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Tech your time: 12 top tips for a digital detox

Over the last few years there has been increasing use of the term ‘digital detox’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, digital detox is a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world”. I have to admit that I often find it hard to switch off from work (mainly because I love my job). Given that my job relies on technology, by implication it also means I find it hard to switch off from technology. Today’s blog is as much for me as anyone reading this and provides some tips on how to cut down on technology use, even if it’s just for the weekend or a holiday. I have compiled these tips from many different online articles as well as some of my own personal strategies. 

Digitally detox in increments: For some people, going a few minutes without checking their smartphone or emails is difficult. For many, the urge is reflexive and habitual. If you are one of those people, then ‘baby steps’ are needed. Such individuals need to learn to digitally detox in small increments (i.e., go on a ‘digital diet’). Start by proving to yourself that you can go 15 minutes without technology. Over time, increase the length of time without checking (say) Twitter, Facebook and emails (e.g., 30 minutes, 60 minutes, a couple of hours) until you get into a daily habit of being able to spend a few hours without the need to be online. Another simple trick is to only keep mobile devices partially topped up. This means users have to be sparing when checking their mobile devices.

Set aside daily periods of self-imposed non-screen time: One of the secrets to cutting down technology use to acceptable levels is to keep aside certain times of the day technology-free (meal times and bedtime are a good starting place – in fact, these rooms should be made technology-free). For instance, I rarely look at any emails between 6pm and 8pm as this is reserved for family time (e.g., cooking and eating dinner with the family). Another strategy to try is having a technology-free day at the weekends (e.g., not accessing the internet at all for 24 hours). However, watching television or using an e-reader is fine. Another simple strategy is to have technology-free meal times (at both home and work). Don’t bring your smartphone or tablet to the table.

Only respond to emails and texts at specific times of the day: Only a few individuals are ‘on call’ and have to assume that the message they receive will be an emergency. Looking at emails (say) just three times a day (9am, 1pm, 4pm) will save lots of time in the long run. Turning off email and social media, disabling push notifications, or simply turning the volume setting to silent on electronic devices will also reduce the urge to constantly check mobile devices.

Don’t use your smartphone or tablet as an alarm clock: By using a standard alarm clock to wake you in the morning, you will avoid the temptation to look at emails and texts just as you are about to go to sleep or just wake up (or in the middle of the night if you are a workaholic!).

Engage in out-of-work activities where it is impossible (or frowned upon) to use technology: Nowadays, leisure activities such as going to the pub, having a meal, or going to the cinema, don’t stop people using wireless technology. By engaging in digitally incompatible activities where it is impossible to access technology simultaneously (e.g., jogging, swimming, meditation, outdoor walks in wi-fi free areas) or go to places where technology is frowned upon (e.g., places of worship, yoga classes, etc.) and individual will automatically decrease the amount of screen time. In social situations, you can turn people’s need to check their phones into a game. For instance, in the pub, you could have a game where the first one to check their phone has to buy a round of drinks for everyone else.

Tell your work colleagues and friends you are going on a digital detox: Checking emails and texts can become an almost compulsive behaviour because of what psychologists have termed ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) that refers to the anxiety that an interesting or exciting event may be happening elsewhere online. By telling everyone you know that you will not be online for a few hours, they will be less likely to contact you in the first place and you will be less likely check for online messages in the first place. Alternatively, Put your ‘out-of-office’ notification on for a few hours and do something more productive with your time.

Reduce your contact lists: One way to spend less time online is to reduce the number of friends on social networking sites, stop following blogs (but not mine, of course!), delete unused apps, and unsubscribe from online groups that have few benefits. Also, delete game apps that can be time-consuming (e.g., Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, etc.).

Get a wristwatch: One of the most common reasons for looking at a smartphone or a tablet is to check the time. If checking the time also leads to individuals noticing they have a text, email or tweet, they will end up reading what has been sent. By using an old fashioned wristwatch (as opposed to new smart watches like the Apple Watch), the urge to reply to messages will decrease.

Think about the benefits of not constantly being online: If you are the kind of person that responds to emails, texts and tweets as they come in, you will write longer responses than if you look at them all in a block. The bottom line is that you can save loads of time to spend on other things if you didn’t spend so long constantly reacting to what is going on in the online world.

Enjoy the silence: Too many people fail to appreciate being in the moment and allowing themselves to resist the urge to log onto their laptops, mobiles and tablets. It is at these times that some people might interpret as boredom that we can contemplate and be mindful. This could be made more formal by introducing meditation into a daily routine. There are also many places that run whole weekends and short breaks where technology is forbidden and much of the time can be spent in quiet contemplation. 

Fill the void: To undergo digital detox for any length of time, an individual has to replace the activity with something that is as equally rewarding (whether it is physically, psychologically or spiritually). When I’m on holiday, I catch up on all the novels that I’ve been meaning to read. In shorter spaces of time (such as sitting in boring meetings) I doodle, write ‘to do’ lists, generate ideas to write about, or simply do nothing (and be mindful, aware of the present moment). In short, I try to productive (or unproductive) without having to resort to my technology. 

Use technology to beat technology: One thing that can shock technology users is how much time they actually spend on their mobile devices. Working out how much time is actually spent online can be the first step in wanting to cut down. (For instance, someone I once worked with was shocked to find he had spent 72 [24-hour] days in one year playing World of Warcraft). Tech users can download apps that tell them how much time spending online, (e.g., Moment). Being made aware of a problem is often the first step in enabling behavioural change.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Goodnet (2013). 7 steps to planning your next digital detox. October 22. Located at: http://www.goodnet.org/articles/7-steps-to-planning-your-next-digital-detox

Hosseini, M.D. (2013). Top 10 tips to unplug this summer with a digital detox. Advertising Week Social Club, June 28. Located at: http://www.theawsc.com/2013/06/28/top-10-tips-to-unplug-this-summer-with-a-digital-detox/

Huffington Post (2013). 10 digital detox vacation hacks to help you truly unplug. July 31. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/31/vacation-hacks-_n_3676474.html

Levy, P. (2015). 15 tips for a total digital detox. Mind Body Green, January 15. Located at: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-17030/15-tips-for-a-total-digital-detox.html

Lipman, F. (2015). 12 tips for your next digital detox. March 2. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/shake-it-off-12-tips-for-your-next-digital-detox/

Lipman, F. (2014). 8 ways to disconnect from technology and get more done. November 5. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/8-ways-to-disconnect-from-technology-and-get-more-done/

South China Morning Post (2015). Five tips for a digital detox. Located at: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/technology/article/1673273/five-tips-digital-detox

Vozza, S. (2013). A realistic digital detox in 5 easy steps. Entrepreneur, November 12. Located: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/229783

Tech it or leave it: Excessive email use and how to curb it

If there is a single behaviour in my life that borders on the pathological, it is the urge I feel to log on and check my emails. When I have no email access (such as when I am on a plane or am on holiday staying at a foreign beachside villa with no Wi-Fi) I function perfectly well but as soon as I know there is a Wi-Fi connection, the first thing I typically do is check my emails. It’s like an itch that I have to scratch. Given that the vast majority of my emails are work-related I don’t necessarily see this as problematic (as I love my work) but it does admittedly facilitate my workaholic tendencies. The psychology and psychosocial impact of email use is also an area that I have published a few articles and book chapters on (see ‘Further reading’ below).

The reason I mention all this is that earlier this month, many of the British newspapers featured a story about how turning off automatic emails helps reduce stress levels. The survey study of just under 2,000 individuals was carried out by psychologists at the Future Work Centre (FWC) and examined the impact of ‘email pressure’ on individuals’ work-life balance. The report noted that there were “2.5 billion email users worldwide, and adults spent an average of over an hour of each day on emails, according to Radicati and Ofcom”. The FWC’s main findings (which I have taken verbatim from the report) highlighted:

  • A strong relationship between using ‘push’ email and perceived email pressure. This means that people who automatically receive email on their devices were more likely to report higher perceived email pressure.
  • People who leave their email on all day were much more likely to report perceived email pressure.
  • Checking email earlier in the morning or later at night is associated with higher levels of perceived email pressure.
  • Managers experience significantly higher levels of perceived email pressure when compared to non-managers.
  • Higher email pressure was associated with more examples of work negatively impacting home life and home life negatively impacting performance at work.
  • Perceived email pressure is significantly higher in people with caring responsibilities. This finding is probably less of a surprise, as the work-life balance research literature is full of examples citing the challenges facing carers when it comes to navigating the boundaries between work and home. Interestingly, our data didn’t reveal any significant differences between people with different caring responsibilities. It seems that just having these responsibilities is associated with significantly higher email pressure.
  • Personality appears to moderate the relationship between perceived email pressure and work-life balance. People who rate their own ability and sense of control over their environment lower find that work interferes more with their home life, and vice versa.

Clearly the benefits of email outweigh the disadvantages but as the FWC report noted, emails are a “double-edged sword” in that that they are clearly a useful communication tool but can be a source of stress. The report concluded that:

“[The results of the study] link perceptions of email pressure to actual work-life balance outcomes, not just perceptions of work-life balance. But that’s not the end of the story. Whilst we’ve identified the external factors that affect our perceived email pressure and explored the relationship between perceived email pressure and work-life balance, there’s another variable we should consider in order to increase our understanding of an individual’s experience of email – personality…Personality moderates the relationship between perceived email pressure and all work-life balance outcomes. It shows that people with low core self-evaluation experience more interference, both positive and negative, between their work and home lives – i.e. they are more sensitive to how the two domains – work and home – affect each other. This could be due to how people with low core self-evaluation make sense of their world. People with high core self-evaluation don’t see these things as happening to them – they can take control and set boundaries”.

The report also provided some tips to combat email stress many of which can be found in other articles examining the topic. For instance, back in 2004, I published my own set of tips in the British Medical Journal (not that I follow my own advice based on what I said in the opening paragraph of this article). However, I’ll end this blog with my (hopefully) common-sense and practical advice:

  • Set retrieval limits: Limit email retrieval to a few times per day (say when you first get in, lunchtime, and/or just before you leave work). You will spend less time both reading and responding to each email than if you had read them when they individually came in.
  • Turn off instant messaging system: There is a tendency to look at emails straight away if the instant messaging system is turned on. This is only helpful when you are expecting a message.
  • Get a good spam filter: There is nothing worse than an inbox full of junk mail so invest in a good filter system.
  • Use your ‘auto delete’ button: If there are constant junk emails that you get most days then use the ‘auto delete’ button to avoid them appearing in your inbox.
  • Develop a good filing system: The setting up of a good email filing system is paramount in keeping on top of your emails. This is no different to the desktop management system on your computer. You can put unread messages into appropriate folders to read at a later time and reducing the size of your inbox. A good filing system also aids in retrieving important emails at a later date.
  • Reply and file: Once you have replied to an email either delete it immediately or file it away in a separate email folder.
  • Use your ‘out of office’ assistant facility: This will help reduce the repeated emails from the same people asking “Did you get my earlier email?” Once people know you are unavailable for a given time period they may not send the email in the first place.
  • Print out hard copies of really important e-mails: There is always a chance that emails can get lost or accidentally deleted. If it is really important, print a hard copy straight away and file it.
  • Be selective in who you respond to: When responding to an email sent to a group, don’t necessarily reply to all the group. This will cut down on the number of potential replies.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Byron, K. (2008). Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email. Academy of Management Review, 33, 309-327.

Future Work Centre (2015). You’ve got mail: Research Report 2015. London: Future Work Centre. Located at: http://www.futureworkcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FWC-Youve-got-mail-research-report.pdf

Giumetti, G.W., Hatfield, A.L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder,
A.N., Muth, E.R., & Kowalski, R. M. (2013).
What a rude email! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18, 297-309.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Hey! Wait, just a minute, Mister Postman: The joy of e-mail. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 373.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Tips on…Managing your e-mails. British Medical Journal Careers, 329, 240.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dennis, F. (2000). How to beat techno-stress. Independent on Sunday (Reality section), May 7, p.22.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Emails with unintended criminal consequences. The Criminal Lawyer, 130, 6-8.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Emails with unintended consequences: New lessons for policy and practice in work, public office and private life. In P. Hills (Ed.). As Others See Us: Selected Essays In Human Communication (pp. 160-182). Dereham: Peter Francis Publishers.

Ng, K. (2016). Turn off automatic email updates to ease stress, psychologists advise. The Independent, January 5. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/turn-off-automatic-email-updates-to-ease-stress-psychologists-advise-a6794826.html

Radicati, S. & Levenstein, J. (2014). Email Statistics Report, 2014-2018. Located at: http://www.radicati.com/?p=10644