Always Online: How Tech Use Influences our Mood, Productivity, Creativity, and More
As my alarm blared from next to my bed, I reached over and slapped the snooze button. Nine minutes later, it rudely repeated its screaming. This time, I grabbed my phone, turned the alarm off completely, and went to check my email. After a few minutes of deleting marketing emails, I decided to take a glance at my other notifications.
Twitter was full of hot political garbage. Instagram was still flooded with thirst traps, dogs, and influencers desperate to convince me that they were as enthusiastic about grocery stores as their captions suggested. TikTok had a few new notifications for that one video I made that actually found its way onto some for-you pages. YouTube thought I needed to rewatch some videos by the same five creators. Slack reminded me that I needed to get ready for work as there were already several notifications from folks reaching out to me with questions.
With my phone still in hand, I stumbled into the kitchen to brew myself a few cups of ambition. I gave in to YouTube's suggestions and began to listen in to a ridiculous British game show as I poured my first cup of coffee and then climbed into the shower. As I bathed, I kept my phone propped up just beyond the threshold of the water so that I could watch and listen as I washed.
Clean and dressed, I got my second cup of coffee and descended the stairs to my home office. My YouTube video still playing (after all, it's a 45-minute video), I open my computer. Slack is lit up like a Christmas tree with notifications. I open my browser and the same twelve tabs I had open from the day before await me. I move one Chrome window onto my external monitor and leave one on my MacBook's built-in display. That way, I can monitor my inbox on the left for any updates while I use my larger monitor on the right to focus on troubleshooting and writing code.
Each time Slack dings, the number of unread messages in my inbox increases, or my phone buzzes, I look away from the task at hand to see what newness awaits me. Generally, it's not something I need (or want) to address right away. I know this before I look. And still, I look anyway.
All of a sudden, I'm opening a new tab to scroll through Twitter or I've gone down a Slack thread rabbit hole, getting lost in photos of my coworkers' dogs, browsing their book recommendations on Amazon, or making mental notes of things I want to come back to.
As this is happening, the task that I started on remains unfinished. Time slips by without me recognizing it passing, and I make it to the middle of my work day with a half dozen tasks started, and none finished. I'm stressed, tired, and unfocused. Each time I try to hone in on one particular thing, my mind urges me to also do something else; it craves noise and motion, not just static lines of code or text.
While this day could have been just about any average work day in the last six months of 2020, there was one morning in particular in mid-November that really stuck out to me. The deluge of ongoing election coverage from the 2020 presidential election left me feeling drained. I didn't want to get on social media and see anything else about it. And yet... I did. Consciously, I didn't want to deal with parsing through a flood of partisan rhetoric. Yet habit dictated that that is exactly what I do.
Like usual, I took my concerns to my journal and spent some time reflecting on what I felt and what I wanted to change. As I journaled, it dawned on me that the life I've built for myself thus far required a significant amount of time online, but I hadn't really figured out how to go offline. Between my phone, work computer, and personal computer, I was always online and always operating in the ways that the Internet had trained me– bouncing from task to task, tab to tab, novelty to novelty.
I reached the conclusion that my tech use was holding me back and preventing me from performing at my best in multiple areas of life. Obviously, going offline entirely isn't an option considering I work for a software company and don't plan on willingly being unemployed any time soon. I realized that I needed to figure out a better way forward, and it started me on a journey of exploring this question: how can I use technology better?
A Way of Life
As I started exploring the question of how to use technology better, I knew that I didn't want to fall into an all-or-nothing mindset. Often, when we talk about tech usage and what it means to have a healthy relationship with technology, folks will fall into a binary. Some embrace technology and champion its adoption in all areas of life, citing the myriad ways in which tech has accelerated progress, stimulated economic growth, created new opportunities, and aided in accessibility and community building (among many other things). Others view tech as a disruption of a healthy lifestyle and advocate leaving it behind as much as possible, fueling trends of doing a "digi-detox," deleting social media accounts, downgrading from a smart phone to a (practically antique) flip phone, and so on.
I don't think either camp can be completely correct. Perhaps I've spent too much time in hippy-dippy land, with our abundance of malformed amalgamations of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, but I think that in most areas of life, it's important to find the middle way.
When it comes to technology, though, what does the middle way look like?
Tech is here to stay. It is ingrained in our cultures, economies, education, social lives, professional lives, dating lives, entertainment, and more. To shun technology altogether or to willingly seek ignorance of what is going on with modern tech is to be left behind and miss out on important elements of our culture. Yet embracing it and going entirely online for everything has some very real consequences for us physiologically, psychologically, and socially.
Instead, I think that the middle way with tech looks something like this: you understand tech and how to best use it in your daily life but maintain a level of awareness as to how tech use affects you, and actively work to make sure that your life is balanced and that you're intentionally engaging in behaviors that counteract the negative affects of technological immersion.
Let's explore that.
Let's Get Physical: Technology and the Body
Coming into the 2010s, there was a lot of discussion around the ways in which technology influenced posture. We had an abundance of articles coming out describing sitting as "the new smoking." We had PSAs about hunched posture, strained eyes, back pain, and even flat behinds. Trends on social media periodically swirled around in which users were prompted to look at the pinky finger of their dominant hand to see if it had a groove in it from holding their cell phone (mine does). Discussions of sedentary lifestyles and non-genetic obesity echoed across virtually all media platforms, usually parroted by presenters who had high-budget dietitians and personal trainers on their payroll to keep them camera ready.
At the same time, we saw a boom in device-based fitness and wellness. In 2019, the global Fitness App market generated approximately $2.92 Billion in revenue, and is expected to grow to $14.64 billion by 2027 (source). Apps like MyFitness Pal, Noom, Fitbit, Weight Watchers, Fitness Keeper, and Apple Health hold a really strong market share, but they're not alone. Prominent fitness influencers, workout-based startups, and wellness entrepreneurs are putting their own apps, videos, and websites out into the world wide web to provide guided workouts, meal plans, coaching, and more.
We're in a really unique position where there's quite a bit of awareness about the dangers to our health of sitting and looking at screens for an extended period of time, and so we try to counteract this through the methods we know best: more screens. While the digital wellness industry typically approaches the problem of tech with good intentions (depending upon how you feel about diet culture in general, I suppose "good intentions" is debatable), I would suggest that we shift the problem around rather than solving it.
For example, let's say you use one of the many fitness apps that tells you how many steps you need to take each day, counts your calories, and claims to measure your quality of sleep. Many apps do this, and they do this pretty well because the algorithms behind them are nuanced, complex, and well-tested. And yet, algorithms aren't perfect. They can't account for everything, no matter how skilled the developer behind them is. Your app may tell you you're doing everything perfectly, but you may still feel tired, bloated, sore, stiff, or whatever else. If you train yourself to default to the data in your apps rather than listening to your body, you're going to miss key signals that you need to change something in your diet or routine. Listening to our bodies about what they need is a huge skill that so many of us need to enhance. Apps can't do it for us because apps can't gather every possible data point from our lived experiences.
Our interactions with technology go deeper (or, perhaps I should say, "go higher") than sore backs, rounded shoulders, and turning to Google just to learn we're dehydrated, though. Research suggests, that the way in which we use technology is also reshaping our brains.
In his seminal work, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr examines neuroplasticity and the ways in which using the Internet in particular affects our brains and mental processes. One of the case studies he looks at is that of London cabbies who navigate the streets of London from memory as opposed to with the use of a map, and the fact that they tend to have larger hippocampi than map-users. He writes,
Knowing what we do about London cabbies, we can posit that as people became more dependent on maps, rather than their own memories, in navigating their surroundings, they almost certainly experienced both anatomical and functional changes in the hippocampus and other brain areas involved in spatial modeling and memory. The circuity devoted to maintaining representations of space likely shrank, while areas employed in deciphering complex and abstract visual information likely expanded or strengthened.
The ways in which we engage our brains creates a sort of training routine for our neurons. We train ourselves to operate in a system of patterns based upon the areas of our brain we engage regularly and strengthen, and we weaken other mental faculties when we don't use them. Neuroplasticity is at the core of Carr's work in The Shallows, and he outlines a clear picture of the ways in which the tools we use– specifically tech– shapes not only what we do, but also influences the way our brains physically develop and adapt over time.
One byproduct of this phenomenon is a sort of "use it or lose it" effect. For example, if algebra isn't a core component of your daily work, think about the math classes you took when you were younger. How many equations did you memorize? What types of problems were you solving for homework on a nightly basis?
Could you still do those algebra problems without consulting a reference?
I doubt I could. Perhaps I could, but it wouldn't be easy. I haven't had a need for those equations and methods in the last several years, so why would my brain store that data?
In the case of using technology, such as fitness apps, as an intervention for the sedentary lifestyle created by an over-reliance on technology, I can't help but feel that we're ultimately just kicking the can further down the road. While I'm still on the search for peer-reviewed research on the topic, speaking from my own experiences and observations of those in my circle of influence, it seems like digitally-based fitness interventions fulfill our desire to feel like we're creating a healthy lifestyle without actually having to put in the hard work to do so. Even if we are able to get in a phenomenal workout once a day because of these apps, unless we address the root cause of why the apps are necessary, I don't see us making much progress. In many ways, I suspect that the use of an app that tells us we've done a good job or that we've met specific fitness needs for the day placates us in a way that leads us to believe we're better off than we actually are, continuing to undermine our abilities to listen to our own bodies.
The moulding of our brain that occurs with technology use can be a problem. On the one hand, we may strengthen our brains in healthy ways if we're consuming and engaging with material that is useful for us, informs us, or helps us grow in some other way. But I would argue that that's not the norm. Instead, we solidify patterns of thinking that are rooted in distractions, multi-tasking, and instant gratification. When these are the neurological patterns that we train our brains to develop, body and mind converge, leading to some psychological side-effects.
"I Think, Therefore I Am" Send Tweet: Technology and Our Minds
I'm going to use the term "mind" as distinct from the term "brain." In the last section, I touched on some of the physical changes that our brains (the organ) can undergo. Now, I want to explore some of the effects that this has on our minds, which can broadly be thought of as our sense of self, conscious thought, and self-awareness.
As mentioned with Carr's research, consistent tech usage has a shaping effect on our brains. It creates well-trodden paths that become habit; we operate in a series of patterns when we use technology, often without recognizing it.
A few weeks ago, I decided to do a little experiment while I was at work. I grabbed a notepad and one of my favorite pens and kept it next to me while I used my computer. I wanted to see if I could notice and measure when I was pivoting from one task to another out of habit, and see if I could determine when I was most likely to lose focus. Obviously, it wasn't a perfectly scientifically sound experiment– I'm not an unbiased observer of my own actions, and knowing that I would document my actions introduces another layer of bias.
Yet, the results still shocked me.
When looking at my own work habits, I noticed several actions that at this point feel like reflexes that I had never really recognized before. For example:
- When a website or application took more than a few seconds to load, I would click over to Slack and scroll through Slack channels while it was loading.
- When a coding issue is incredibly complex and overwhelming to piece through, my reflex is to step away from it and go to Twitter.
- When engineers are speaking about an issue not directly related to my work in team meetings, I go to Slack and check for new threads or posts that interest me.
- When I have to work on an issue where the person sending it to me clearly hasn't done their due diligence and I feel frustrated, I turn to social media or Slack to distract me before I form a response.
And the list goes on. In a nutshell, the experiment highlighted just how willingly I distract myself while at work.
Even work-adjacent activities like checking Slack are detrimental for me. Multi-tasking is not productive; in fact, it has the opposite effect. Any time you initiate a task, divert your attention away from it, and then try to come back to it, you're making your life harder than it needs to be. It goes beyond the workplace, too. For most of us, it's fairly common that we:
- Feel like we need to have music, a YouTube video, a podcast, or TV show on in the background just to have some noise.
- Let work or social media interrupt our in-person socializing or quiet personal time with push notifications.
- Have trouble maintaining quiet focus for tasks like reading and writing.
- Experience a sense of discomfort when we can't use our devices or when our favorite social media platforms are down.
- Reach for our phones to occupy time between tasks, such as when you're standing in line at the grocery store, in a waiting room, or cooking dinner.
- Reach for our phones in awkward situations where we're alone in public, don't want to make small talk, or feel like we don't have a strong sense of expected cultural norms.
In her brilliant book, Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World, Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee explores some of the challenges associated with being almost always connected. Early on in her book, she beautifully encapsulates the notion of needing to work toward building a healthful relationship with technology, writing:
If the goal of living is to continually grow and mature, we must take a long look at our own development and how it is helped or hindered. The very core of ourselves is affected by the experiences in which we allow or force ourselves to engage. Our minds, guts, and bodies are shaped by the narrow or broad realities to which we expose them. More than ever, we must do this work with intention and by sheer act of will, or our trajectory will be narrow and limited. To avoid complacency, work through developmental arrests, and become healthy and whole, we must examine the nature of our journey, the ways in which we invest ourselves and our time, and the disrupters that influence both.
The rest of her book explores some of the myriad ways in which technology can interrupt that process of development and maturing, as well as some of the strategies that you can implement to sustain focus and build your resilience in the face of our cultural tendency to always be online.
How Do We Strike a Healthy Balance?
As someone who writes specifically for the Internet, if you're looking for someone to give you a swift kick in the pants and tell you to get offline, you're in the wrong place.
Simply by virtue of being alive today, being online and using multiple devices is something that we have to embrace and learn to lean into in a healthy way. Besides, the evolution of technology is quite amazing and provides so many benefits to us that we would be naive to assume that the risks of over-exposure outweigh the benefits in all scenarios. Just think of all the things that technology and access to information do for our society.
The Internet provides a more democratic access to information. Online shopping has done wonders for enabling folks with disabilities the autonomy to care for more of their own needs. Screen readers and other accessibility-focused tools have brought previously out-of-reach texts and documents to folks with limited sensory abilities. Online communities have popped up around virtually all hobbies, passions, curiosities, and commonality. Job hunting is quick and efficient. Employees can work from home while remaining connected to their colleagues. You can even open your computer, connect to the Internet, and earn a college degree.
And that's only looking at computers. Think of all the other innovations around mobile phones, sustainable energy, transportation, construction, entertainment, and so on.
To eschew technological interactions entirely is to become an outcast in modern society. Perhaps that works well for some, but for most, it's not a feasible option and isn't even worth considering.
Instead, we have to strike a balance in how we use technology that allows us to cultivate the analog traits of silence, patience, focus, attentiveness, and self-satisfaction while reaping the benefits of a digital environment.
Throughout this series of content, I'll explore some of the methodologies and possible solutions to finding this balance in more depth, but at the onset, there are a few things we can do to make balance possible.
Recognize Where You're At Now
Most of us underestimate the time that we spend on our devices, especially our smart phones. If you're using a phone that can track your usage, check in on a weekly basis to see how much time you're using your device overall as well as what it is that you're doing on your device. For example, if you uncover that you're spending six hours each day on your phone with three of those hours split across social media networks, it's easier to recognize that you lose nearly a full day each week on social media. Chances are, that doesn't align with your values and long-term goals. Knowing where you're at now in a realistic sense gives you a starting point for setting targets and goals for yourself to reduce that time.
Be an Object in Motion
Newton's First Law of Motion is often stated as, "an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force. An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force."
Apply this to your use of technology. As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, a common digital sin shared by many my age is the tendency to turn off your alarm, which is on your phone, and then immediately shift gears and start scrolling. From the very beginning of your day, this gets the ball rolling downhill for you to continue to be online and bouncing from distraction to distraction. One of my biggest wins has been placing my phone as far away from my bed as possible. When my alarm goes off, I have to get up and walk to it to turn it off. Once I've done that, it's easier to let my phone remain where it is and then I go about my morning routine without it.
Look for ways to create momentum for yourself that require the least amount of willpower possible. If you make it easy for yourself to start scrolling, you are also making it difficult to stop scrolling.
Create Opportunities for Focused Quiet Time
Set aside time each day for quiet, offline activities. I recommend reading a printed book, journaling, meditating, or gently stretching. Start with just ten minutes or so– perhaps right before bed. Don't keep your phone near you, don't incorporate your television or computer, and don't play podcasts or music in the background. Make your surroundings as quiet as possible and try to keep your focus on whatever activity it is that you're doing.
It's probably going to be uncomfortable if you're used to buzzing from activity to activity, notification to notification. But the discomfort is the point! It's a sign that your mind and body needs more quiet, attentive time. I'm biased toward using this time to journal because of how much I love and advocate for having daily journaling time! Regardless, what's important is that you get comfortable with turning your attention inward and being present in an offline activity. Whether you want to call it mindfulness or relaxation, the point is that it helps you get more comfortable with thinking linearly, retaining information, and avoiding the stressful, distraction-filled environment of being online.
Get to know the author.
He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.