Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a coach, TEDx and public speaker, and author of Homo Distractus. She is the founder of Consciously Digital,
Below is the full text of her TEDx Talk titled “Could you live without a smartphone?” at TEDxWandsworth conference.
This sculpture by Sophie Ryder in the UK seat of Salisbury had to be moved, because people busy texting on their mobile phones kept bumping their heads into it.
Does it happen to you to text, phone, check your Facebook timeline or maybe catch a Pokémon while you’re walking? And who does that?
How many of these times do you actually have to go on line?
Well, we check our devices, about 221 times per day according to Tecmark, or about every 4.3 minutes of the time we don’t sleep.
What is going on?
Well, we live in the economy that is based on distraction. The more Internet pages you browse through, the more advertising an Internet company can show you, and so the more money they make.
Their success metrics are based around how much time you spent using their app, or you were on their website, not on how productive or focused you are.
Two years ago, around the same time of the year, I decided to give up my smartphone, and replace it with a very basic no Internet phone.
At the time, I was working in a senior position in digital marketing industry, which means that I was connected pretty much 24/7.
I slept with my phone, and I kept checking it all the time, and even felt it vibrating in my pockets when I didn’t have any pockets.
Giving up my smartphone was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. And today, I want to share with you my key learnings from the journey of taking back control over my time and my life.
But, before we do that, I want to give you a little challenge.
Given that we check our devices about every 4.3 minutes, this means that you will feel an urge to check your device three or four times during my talk.
So, I want to challenge you to resist this urge and count how many times you will succeed in doing that.
So, Lesson No. 1: You are more addicted to your device than you think.
But you’re also much more resourceful.
Now, why can’t we go for 5 minutes without our devices?
A U.S. psychologist, David Greenfield, says the Internet is like a slot machine: you never know what you’re going to find inside. And this variability of the reward releases dopamine, the neurohormone of pleasure and anticipation of the reward.
The problem with dopamine is that excessive stimulation of your brain that is caused by dopamine creates addiction.
This is exactly how drugs work. They first make you feel excited, but then you have to go back and take a new dose, to have the same feeling.
So devices use the same principles. You never know what you’re going to expect in your mailbox or on social media, right?
One day you get a “Like” and then the next day 50 “Likes.” Bam! Dopamine releases. You feel great!
But then the excitement fades pretty quickly, and you need to go back to your device to feel good again.
Technology is purposefully designed the way to make you use it over and over again.
We also feel dependent on our gadgets, because we have outsourced too many important functions to them.
Has it happened to you to go to Google Maps or any other kind of online maps, and look up your way even though you kind of knew how to get there? This is exactly what I mean, we easily get into the habit of not trusting ourselves.
Well, you know what? I discovered it’s not actually very easy to get lost in London. There are maps all around. And all I needed to do was to look up my way once before leaving the house, and then I could always ask people in the streets.
I realize that I have outsourced to technology too many things that were important to me, that made me human, like my sense of orientation and direction, my memories of spaces and certain events, and it felt great to gain them back.
All I wanted, when I was giving up my smartphone, was to have a little bit more clarity in my brain and not to feel so overwhelmed.
And what I unexpectedly gained was a feeling that I will find my way no matter what both physically and metaphorically. And, of course, a great chat up line to make new connections. “Sorry, I don’t have a smartphone, could you please help?”
Lesson No. 2. If you want to change your digital habits, do not rely on your willpower.
Instead, create structures around you to support you in that.
Our brain is very lazy. So when we repeat a certain action over and over again, it starts organizing our brain cells, neurons, into particular chains so that it is easier to pass the information through those chains.
This makes our behavior automatic and unconscious. And this is exactly what notifications do. They prompt you to come back to your device over and over and over again, up until your behavior becomes automatic and unconscious.
According to Kahuna report, 87% of Android users and 48% of iOS users opt in for receiving app notifications on their devices. Or, in other words, all these people allow their devices to decide how they will behave.
Once these chains are formed, it takes quite a long time and effort to undo them, and relying on your willpower doesn’t help.
I certainly learned it twice. For the first time, when it took me five months from the decision of giving up my smartphone to actually doing it. And for the second time, when after about a year of not owning any smartphone I got one back, which I thought, I would only use as a spare device, in case my laptop breaks down and I need to talk to clients over Skype.
And in no time, I found myself using it all the time. The neural path was still there.
Now, it felt incredibly embarrassing, because at the time I was already conducting digital detox trainings. I obviously was not walking my talk, but it also gave me great insights into the real challenges that people who do not want to give up their devices altogether face.
So I developed four principles that helped me take back control over my time and my life, and I want to share those principles with you.
These are: time management, space management, relationship management, and self-management. These principles help reestablish the boundaries that technology removes between our work and private lives, or between our public and private lives.
So, let’s talk about them.
We need to give up on the idea that we have to be connected or accessible 24/7. Now, of course, developers will try to convince you that everything is very important. The truth is very few things are.
Remember what we said before. It is your attention that is a real scarcity in the information age. It is a little bit like with food. You can have all the food you may want to have in your fridge, but this does not mean that you need to eat it all, all the time.
So my top tip is to disable all notifications on your devices, use delayed email function to avoid being distracted by emails, and use blocking apps to make sure that you’re accessing certain websites only at a certain time and not being distracted by them at other times.
This way, you are in charge of where you’re getting information, as opposed to being dictated by technology.
And to give an example, Eric Schmidt, who is Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the Google’s company, switches off both of his smartphones on most evenings during dinner time. And, believe me, he’s a much busier guy than most of us.
Also, do not multitask online. So, do not switch between different tabs or between different devices.
A Stanford experiment proves that the more we multitask, the worse we become at it, we unlearn our brain to do that.
Well, you will still likely get distracted, but you can plan for it. So incorporate five minutes of distraction time every now and then in your work routine, but only after you’re done with a chunk of work and as a reward only.
Again, this way, you are taking back control over your time.
Space management is all about where you want to have connection, and where you want to have silence.
Have you ever thought why the most expensive areas in the city are usually the quietest ones?
Why is it that, in airport business lounges, there is hardly any sound or music or advertising?
Why is silence valued so highly? Well, this is because it’s only in silence that our brain gets an opportunity to process information that we have been feeding into it.
We cannot take good conscious decisions or be creative if we are overwhelmed. And we are always overwhelmed when we go online, because our brain is not good at multitasking.
So, do not bring the devices into the areas where you process information, where you have rest. This includes your bedroom, your bathroom, and your dining table.
Also, if you keep your phone next to your bed, this puts your brain into the state of alarm as shown by research by Harvard Medical School. And, of course, you will feel tempted to check it first thing in the morning.
Now it’s like keeping a chocolate brownie next to your bed; of course you will eat it. So, get an alarm clock.
Your device is just a tool. It is not part of you. You can carry around your saw or your hammer, you don’t take them to the bedroom – hopefully!
As any tool, your devices need their own places. For example, I try not to carry around my devices, and also remove them out of sight when I’m not using them. This way I feel less tempted to check them.
When I was still working for an advertising agency, we had a client who kept sending us hundreds and hundreds of emails daily to make sure that we’re on the track of delivering the project.
In fact, it was his emails that kept us away from doing the work, because all we were doing was just reading and answering them.
So, we have built a dashboard that allowed us to show to the client the progress we’re making in real time without any involvement. It took us about an hour to do so, and, in a week’s time, the email rate dropped so considerably that we were finally able to get the work done.
We still don’t have a digital etiquette as to how people can best contact you, so you can get an equally important message via WhatsApp, Skype, email, you name it.
The moral is you need to heavily manage people’s expectations as to how they can contact you. For example, before I meet somebody, I ask them to send me a text message if anything changes. Because I don’t have Internet on my phone. And it works really well.
What do you do, however, if you work for a company that expects you to be connected and on top of everything for 24/7?
Well, first things first, stop contributing to this mess by cc’ing everyone. If you want to receive fewer emails, send fewer emails.
Second, you might want to mention a few statistics to your colleagues and bosses. For example, a study by Harvard Business School that said that consultants, knowledge workers, who had predictable time off throughout the week performed much better and were much more productive than those who didn’t.
Or, you can quote an example of a few companies. For example, one of the UK’s leading multinationals recently introduced a two-hour-per-week email ban for all senior management in the interest of productivity.
Or a current German car manufacturer does not allow sending or receiving emails 30 minutes after the employee’s shift has ended.
If this doesn’t help, then you can try moving to a different country, like France and Brazil where they have now the so-called rights to disconnect laws, where that, among other things, regulate whether the person has the right not to read work-related emails after the working hours.
Self-management is the last cornerstone of changing your digital behavior, and the most tricky part. Because it does not help, it doesn’t work, if you prohibit yourself from going online. Because your brain still needs the excitement of dopamine.
So, instead, you need to be thinking about where you will take this dopamine from? What will you do with all this free time that all of a sudden you will have available?
And this is where I want to share with you my last key learning, and why I think I failed for so long to give up my smartphone. I just did not want to deal with my own problems.
When you don’t have anything that distracts you, then you will have to start dealing with the stuff you have been running away from.
We often go online not because we need to, but because we have some internal trigger to do that. Maybe we want to feel Important, or maybe we are depressed.
In fact, a study by Missouri University of Science and Technology says exactly that, that people who spent a lot of time online tend to be depressed.
So, the next time you feel an urge to check your device, ask yourself: What is really triggering me to do that?
Is there something I’m trying to avoid feeling or thinking about?
Once you get a life, and a natural source of dopamine, you won’t need anything to distract yourselves from yourselves.