Sometimes people get the impression from my presentations, book, or this blog that I think that there is no such thing as too much use of video games, social media & technology, so let me set the record straight. I do think that there is such a thing as problem usage. One of the first questions I get when I speak to therapists, educators or parents usually is, “how much time spent playing video games, texting, or using Facebook is too much?” The concern is real and understandable, but the problem is the way the question is framed.
Other than sleep, and maybe meditation, I can’t think of any activity that is good to do for 8 hours straight on a regular basis. Nothing, not gaming, sitting on an airplane, playing hopscotch, calisthenics, drinking alcohol or water, studying, or mowing the lawn, will be without adverse effects if you do it constantly for 8 hours straight. What makes most things problematic is not the quantity of time, but the quality of your life as a result of the usage. If you were to play hopscotch for any length of time such that it lost you your job, ruined your school performance, jeopardized your relationships with loved ones, or made you feel more negatively about yourself, those qualitative concerns are what would make it problematic. That said, another qualitative factor in determining whether using technology has become problematic for you can be its impact on your time management skills.
I strongly suspect that people have had time management challenges for as long as there have been sundials. And we do know from history that each introduction of a new technology is followed by an exponential increase in its use, which in turn creates feelings of overwhelm. And these feelings of being overwhelmed are what necessarily precede our developing the mental, physical and technological skills to manage the new use. The earliest known book indexes showed up about 150 years after the printing press, and were preceded by 50 years of increasing overwhelm as Europe’s book collection grew from approximately 30,000 to over 20 million. (And no doubt, even as knowledge and the arts grew so rapidly, there were members of the population who had little interest in learning to read, and would have criticized time wasted reading that could have been put to better use, like tilling the fields or baking bread.)
So here we are again, with a proliferation of technology and the demonization, confusion, and yes, real problems that come with it. Two years ago the average amount of time adults in the U.S. spent online was 13 hours excluding email, and with the advent of the iPad it has undoubtedly increased from there. Fortunately, people are starting to talk about ways to reflect on the way we use technology, such as Howard Rheingold in his new book, Net Smart. Which is important, because we’ve passed the point where using technology is optional, at least if you want to live and work in the U.S. So here are a few tips I thought I’d pass on that I and people I work with have found helpful in learning to how to manage your time and tech use:
- First, figure out what thing is the most time suck for you, because it varies. For some people it is going on Facebook, for others it’s gaming. Personally, I don’t think I spend more than 30 minutes a week on Facebook, because it isn’t my “thing.” On the other hand, I need to do something about the 2,500 unread emails in my box.
- Next, drill down into that technology and figure out what particular elements are taking up the most time. Saying “I spend hours on Facebook or Google+” is pretty meaningless, because these platforms have such varied functionality. Are you on FB chatting? Reading updates? Playing Farmville? Take a few minutes to reflect on what you do and how much time it tends to consume.
- Consider Chunking. Remember how I said my email was my biggest time suck? When I really feel overwhelmed, I begin setting aside a couple of 30 minute blocks to read carefully and respond thoughtfully to emails.
- If you’re a therapist, I suggest you take a lesson from your voicemail, and begin using an auto-responder. They are pretty universally available through either your webmail settings or your software. I do think we have a responsibility to our patients to let them know that their message has been received, and told that if this is an emergency they should not wait for a reply, but go to the ER or call 911.
- Peter Bregman, a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, makes the excellent suggestion of having two lists for your day. The first one lists the things you need to pay attention to that day. The second one is lists the things you need NOT to pay attention to. Many of us have a really hard time making priorities. We think that everything needs to be attended to, and sure, if you put something on the NOT list, you will miss out on something. It doesn’t feel good or easy to set priorities, because that is the nature of prioritizing.
- To the above lists, I suggest that you apply my own (non-patented) Postit Rule. Quite simply, the Postit Rule is that any list needs to fit legibly on a regular sized Postit, or be shortened. If I cannot print the items on my list legibly on one side of a postit, then more things need to go on the “NOT attending to” list. Experience has proven that if I don’t do this I won’t get everything done anyway, because even though “dither and complain about how busy I am” never shows up on either list, it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.
- For gamers who are having a hard time logging off, I suggest a PostIt that is taped up to the edge of your monitor saying something like “Just win? Maybe now’s a good time to log off.”
- For gamers who are interested in doing some self-reflection, I suggest you do this experiment: Keep a pad and pen near the place you’re playing. Tell yourself (and others if you’re grouped) that you are going to log off the next fail, not as a rage quit, but as an exercise. Then, when you lose, log off and spend 10-15 minutes writing down the thoughts, feelings, and impressions that come up immediately after a fail. Does it feel infuriating to lose? Urgent? Funny? A relief? What thoughts do you catch running through your mind? After you’ve reflected a minute, put it away, but take it out and reread it an hour later and a day later. What do you think of it now?
- You may have noticed that the above strategies don’t depend for the most part on advanced technology, but rather putting tangible reminders in your field of vision during the day.
- That said, there are several apps and sites that may help you get a handle on your time as well:
- If you surf a lot, consider using a news aggregator. One Howard Rheingold recommends is NetVibes, which is very customizeable. I find it a little too overwhelming, and I surf mostly on my iPad rather than a desktop, so I use the App Flipboard. It has a nice intuitive interface and allows me to read and share material very easily from within it. Or you can try Google’s Feedburner or FeedDemon.
- If you haven’t tried Evernote yet, especially on the latest iPhone, you are missing out on another good time-saver for non-confidential sorts of info. Evernote stores your notes, lists, pictures, and webpages so you can access them on any computer. It makes what you save searchable, and best of all IMHO in the latest iPhone you can dictate notes. If you’re a student or work with students, I recommend StudyBlue as well.
These are just some of the things out there that can help you achieve more mindfulness and organization. Because in my opinion the hours counting and addiction labeling is dodging the real issue, how to increase our own mental abilities to become self-reflective and intentional in our use of technology. Notice what you are attending to, increase the space between thinking and doing, and I’ll bet you find yourself a better gamer, blogger, worker, student, or other user of technology.