Five Strategies for Taking Control of Your Digital Life

“When you’re not conscious of your behavior, you’re just reacting.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Which technique improves your chances of achieving a goal by 42%
  • How many times per day the average smartphone user unlocks their phone
  • How better email habits can improve your daily productivity by 23%

Amy Blankson is a member of the UN Global Happiness Council, the bestselling author of The Future of Happiness, and the only person to receive a Point of Light from two sitting US Presidents. Srinivas Rao recently hosted her on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast to discuss how to limit distractions, stay grounded, and use technology to make you happier and more productive.

Srini: What prompted your interest in the future of happiness?

Amy: In recent years, [I kept being asked], “How do I deal with feeling overwhelmed by digital devices, and the expectations from employers and friends about communication?” Innovation has come flooding into our lives, but our happiness hasn’t been able to keep pace. [So] I started to dig into the research on technology and what it’s doing to our minds and our happiness levels.

Srini: Do you mind giving an overview of the five key strategies and how they apply in our lives?

Amy: I’d be happy to. Strategy number one is focus on staying grounded. “How do you channel your energy with intention?” Knowing how incredibly distracted we are by our devices, what can we do about it?

One of the most shocking statistics that I uncovered in my research was that the average smartphone user picks up their phone and unlocks it 150 times a day. Now, if you conservatively estimate that each time you check something it takes approximately one minute, that’s two and a half hours of your day. Imagine what that does to our productivity. If you multiply that times the number of hours in the year, you find that 38 days each year are spent [checking our phones]. That’s major, right? That one-twelfth of our life is completely different than it was 10 years ago. We’ve really got to think about, “Okay, I know technology and distractions will always be there, so what am I going to do about it?”

I focus on helping people to ground themselves with intention by plugging into what I call “the third prong.” If you plug [something] into the wall and it doesn’t have that third prong on it, it’s easy for the energy to not be channeled properly, and for you to get shocked. The idea is to use this third prong.

The third prong is made up of your personal values and beliefs about the world. Do you value quality time? Do you value productivity? Do you value having the latest, greatest tools to accomplish your job? Do you value having downtime in your life? However you create that set of values in your life, that should be what determines and helps you identify your intention about technology.

Srini: To think that you could get back 38 days of your life just by leaving your phone out of the room. That’s shocking. That’s a month-long vacation.

Amy: It’s crazy, right? The other crazy stat that I uncovered was that the National Center for Biotechnology Information recently reported that the human attention span has dropped below that of a goldfish. It’s now only eight seconds.

Srini: I remember reading that, and I have one comment on this. I went on a date last week, and I turned my phone off for the entire date. The quality of the interaction was drastically different from the ones I’ve had before it. I was like, “Wow, I should always do this. I’m a much more charismatic person when I don’t have my phone on.”

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Amy: That’s a great story. At the very least, keep it out of sight. We find that the mere presence of a cell phone in your line of sight impedes communication, because you’re expecting that something might come through. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs, [but] trained to hear a beep.

Strategy number two is all about knowing thyself. It’s a phrase that comes from the Temple of Apollo. Knowing who you are is the most important thing, because it shapes all of your choices in life. If you think about every little choice you make throughout your day, it’s probably about 200 micro-decisions.

Do I wake up when my alarm first goes off, or do I snooze? Do I have coffee, or do I not? Do I take my usual route to work, or should I take the scenic route? All of these little choices have major, cumulative impacts on the rest of our day. The more you know about who you are, you’re raising your consciousness about your behavior so that you can then make better choices. When you’re not conscious of your behavior, you’re just reacting.

My goal is to use technology to help us be proactive about our choices. Some of the really cool ways that we can learn to do this is by using some technology apps that help you gain that awareness. One of my favorite apps is called Unplugged, and the Unplugged app will track your phone usage. It’ll tell you how many times you opened and closed your phone, it’ll tell you how long you spent on each app, and whether or not that that was a pattern or just a one-time [thing].

What can emerge from that data is the ability to see what you’re spending your time on. Then you can use that to add good tech and take away negative tech. Even though technology’s still in your life, it’s how you’re using it that’s really important.

Srini: One of the things that really struck me was how much you talked about wearables.

Amy: I became addicted to using wearables in my life because they can provide really valuable information. I tried the Spire stone, [which] studies your breathing to tell you whether you’re feeling tense or calm or focused or anxious. It can tell how you’re feeling [from] your breath patterns.

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I was testing it out for about a week when I learned that my kids were having a pool party at home with my husband. My younger daughter jumped into the pool on top of my older daughter, and broke her neck.

By the time I got home from being out of town, we knew that she was going to be okay, but she still had a tiny bone broken off in her neck. On Monday morning I took her to the doctor to get fitted for a neck brace. I was keeping it together pretty well, [but] we’re walking out of the hospital, and all of a sudden my Spire stone starts vibrating. Throughout this whole process it hadn’t vibrated, but right then it vibrated and it said, “You’re feeling tense.” I paused and I was like, “Really? Now of all times?”

[But] I realized that I was actually tense about how other people were going to think about me as a mom of a child with a broken neck, because that was the first time someone saw me and my daughter in public with her neck brace on. I’m ashamed to say that, but it struck me. It enabled me to raise my awareness in about 30 seconds, and to completely switch my perspective to say, “Hey, I’m feeling a little anxious about this, but I need to be there for my daughter right now, so let me focus on that.”

I might’ve continued that behavior for a week or more before realizing I was even feeling that. That was one of the first times I really felt like a wearable was super valuable to my awareness and identity, and helped me make better choices in 30 seconds flat.

Srini: That makes me want to buy one. I could probably figure out the times of days when I’m going to be the most productive and focused and calm.

Amy: Absolutely. Just don’t wear a wearable for the rest of your life. That would be an imposition on who you are. Just use it for a short-term investment in becoming a better version of yourself, whether it’s a posture trainer, or something that helps you breathe better, or that helps you drink more water.

Srini: Okay. Let’s get into the other three [strategies]: training your brain, creating a habitat for happiness, and conscious innovation.

Amy: Strategy number three is training your brain. This strategy is all about using technology to help us [progress] toward a happier, smarter mind. I centered this strategy around tech and apps that help you infuse positive behaviors in your life.

We’re trying to train your brain using positive notifications, not as distractions but as reminders to get to somewhere we want to be. We know that simply writing down goals increases the likelihood that you will accomplish them by 42%. Having an app increases that percentage even more. It’s that accountability check.

“When you’re not conscious of your behavior, you’re just reacting.”

Srini: What about the idea of creating a habitat for happiness?

Amy: This comes out of my work with Habitat for Humanity. I had the opportunity to speak with CEO Jonathan Reckford a few years ago, and Jonathan shared with me that building a community is not just [about] building a house. It’s [about] creating sweat equity to create an environment that sets you up for success.

You have to think about different spaces around us. You’ve got spaces we learn in, spaces we work in, spaces we live in. Each of these spaces has opportunities for us to use the external environment to influence our happiness levels. The external environment is only responsible for about 10% of our happiness, [but] let’s not forget that 10%. It does impact our happiness levels. The book walks through some strategies to set up the environment to help people be happier.

One of my favorite concepts is de-cluttering your house of digital devices, or what I call the digital graveyard. So much technology has cluttered our lives that our homes are becoming these reservoirs of wires and cords that we don’t know what to do with. They’re blocking us from having space to bring in new technologies.

Srini: You talk about even digital environments, like setting up your computer. I know you did a lot of research around checking email and social media, and the impact on our mental health. I’d love to hear what your research revealed about those.

Amy: Having digital clutter, or any sort of clutter in your environment, makes you less productive and less happy over time. There are always those outliers who really thrive in a messy environment, like Steve Jobs, [but] I work so much better when I have things organized. I can access them, I feel more inspired—it generates greater feelings of happiness.

Srini: I know you [have] some statistics [about] checking email and social media in terms of how to reduce anxiety and increase happiness. Could you share those?

Amy: If you check your email [only] three times a day, that increases your productivity levels by 23%.

[It’s good to] create systems to eliminate distractions in your life. Specifically, I encourage people to turn off notifications that are from non-humans. We have a lot of those apps and notifications coming through on our computer and on our phones, so that we can’t find that place of deep focus to continue our work.

The same thing happens with email. We focus a lot on getting rid of spam messages or reading through newsletters and social media feeds, but the key is that we’re trying to get down to the most important work. Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Focus about this idea of attention residue, that we are losing this attention residue everywhere because we’re so scattered. What we’re trying to do is regain that attention and consolidate it so that we can be more effective.

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Srini: The fifth strategy is conscious innovation.

Amy: Conscious innovation is the global topic. It’s taking this conversation about the future of happiness out of your personal life and starting to think about how we, as humans, can interact on a grander scale to think about happiness.

In psychology, we talk about the idea of mirror neurons that shape our ability to interact emotionally with other people in a room, and that a positive or negative emotion like smiling or sighing can spread through a room in about two minutes. If we know that emotions can spread like that, how can happiness spread, and what is our role in that? I challenge people to think about how they can use their own power to shape the future.

There’s an individual named Doc Hendley, who used to be a bartender [and] wanted to make a difference in the world. He wound up creating a different way to create clean water based on the things he had learned from bartending. He’s not a technology expert, he wasn’t even an inventor, he had no business background, and yet here he was able to use something that was right there in his sphere to make a huge difference for people all over the world who needed water.

Or there’s a young girl named Allie, a junior in high school, who took an online course on [using] 3D printing to create prosthetic hands for children in need. She got the whole class involved. They wound up doing a summer program where they printed 12 hands for children all over the world, and the knowledge that was created there was able to be replicated to help so many other kids [as well]. [She] didn’t have any expertise or knowledge prior to that. I think that there’s ways that each of us can make an impact.

When we think about where we want to be 10, 20 years from now, do we want a society where technology divides us, or do we want a society where people use technology to connect for higher purposes? They’re collaborating, they’re serving as catalysts, they’re engaging with their civic government. This, for me, is the sweet spot where technology offers so much potential, and the only way that we can tap into that potential is by activating each one of us to work within our own sphere, to think about what we can do, how we can help others, and how we [can] consciously create that future together.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.