Finding Balance in a Connected World

by Elaine Gast Fawcett | Dec 16, 2013
Technology has become part of so many aspects of life, but rather than label it an unavoidable and unruly master, how can we use it sensibly to benefit ourselves, our work, and our world?

Okay, be honest. Have you ever slept with your smartphone at your bedside? Checked your e-mail while waiting in line? Lost hours scanning newsfeeds on your Facebook or Twitter accounts?

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. If you’re like most people, you have a love—hate relationship with technology. You love how accessible and connected we are nowadays, yet you wonder if all this connectivity is actually productive—or healthy.

The Conundrum of Connectedness

William Powers, who spoke to Exponent Philanthropy members at October’s CONNECT conference, asks this same question in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. He talks about the downside of being flooded with new information, or what he calls the “conundrum of connectedness.”

With our noses buried in our laptops or smartphones, Powers says, “we don’t have any gaps, any breaks in which to make sense of it, to do something new or creative, to enjoy it.” What suffers the most from our overload and overconnectedness, he says, are the real, live relationships with the people around us.

Powers may have a point. We’re all busy, all the time. There are e-mails, texts, and voicemails to answer; alerts and comments to manage; links, tags, posts, feeds, filters, usernames, and passwords. And please, not another pop-up! We navigate a dizzying number of tools every day, and it takes work to manage all this connectedness. Plus, it’s hard to break away from the allure of a lighted screen and the promise of something new.

Striking a Balance

Powers is but one of many authors and bloggers who promote periods of unplugging. There is even a movement called that encourages people to shut down their mobile devices for a 24-hour period. You may have heard others refer to it as a “media diet,” an “Internet Sabbath” or a “digital detox”—a time to dial down the noise, and instead relax, reflect, go outside, or
go within.

Promoters of the unplug movement say that being constantly connected has its consequences. It zaps focus and productivity, increases stress, disrupts sleep, stunts creativity, and (as we all know) makes driving dangerous.

But does one 24-hour period of tech-free time make a difference, long term? Do we need to go to an extreme to manage our own behavior?

Powers suggests taking into account “the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart.” The key, he says, is to strike a balance between the two.

Soren Gordhamer, author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected, would perhaps agree. In his book, he writes: “The great challenge of our age is to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own wellbeing, effective in our work, and useful to the world.”

Gordhamer founded San Francisco’s Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which now in its fourth year attracts more than 2,000 people. The live event brings together prominent business and technology leaders (from companies like Zappos, Twitter, Google, and Facebook) with well-known teachers from contemplative communities (Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Roshi Joan Halifax). Together, they talk about the best ways to incorporate technology and mindfulness into our lives and our workplaces.

“What the culture is craving is a sense of ease and reflection,” says Gordhamer in a recent New York Times interview (November 1, 2013), “of not needing to be stimulated or entertained or going after something constantly. Nobody’s kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to others and to nature or else everybody loses.”

Seven Helpful Steps

Here are seven small but meaningful changes you can make to keep your productivity high, your spirits happy, and your technology use in check.
    • Define what balance means to you. Take a few moments to answer these questions in writing: (1) I know I am out of balance when… (e.g., I’m not able to find time to reflect, or go for a run, or cook for myself.)(2) I know I am in balance when… Now compare the two. Notice the times when you feel in balance. How can you spend more time in that space? What kind of support do you need to make that happen?

    • Set personal boundaries. Decide when to access information (e.g., certain days, times, or places), and
      when not to. Balance is about choice, and it’s okay to sometimes say no to all the possibilities that await you online.

    • Batch your tasks. Maybe you only check e-mail at certain times each day. Or you screen your calls,
      responding to voicemails only when you finish your current project. You can alert people to your schedule by using an auto-responder, although creating extra email in others’ inboxes may be more aggravating than having to wait a few hours for you to respond.

    • Write balanced to-do lists. At the beginning of the day, list everything you have to, and want to, get done. This keeps things out of your head, and, ideally, will help you organize your day. Include all your work, family, and personal responsibilities, and also include at least two “self-care” items you want to do just for you. At the end of the day, cross off what you got done, and notice your choices—what you made a priority, and what you didn’t. Then adjust your behaviors going forward to bring yourself more into balance.

    • Use technology tools to moderate and manage. There are plenty of tools and apps available to help you manage distraction and even schedule time to relax. Some ideas: Track your computer use via Set up an online Mindfulness Bell, which reminds you to stop what you’re doing and breathe, stretch, get a glass of water, or take a walk. Turn off your e-mail, text, and Facebook alerts. Use Outlook to block 30 minutes of time for yourself. Or set up inbox filters to block or manage nonessential e-mails.

    • In the words of spiritual teacher Ram Dass: Be here now. If you’re at work, work. If you’re with family or friends, be with them. This is just common sense, but usually in an “I know I should, but I never actually do” sort of way. There is lost opportunity in living our lives at only half-attention, and multitasking rarely gets us anywhere faster.

    • Keep your perspective. Ask yourself, When I look back on my life, what will I be most proud of? Or, on a smaller scale, At the end of the year (or quarter or month), what will have made me the most happy? Keep perspective on what you’ll be grateful for in the future, because that will help you make better choices in the present. Will it be an empty inbox, a growing number of Twitter followers, or something very different?

    In the end, finding balance with technology isn’t so much about how connected or disconnected we are. It’s about being intentional in how and when we connect, and why. Remember that, even in this ever- demanding digital world, you have the power to decide—and act on—what’s best for you.
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