No one opens and closes a newspaper or a book 10 times in an hour. There is a reason we feel more exhausted mentally and can’t find the energy to stay on track with our goals.
I was at work a shift as an on-call Physical Therapist when inspiration struck. I stopped at the nurses’ station to grab a marker, so I could write how to get a patient out of bed safely (i.e., how much help they would need). While digging through a drawer, another therapist walked up to ask about something for a particular patient. Without skipping a beat, the nurse next to him grabbed a urine collection cup, shoved it into his hand, and said she couldn’t take care of that or anything else because she was overwhelmed. Then she pulled out her phone and started scrolling through ‘the gram.’ While multiple parts of this interaction were frustrating for my co-worker (and I felt for him as he struggled to maintain his composure), I was struck by the nurse’s comment.
We all know what it is like to be overwhelmed at work and home but does scrolling through our phones decrease our mental overwhelm? And like any good Wellness and Healthcare professional who is invested in reducing overwhelm and promoting true wellness, I started researching. #hardcorenerd
I don’t expect to change the nurse at work. I don’t believe that educating someone about health and wellness works. In the book, Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, he notes that educating someone to change is a common mistake, especially by professionals. It is a mistake I made when I was right out of school. The assumption is that something like this will happen if we give someone the correct information. “Oh my gosh. Do you mean I need to stop eating these highly processed foods that taste AMAZING and eat stuff like raw brussel spouts to lose weight? Gosh, well-meaning healthcare worker. You have completely changed my life because I had NO idea.”
There is a difference when someone desires to change, and you give them the information they want to facilitate that change vs. just educating the piss out of them. However, I think that there are many working moms and women out there (maybe even a few guys) who would like to decrease their sense of general overwhelm with their day-to-day lives.
Your Brain and Your Smartphone
There is a lot of research being conducted regarding our phone use, and truthfully, they have not been around long enough for us to know all the impact they have had and will have. I am a part of a generation that remembers life before the internet. A youth that was made up of compilation cassette tapes that started 3 seconds into a song off of the radio. A big shout out to those of us who remember calling in and requesting a song dedicated to a particular human in our lives.
Now, if I want to hear that Savage Garden song where all I can remember is “like a chicka cherry cola,” and then the chorus, I can just ask my phone to play it for me. Our smartphones have enabled and encouraged constant connection to all information and entertainment. However, these devices have immense potential to improve welfare because now we can all watch cat videos any time we want. However, all this easy access to endless, often low-quality information is overwhelming our brains. Just as too much sunlight makes it hard to see, too much information makes it hard to think.
Smartphone owners interact with their phones an average of 85 times a day, including right after waking up, just before going to sleep, and even in the middle of the night. Now being a naturally curious person, I downloaded an app to tell me all the nitty-gritty about my cell phone use so I could compare it to this statistic. As it turns out, I am worse than the average. Over the past week, I have unlocked my phone 50-120 times a day.
I generally have a reason for unlocking my phone to obtain or relate information. IT IS QUESTIONABLE whether I do what I intended to do once I open it because it is SO easy to get sucked into a newly posted dance video by a K-pop band or whatever you find fun to watch. Seeking information comes naturally to us. Information was not so plentiful in the past. The problem is that we get distracted on our way to information, because our brains are tuned to help us catch that a tiger is sneaking up on us. The trouble is that it is no longer a tiger and instead just an ad meant to draw us in farther.
Smartphones also give us little hits of pleasure which validates our distraction. Maybe there was an email that you were waiting for or you got a like on your most recent post. All these little bursts of pleasure can mask that pesky anxiety as they scatter our attention, preventing us from focusing on any one thing for too long.
The problem with using your smartphone as a way to unplug is that it doesn’t work as you are instead bombarding your brain with random information. It is like saying you are thirsty for water and instead of pouring a glass for yourself, you walk out to the corner and have a fireman open the hydrant on your face. Sure, that water hitting your face and knocking you over will distract you from your thirst. Similarly, our phones distract us from our other sources of mental overwhelm, such as the laundry, paying the bills, or organizing your cassette tapes alphabetically.
In research done by Ward, Duke, Gneezy, and Bos noted that phones have such as high priority status in our lives that we devote mental energy to them even when they are off and sitting in our pockets. The mere presence of these devices reduces your ability to think and make decisions. Especially the more time you spend on them day in and day out because the more time you spend on them the more dependent you are on them.
The best way to decrease the mental space your phone is taking up in your life is to leave it in a different room regardless of how dependent you are or not. The old adage ‘out of sight out of mind holds true. This is especially important when we are with our family and friends.
“Of all the things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”Epicurus
Drive Mental Overwhelm Away with Real-World Connections
I have a finite amount of money in my bank account, and similarly, I have a limited amount of time each day and each week. Imagine this. Luke Skywalker is flying down that gully to fire a blast into the random hole that destroys the whole DeathStar. Yet as he is flying and attempting to focus, he hears a notification from Instagram and then Pinterest. Then another one from his email. His mind is flooded with thoughts. “Was that Leah liking my reel of when I was on Dagobah training with Yoda? I wonder how many likes that has gotten so far?” And then Luke was blown up because there was no way he could focus on flying, evading the enemy, and shooting when his phone was in his pocket.
In this example, Luke used up much of his mental energy on things that didn’t matter, and now he is dead, and George Lucas is poor. Those notifications also cost the Resistance the DeathStar. Likewise, if I use up most of my mental focus on checking my Google newsfeed or Facebook feed, I will sap up my ability to focus on meaningful tasks. I have goals for this year, and none are about getting on Facebook more. Allowing my time, especially at night with my family, to be sucked away by my phone will erode some of the goals I have set for myself. If you say your relationships with your friends and family are the most important things, try to see if you can spend the same amount of time on your social media as you do engaged with your family. Put away distractions when you are together.
Your focus is your reality. Yoda
No one makes it to the Olympics without significant focus on steady improvement. Where we spend our focus is where we will see improvements in our lives as well. We are daily in a fight between spending time on what is important and the 30-year-old in silicon valley that is getting paid good money to keep you on your social media by programing how to get you to click, scroll and waste hours of your day. Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly, and it can shrink; use it well, and it will grow.
Adopt a Screen Life Balance
Before SARS-CoV-2, the average adult spent four hours a day on their phone. Four hours a day is 60 workdays a year. And that is just our phones. The lack of screen life balance is hurting who you know you want to be. I have been in several houses where random additions were put on the house throughout its lifetime. The house always feels scattered and like a 5 year old was put in charge of where to install windows.
At one point in my life, I was like those houses. I added on what sounded good at the time. I didn’t think about what I wanted my life to look like overall in the end. I didn’t think about mindfully managing time, so I could build the house I wanted. After almost getting divorced, I have been much more intentional with my time. I try to scan out to the blueprint of my life several times a week to help me understand my choices day to day reflect how I want to build my life. I am nowhere near perfect. I get a message daily about how much time I have spent on my phone and where I have spent it. Time is finite and I need to use it to build instead of watch cat videos. Knowing what I got distracted with yesterday helps me to plan on how I will make tomorrow better and use this device in my hand with intension so I can meet my goals and build the house I planned.
Friendships decrease our stress levels. Constant access to smartphones increases it. Download a digital wellness app or use one preinstalled on your phone. Pick an app or two and set time limits on it. Call a friend, talk to your neighbor, or plan a date night when the time limit has been reached. If you struggle with overwhelm and anxiety, call a mental health provider and make an appointment. They have been overwhelmingly helpful in my life.