will soon become a necessity to live a sane life

Besides all the above, setting simple rules like below can be a good start.

  • no device rule on dinner table
  • no screens in bedroom
  • airplane mode in meeting rooms

It is also important to have open and honest conversations around this topic. It will help to share with friends and family tricks, tips that have been useful. We have to educate our Children and our seniors about excessive use of screens. Lockdown and the current covid -19 situation has massively increased the dependency on screens for learning and connecting.

Am sure you have noticed the less educated , house helps, drivers & security guards slumped over the phone. We need to help them straighten their backs too.

We need to collectively reclaim our power back from the screens.

I would like to borrow the last two lines from the poet Mary Oliver from her poem “The summer day”

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With Your one wild and precious life?”

Stare at a screen all day, Scroll all day, Nah!

P.s. Sometimes, a physical break from your everyday life and your phone is needed to make a real shift in habits. We, the founders of this website, host The Himalayan Digital Detox  - the only such detox in India. You stay completely offline for one glorious week in the Himalayas. We start with basic questions - what part is good about your phone usage, and what part is bad habits and addiction. Together we build a personalized plan which defines why and how much you will use your phone going forward. Then you make changes in the setting and the programming - both of yourself and your phone - to achieve all this. To fill in the vacuum your phone leaves - yes there will be one - we will do fun offline activities like barbeques, cycling, music, writing, baking and much more. Details here.

Monika Narayanan

About the author

Monika is a trained counsellor and certified life & executive coach. She has her private practice in Singapore, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and a dog. She is a mindfulness enthusiast & a trained yoga teacher who loves to read in her spare time.


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