by Dr. Joe Flanders

Technology is deeply embedded in our lives and we all know it’s getting worse. Mobile devices are so essential to our day-to-day functioning that it makes more sense to think of them as extensions of our brains rather than work tools or lifestyle accessories. But the backlash is definitely on. Experts, myself included, are increasingly sounding the alarm bells about how smartphones and social media are eroding our attention spans, mental health, relationships, and public discourse.

Tristan Harris, the founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, made the compelling case on 60 Minutes, that tech companies are “hacking” consumers’ brains with their carefully designed software. Adam Alter offers this intriguing TED talk on the impact of tech addiction on our health and well-being. Even Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, is weighing in, recently articulating the negative impact of social media on politics and public debate on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Over 600 schools in the US are now requiring children to leave their phones in a little pouch during day.

The impact of proliferating tech is being felt in organizations. As a CEO friend of mine recently said: “everybody knows that the way we communicate in organizations is broken.” According to McKinsey, “always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity and making us unhappy.” Organizations are beginning to take notice. There is an increasing sensitivity to the costs of Continuous Partial Attention among employees and leaders. Volkswagen, a German car company, made news by stopping its servers from sending out email to some employees after 6 pm, to ensure that their evenings are restorative.

As a mindfulness teacher, I am sensitive to the attentional pull of my tech. But, I can’t afford to go completely off the grid. In addition to being a mindfulness teacher, I am a psychologist, business owner, father and husband. I need to be accessible to the people I support – sometimes on short notice – and my iPhone is the tool that allows me to carry my responsibilities efficiently. The challenge I currently face is that, in a way, the device is too useful. It’s 10 pm and I open the weather app to check the forecast for the next day and, before I know, I’m responding to an email. I finish responding to a text message to my wife and then “hey, why not read the news?” or see if anyone liked my recent facebook post? It’s just too easy to be sucked into the rabbit hole driven by someone else’s agenda. There is no doubt that this “stickiness” is built into the design of the hardware and software. The more time we spend looking at that screen, the more devices and advertising revenue tech companies sell. So how are we supposed to use these brain extensions without surrendering our quality of life?

One approach I’ve tried is to simply turn off or put aside my phone – for the evening, for the day, for the week of vacation etc. I’ve found that it’s a little like my attempts to cut sugar out of my diet. Because I find it difficult to resist those cookies and chocolates in the pantry, I just make sure there aren’t any in the house. The impact of these connection holidays is unmistakable: I feel less distracted, less depleted, and more present with loved ones. But then I need a GPS to get somewhere; or I need to text a friend to make plans; or I want to listen to music; or a colleague needs to reach me urgently; or my kids’ daycare needs to notify me that one of them is sick. All kinds of awkward machinations ensue so that I can do some of these things and still protect some downtime. All of that is ok, but I’d like to find a less disruptive way to unplug and recharge.

My new theory is that connectivity should not be all or nothing; there should be degrees and types of connectivity. I believe tech companies should leverage their intelligence and design to support users’ pursuit of “balanced” rather than constant connectivity.

We recently experimented with this approach at my office work by replacing all internal email with Slack (an instant messenger designed for the workplace). In our culture, Slack messages are short, direct, and sorted by topic. We receive notifications on our phones when a message is addressed to us. So when I’m at work, I’m “always on” Slack, but because we are aware of the costs of distraction, we use this technology to communicate mindfully. This new setup allows me to have valuable exchanges with colleagues without getting sucked into a 45-minute email session, addressing a broad range of issues of varying importance and urgency. I will always have to find time for email, but with Slack in the mix, it’s easier to do email in discrete blocks.

I am definitely on the lookout for other approaches that promote balanced connectivity. This guide to mindful iPhone settings is a nice example. And, believe it or not, I’m actually considering buying an Apple Watch. The most recent version of the device has a cellular antenna built in, which means users can send and receive calls and text messages without needing to have their phone nearby (yes, it is possible to check email but it’s not a great experience on that tiny screen). In this configuration, my wife and I can leave our phones at home on date night and still be accessible to our babysitter. Or I can shut down my phone for an entire weekend and still make plans with friends. An Apple Watch may ultimately help make me more mindful.

Of course, this could all be the fantasy that the marketing brains at Apple have curated for me. It does seem more than a little ironic that I’m fighting off the encroachment of technology in my life by buying more technology. But I am convinced of the importance of balanced connectivity.

What do you think? Do you think balanced connectivity will help your mental health? What strategies do you use? Do you think I should buy and Apple Watch?