Before sitting down to watch television, my great great grandmother would always wear her best dress, do her hair, and put her make up on. When asked about the reasons of this peculiar behaviour, she would reply: “But what if THEY (meaning people in the TV set) are watching me as well?”
Fast forward 70 years, and it turns out my great great grandma was not that wrong.
An active user of any modern technology is always available. You have the benefit of accessing any information, wherever and whenever you want it, but at the same time you become always accessible as well. Anyone can call or text you at any given moment in time. Just like my great grandmother felt herself permanently exposed in front of the ubiquitous eye of a TV set, so do we find it increasingly difficult to put the boundaries up between our online and offline lives, and keep control of our agenda.
An increasing sense of overwhelm, fatigue and a lack of control over my life were the main reasons that got me to seriously consider digital detox. I’ve spent 12+ years in senior digital marketing positions with global internet brands, which means I was connected pretty much all the time, I was not sleeping. I sometimes slept with my phone as well. Clients loved to be connected all the time, and were expecting me to do that, too. Remarkable is the fact that my responses at 3am on weekends to the client requests did not seem to help much, as clients always had another five questions to ask, and so we were constantly looped in digital communication without making much progress. You know the feeling when you spend the whole day replying to emails, and at the end of the day you walk out of the office with the question – what exactly have I done today? This was my story. I was stressed, the client was stressed, the team was exhausted, and emails just kept arriving.
Giving up my smartphone
I somehow made it until the end of my last contract, and when I was done, I decided I wanted to have some headspace to think about what was next, and cutting the time I spend online will help me with that. I switched off all notifications on the phone, took the Facebook app off and logged out of the email. Little did I know of how our brains worked at the time. I lasted about half a day, when I discovered myself logging into Facebook through an internet browser and not the app, and checking manually about 10 times whether a new email has arrived. I didn’t want to do it and I kept doing it.
Long story short, I tried various tricks including blocking apps, but the only thing that seemed to work 100% was when I didn’t have my smartphone with me. So after a few months of trying to make it work I decided to give it up altogether, and exchanged it for a very basic Nokia, that could only receive and send text messages. My smartphone was inherited by my mother, who now reports becoming totally addicted to Facebook and thinks of passing it to my grandmother.
Not having a smartphone has produced unexpected results. In addition to the much-anticipated sense of regaining control over my life and an improved quality of sleep, I suddenly started talking to more people in real life. It didn’t just happen at bus stops when I was trying to figure out when the next bus was due, or trying to find my way around the city. I simply was finding it much easier and more natural to talk to total strangers. Looking back at that, I think this was probably due to how much more attentive I became to the outside world, as well as my brain attempting to occupy itself with something (in this case, conversations) when it was deprived of the screen time. Another unexpected result of giving up my smartphone was the creation of my business, Consciously Digital, that helps people remain productive in an age of digital distraction.
Walking my talk
Giving up my smartphone was the first step, and several weeks ago I decided to go deeper and declutter my home. Being self-employed, I somewhat struggle to put the boundary between work and non-work, especially because most of the marketing for my business is still via the web. Although I got rid of my smartphone, I would still end up every so often working in bed with the laptop on my chest at night. Not too cool for someone who’s running a digital detox training business, you know, and not helping my productivity much either. My will power muscle isn’t well trained, and for me, the only way not to eat any chocolate is not to buy any chocolate. So I took a radical step and got rid of all tech devices at home, either moving them into my office (they’re productivity tools after all, aren’t they?) or selling them.
Boy, this was much harder than the first step. It was ok not to be connected when I was in the street and when something was happening around, but when all of a sudden I was at home taking the well-deserved rest, my brain instantly started reminding me about 100 things I could be doing online. I felt such an urge to immediately make a correction to my blog post whenever I came home after work, that after a few days of moving my laptop to the office I started taking it back home. I consciously had to stop myself from doing that. Taking into account that I tend to get more things done in the office than at home, I understand that my brain is still struggling to accept the artificial boundary I’ve created between my working and non-working time. However, I keep training it every day, and I see my overall awareness and time management skills slowly improving.
What I’ve learned
In these 6 months of digital detoxing, I’ve learned quite a lot about myself and how my brain works.
Firstly, I realised I was spending a lot more time online than I thought I was. This is quite a typical characteristic, and I start my courses by asking people how much time they think they spend online, and then suggesting to take a test or install an app to track how much time they really are connected. It turns out, on average, we underestimate how much time we’re connected by 2 hours.
Secondly, I felt that the impact of being always on had a much bigger influence on me than I had thought. The moment I took back the control of my agenda and claimed my non-screen time, I started feeling much calmer and more in charge of my life. All it took was to switch off notifications and to not rush to respond to every incoming message or call.
Thirdly, I hate to admit it, but I discovered I am much more addicted than I thought I was. Even in my best days, my fingers automatically opened Facebook when I was supposed to be writing a blog. I had to use all the possible online blocking apps, and offline self-management techniques, including mindfulness, to keep myself on track daily. The moment I feel tired, and am not controlling my online behaviour, I can easily slip into the old pattern.
Fourthly, with the success of digital detox, I inevitably started being more aware of my physical state and my food preferences. Taking control over one area of my life made me start doing exercise on a daily basis (something I could never have made myself do for years), and watch more carefully what I’m eating. I also noticed that on the days when I’m overloaded with internet, I tend to ignore my diet and exercise routine, and so try to make a conscious effort to stick to it. Being conscious in what I do online also made me more conscious about what I do in the real world.
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Everyone knows that an email is the worst way to communicate anything, and yet we send tonnes of them on a daily basis. According to Radicati, we get or receive about 121 business-related emails per day, and this number will rise to 140 emails by 2018. Sennheisser calculated that an average office worker gets around 1,700 irrelevant emails per year – whether it’s spam or he isn’t appropriately cc-d.
A few days ago I received an autoresponse from a person I've sent an email to, which started with the letter F, followed by U, C, K, I, N and G and contained an extensive description of why he had set up that email account that he never checks, so that he can F, U, C and K anyone who tries spamming him. Whereas his wording choice is not obvious, his emotions are quite understandable.
Hopefully most of your recipients are not as emotional as the one I encountered, but you still need to implicitly convince them to read your email, as it is competing on their priority list with over a hundred other things. These five tips will help you get the attention of your email recipient if you still prefer to use it rather than the phone (you know it’s least efficient though, don’t you?)
1. Subject line
Before people open your email, they will decide if it’s worth bothering. Three ideas that come across their mind while looking at a new email are whether it is spam, what the person wants, and how long it will take them to deal with it. All this information should be in the subject line. Subject line is THE most important thing you want to spend time thinking about. It should be to the point, precise and engaging.
In my journalistic years, my editor used to say: The best title for your article is a phrase that you’ll tell an unknown person, whose flat you buzz at 3am. You’ve got about 2 seconds until he shuts it in front of you or throws something at you, so make sure you say something that will make him engaged. Here are some fantastic examples of super engaging subject lines.
• “So I’ll pick you up at 7?” (Influitive, marketing software company)
• “There are no deals in this email” (Groupon)
• “Hey” (Barack Obama’s famous email that allowed him to raise considerable funding for his Presidential campaign)
These lines work because of the combination of unexpected things (i.e. Obama + Hey), or Groupon + no deals.
A bad subject line is “I thought you’d like those…” A good subject line is “Snickers on discount – take a look”. Make sense?
2. Timing matters
Although most emails statistically get opened within 6 seconds of receiving them, you want to make sure your email doesn’t stay in the mailbox unread forever. According to Mailchimp, an email marketing automation company, the best time to send an email to ensure the highest open rate is between 2-4pm on Thursday. Tuesday isn’t bad either, whereas Monday and Friday are not recommended (and as you probably are aware, no one reads emails over the weekend).
3. Any email should have a call to action and a clear structure
Email structure consists of a greeting and personalisation, issue/description, call to action/what’s required. Most of the emails aren’t read or are left unreplied because they miss the call to action – the recipient simply doesn’t understand what’s required from him. A call to action means that you are telling the person what and by when is expected of them.
4. It needs to be personalized
Repeating the person’s name a couple of times throughout the email is the simplest thing you can do, but it works really well. “Hey, how are you?” and “Hey Anastasia, how are you?” makes a big difference, doesn’t it? Ensure you are using the correct name of the person – you have no idea how many times I was called in all possible ways apart from my real name, which is not so difficult by the way! When this happens in a work-related email, it undermines your credibility and creates an incredibly unprofessional impression.
If you don’t know how to talk to the person and what to say in an email, you can try CrystalKnows - this app analyses the type of character your recipient belongs to based on his Linkedin profile, and suggests the best words and phrase structure. It is pretty accurate and has a 1-month trial, so enjoy.
5. It has to be short
A dirty little secret – people don’t read emails or web pages, they scan them. So if you are putting a lot of effort into writing a long extensive email, you are wasting your time. Keep it short. It’s a good idea to add keywords and/or mark them somehow, so that it’s easier for the person to scan what you’ve sent.
Another great piece of advice from my journalistic years is to cut the text after you’ve written it. You can cut any texts to any length – just try to make each paragraph twice as short. The shorter it is, the easier it is for you.
Use the most efficient communication channel for your purpose. Is it more efficient to call. Call, don’t be lazy – you are eventually saving your own time that could be used elsewhere.
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“Technology is like a chair – if you sit on it for too many hours, it’s not good for you. You won’t prohibit using chairs just because people sit on them for too long. However, as a chair designer, you need to design your chair better if you want people to be healthier”. Professor Rafael Calvo leans back into his chair as he sips his refreshing drink in an unusually hot London weather.
He has just presented a seminar on Positive Computing in UCL, attracting a group of engineers, psychologists, educational specialists and other people interested in the impact of technology on our mind and well-being. Rafael Calvo is the ARC Future Fellow, Engineering at the University of Sydney, and a co-author of the book called Positive Computing: Technology for wellbeing and human potential. Positive computing is an interdisciplinary field that sits between design, computing, psychology and social sciences and explores how technology can help us be more human, and not more computer-like.
“The main thing that applications and computer programs should do if they want to help people change their behaviour is support their motivation and help create this motivation. Technology is an environment and so it should create an environment”, Calvo says.
This is quite an innovative idea for the tech world, where most app developers are primarily concerned about engagement of the user, and not their motivation. Candy Crush the game is a good example of a game maximizing engagement – it adapts to how much you play it; so if you stop playing it, it gets easier, and if you spend a lot of time playing it, it gets harder. Whereas engagement is important, Calvo says, we should also focus on developing other sides of the human brain, and especially social emotions.
Productivity comes second
Most tech developers today also see humans as efficient and productive machines, which to be fair is not the most typical human aspect. So they build products that encourage the sense of achievement, and sometimes overachievement (like catching up with emails, buying something or tracking via wearables), and help release dopamine that is also known as an anticipation and addiction hormone. Only a few build their products to encourage contentment and affiliation, like expressing gratitude, empathy or praise to others.
Even when websites want to encourage their users to praise each other for something, they often choose speed over psychological benefits (see example of Linkedin vs Yammer from Calvo's presentation).
Nowadays technology doesn’t take into account people’s well-being. When companies choose to make interventions to influence behaviour of their users, they often do so by just redesigning the product to prevent a negative impact, rather than encouraging the positive. For instance, Facebook can offer you automated solutions on how to block a person who is abusing you (i.e. unfriend/block/report them), but it’s not designed to encourage people to be nicer or more supportive of each other.
What Calvo proposes is to build a generation of new apps and games that will promote well-being, social connections, empathy and help us to, even further, develop the qualities that we traditionally consider human.
How to remain sane
At the end of our conversations I ask Calvo about what allows him to keep a healthy digital routine and remain human in the computer age. Here are the four things he finds works really well for him:
1. He keeps separate business and personal email accounts and only subscribes to anything on his personal one, so that he doesn’t get distracted when working.
2. He has specific days for certain types of activities – Monday is the meeting day, Tuesday is the writing day.
3. He uses delayed emailed function, downloading his emails only once an hour. He also does all the admin stuff only in the afternoon and uses mornings productively.
4. He keeps phones and laptops outside of the bedroom, and says that removing the TV from the living room and replacing it with the projector helped a great deal to reduce the time his kids watched TV. The very removal of a physical device helps you become less distracted.
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Anastasia Dedyukhina is a professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.