We hear a lot about how social media may be corrosive of more intimate forms of community and ways of connecting with others, and everyone I know complains about how much time it takes to keep up with email. Recently, I decided to bring some greater awareness and intentionality to how I use email and social media, and I’ve found some suprising results.
What exactly is “wrong” with electronic communication? I am not one who believes that there is anything inherently wrong with email or social media. But I did started to notice that for me the pressure to keep up with and to quickly respond to emails and media “pings” was increasing my anxiety, making me feel less focused and more distracted, and lowering my productivity about things I care about – such as commiting to my students, my classes, and working on my writing, and when I am not at work, being present with my family.
Some studies have found that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into the flow of our regular work after we break by responding to an email or a ping. Others have found that each time we receive a ping notification we receive a very quick hit of dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, excitement, and stimulation. If this latter is true, then we may literally become like the mice in those studies that repeatedly push a button in the hopes of receiving a reward. By leaving my email open while working on other projects, or by having my phone pinging every few minutes, I was starting to feel like one of those distracted, dopamine-addicted mice.
The first thing I did was to turn off all notifications and “push” notifications on every app that I use, on both my iPhone and my iPad (for my computer I have a PC, so not much to turn off there). I emphasize all. This actually took a while. For one thing, just about every app wants to send you notifications – “choose me,” they scream! “Let me advertise to you,” is their refrain! For another thing, a few things slid past my initial attempts and I had to go back and turn those off or block them. Also, every time I received an email from a listserv that I no longer need, I took the extra minute to unsubscribe from the list rather than just deleting it. That helped to eliminate the constant ping distractions, and has cut down on the number of emails.
But the hardest part has been my efforts to self-impose time management rules around my use of email and social media. Through my practice of meditation, and especially from yoga, I have become much more attuned to the ebb and flow of my energy throughout the day. So I considered the times that I have the most energy to be productive on the things I care most about – for me, these included research and writing, and harnessing energy for creative class preparation. My most product times are in the early mornings, and early to mid-afternoons. My lowest energy periods are late afternoon and at the end of the day. So, I set a rule that I would only check email and social media during those low-productivity times – around 3-4 pm, and after the kids go to bed (but not right before my bed time – screen time interferes with sleep cycles).
So what have been the results? First, I feel generally more relaxed about the pressure to use social media. I find that – just like anyone going through withdrawal – I have email cravings throughout the day. I have an idea that I want to send to someone via email, or I remember an email or a posting that I wanted to respond to, and suddenly my clicker moves automatically to open up email or an app. But, just like my practice with Centering Prayer & Meditation, I pause and allow that urge to pass. Second, despite my fears that I am falling behind on my communication responsibilities I have found (much to my shock!) that I haven’t missed anything terribly pressing, and I am able to quickly respond to emails that need attention, delete the ones that don’t, and move on. It’s a much neater process than when I just leave my email open on my desktop screen.
So what does all of this have to do with spirituality? Well, for one I feel somewhat less distracted and fragmented throughout my day. This alone increases my sense of being present to what I am doing, my mindfulness, and my concentration. I do find that I am using my best energy during the workday to focus on the things that are most important to me. And I am much more likely not to skip over times where I can focus on my practice of Centering Prayer & Meditation, my yoga practice, or time to get in a good workout. All of these are things that I consider to be an essential part of how I cultivate a healthy spirituality and sense of balance.
In this post, I have focused mostly on the time- and anxiety-management components of bringing greater intention and control to my use of email and social media. There’s a deeper level at which I’d like to continue exploring this relatioship between electronic communication and spirituality, which I will explore in Part 2. For now, however, my screen time is up for the late afternoon…