CC Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon

CC Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon

These day's its pretty common to see someone with a smartphone, or tablet, or both... oh and lets just toss in a laptop too while we are at it. These devices are wonderful augments to our lives - the fact that I can carry a really great camera in my back pocket with me at all times is amazing! But it sure doesn't take long to create a bunch of screen-staring, tap-tapping zombies when we are out in public.

I have written about digital sabbaticals here and here before. And that is great, but what about when we have to be back in the "real world", you know the one that normally involves work, or school and daily activities like taking the dog for a walk? Trust me, walking the dog while trying to post on Facebook can be a stubbed-toe hazard! How do we manage the technology so it works for us, rather than us being controlled completely by it?

I don't know about you, but when I used to use notifications for everything, I would pick up my phone and get lost in a chaotic sea of notifications bouncing from a social media app, to mail, to messages, to weather, to plants vs zombies... you get the idea. Of course, I had originally picked up my phone with a specific intention - but that was long evaporated when I started doing the whack-a-badge game with my iPhone! I have even been called out by friends when my iPhone activity at the dinner table was a bit off-putting. Which really got me to thinking, the thing I dislike the most, about all this screen staring, bird-swiping on devices, is when I realize that I missed out on being able to connect with someone with my full attention or meet someone by serendipitous chance. Often times, these are the best way's to meet someone special (right Liz?).

Instead of letting the technology and their notifications manage you, start managing your technology and notifications.
— Mitch Joel*

So let's turn this on its head somewhat and take a look at how to manage our technology so we can get our time back to interact with the rest of you lovely people that inhabit this planet.

  1. Turn off notifications - all of them, or as many as you can. I only have notifications on email from a very short list of people, phone calls from the same short list of people and text messages. All other apps have notifications turned off. I no longer have to play whack-a-badge on my phone when I pick it up. We can't help it - we are subject to Pavlovian conditioning. Notifications don't tell us anything about importance, just that its something - and we can't help but be curious. Especially since the reward, when it is something good, triggers dopamine release in the brain - it always comes down to biochemistry with me, doesn't it? I digress...
  2. Turn off cellular data - "What?! but that defeats the purpose of having a smartphone!" Not really. What it does is cut off the internet when I am out and about. I can still make/receive phone calls, I can connect to WiFi or consciously decide to turn it on if I need directions somewhere. But otherwise, the internet can wait. Oh, and added bonus, you won't need such a large data plan so it can save you some money, and who doesn't like to save money?
  3. The single most powerful email filter - Ari Meisel taught me this one, the single most important email filter takes all that stuff with "Unsubscribe" at the bottom, to an Optional folder. Of the hundreds of emails we get each day, this quickly narrows down your attention to the essential that are from real people or require real action. I now can get through my email in the morning in under 15 minutes. A feat that used to waste a full hour. Now, I make sure its cleared out before I close mail. The basic premise is to take action on each pending email or archive/delete it after its read - subtle but powerful! When you don't have any hanging to-do's left in your email, even if its not open at the moment, you don't have anything lingering over you. This release of time, stress and anxiety are key to controlling technology so it doesn't control you. 
  4. Don't leave email open - On a laptop, close the program and instead check it at certain times of the day. I check email 3 times each day: morning, after lunch and then right before I'm done with work for the day. Not only can I process all the actions quickly (see #3) but I can then focus on my intended work without the constant reminder of "ding, oh look another newsletter that I don't really need to read, but will because of the pretty picture!"
    1. Play the "first one to touch their phone pays for dinner" game - This is a good one. Stack all the smartphones at the edge of the table during dinner. Everyone agrees that if they touch their smartphone during dinner before the bill comes, that the first one to do so pays for dinner. Not at a restaurant? Easy, barter a household chore, or car wash, or leaf raking, etc for the bet! 

Tell me, what do you practice to ensure your technology is not controlling you? Leave a comment below. :)

* Mitch Joel's article can be found here