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The Case for a Digital Diet: Setting Boundaries With Technology

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Advancements in technology have given us the amazing ability to carry around a window into the universe in the palm of our hands. With a never-ending stream of information, connection and stimulation, it can feel impossible to resist the cognitive and emotional pull to gather up and receive more.

We know the human brain is hardwired to crave new, novel information; to desire insight about what other people are doing and wonder where we might be missing out. Now it seems we have lost our ability to be still and let our minds rest.

The haunting knowing that each moment we aren’t clearing tasks from our email inbox, the jam of information swells to the point we can begin to physically feel as if we might suffocate. Our non-stop checking, swiping, and scrolling have hijacked our nervous system to be constantly on alert, as our ability to relax and unwind atrophies.

We race in our cars, rush through our meals, and too often fail to connect with the people who are right in front of us. 

This problem is so obvious it feels silly to bring it up again. But I can’t help but wonder how far the distraction problem will go before we actually do something different. 

Pockets of people who find themselves suffering have begun to retreat, setting up digital detoxes to eliminate the noise for a period of rest. And once stimulation addiction begins to loosen its grasp, these individuals finally experience the relief of coming back home to their bodies and their right minds. But re-entry is necessary for most, and without clear boundaries and sustainable new habits we go right back to the chaos we tried to leave behind.

The only way we will ever create a better relationship with technology where we use it for our greatest purpose rather than being frazzled and fried by its all-consuming power is to create systems within our organizations, families and communities that give us the guidelines, accountability and support we need to truly adapt for good.

Neuroscience research shows us that the brain is radically adaptable when given the right type, amount and frequency of training or stimulation plus adequate recovery time to recharge and repair. If we look at how our brains are wired and what they really crave, we see a framework for unwinding our tech addictions and over-usage injuries to create a procedure manual for living a healthier, happier and more productive life.

If we think of technology as being one of our valuable resources for survival similar to glucose for energy we receive through our food, consider that every time we process more information, connection or stimulation through our digital devices, we need to manage it with a series of biological processes in the brain and body. 

When we eat food, we release enzymes and hormones like insulin to break down nutrients and get the energy where we can use it immediately for fuel or save it for future needs. We know the problems of eating too much or consuming the wrong balance of nutrients. Take in more than we need, and we store it as fat, which is helpful if we run out of food but toxic if we carry it around too long.

Eat too many foods that are unhealthy, like empty calories or the wrong types of fat for example, or fail to get the nutrients you really need to thrive, and the brain and body become damaged leading to all sorts of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and more. 

Now, consider your technology consumption. Every time you place a demand on your brain to think, plan, judge, react or respond, it requires energy, and elements like free radicals are released as a result. These metabolic side effects are harmless in small doses, and when we rest and recover we clear them from the system. When we place too many demands on our energy, not only do toxic byproducts start to accumulate leading to chronic inflammation and internal wear and tear, stress hormones are released to help us bridge the energy gap.

As demands continue to increase faster than our capacity, the gap — or stress load — increases, and stress hormones that initially helped us in the short term start to turn against us. 

It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting technology is bad or that we should eliminate it, just like I would never say that about food. It is an essential part of our survival (although some might argue it’s not absolutely essential, most of us consider it to be a necessity for connections to both work and family).

However, using and abusing our resources is never a good thing. And if we don’t start to create and implement guidelines and standards of consumption, I fear we will continue to stay caught up in the vicious chronic stress cycle that is at the core of our mental and emotional health crisis.

Related: How to Befriend the Stress in Our Lives

I believe organizations, families and communities hold the keys to creating a better relationship with technology, and helping us to take control of our own minds once again. So now the question is how?

As we enter into a time of critical and strategic thinking about how to facilitate change, I would like to ask you a few questions to consider and provide feedback. And thank you in advance for helping me explore this very important topic to see how we might be able to work together to create positive change.

Question #1 — Do you think there is an optimal amount of time we should spend using technology each day?

Question #2 — Should it be a total amount, or is it more important the amounts we consume in each setting? Perhaps something more like a meal plan where you consume a certain amount, give insulin an adequate time to do its job, and then consume again as needed within reason 

Question #3 — Should we pay attention to the composition of what is being consumed, like a balanced diet where we get just the right amounts of what we need?

Question #4 — Is it appropriate to think we (leaders in the workplace or consultants trying to advise on best practices) could mandate recharge time where people are required to do the activities that renew their energy and repair the wear and tear damage of normal everyday use? 

Question #5 — Could we actually create systems and processes at work that mimic the ideal performance pulse, rhythm or beat that enables us as humans to perform at the highest levels for shorter periods of time, and recharge adequately rather than flatlining our way through a chronically stimulating and stressful life?

There are no easy answers to our stress epidemic, and everyone’s relationship with stress is unique. For highly sensitive people or those with stress sensitivity, technology may provide even greater challenges. Research has shown that people with a genetic predisposition towards sensory sensitivity will process stimulation much more deeply in the brain stem and body, triggering greater amounts of stress hormone release, inflammation and anxiety. (To check your stress sensitivity level, you can take a free assessment here.)

Related: Stress, Anxiety and Panic Disorder: What’s the Difference and What Can I Do About It?

Sensitive or not, we all have a limited capacity to cope with stress and stimulation, and many people are experiencing challenges with being always on, constantly connected. From driving and texting to feeling tired and wired and unable to sleep at night, it’s clear we need to create a new way of managing the technology we consume — or that consumes us — each day.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions, tips and techniques for managing technology effectively, and I hope that together we can create some best practices to share with our overly-connected, disconnected world.

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