Using the Internet and Electronic Devices Mindfully

Effective work involves a degree of sustained concentration – one minded focus on the task at hand, or as Dr. Marsha Linehan calls it, doing things “one-mindfully.” As a philosopher (Publilious Syrus) once said, “To do two things at once is to do neither.” When we try to divide our attention and cognitive resources among many different tasks, our effectiveness at doing any one of these tasks tends to suffer. The same thing happens in relationships and interactions with other people. If you’re trying to have a conversation with someone while simultaneously checking email, text messages, taking snapshots, and tweeting, the quality and depth of that conversation will inevitably suffer. Unfortunately, the advent of the Internet and mobile electronic devices has pretty much guaranteed that most of us are engaged in a futile attempt to multitask most of the time. We are constantly bombarded with new information, updates on other people’s lives, quotes, reminders, and messages. I never asked for this, but my computer seems to want to notify me every time there is an update in someone’s Facebook status, and whenever I receive a new LinkedIn request. I haven’t done anything with my Facebook page for years, and I have so little time for things like LinkedIn that I actually have someone else keep that updated for me. Even though I don’t do anything when these notifications arise, my mind is still temporarily distracted by the visual image and the text portrayed on my screen. It was even worse when I allowed my email to notify me whenever a new message came in. Somehow, I was operating as if it was critically important for me to be aware of every single email that entered my inbox, almost like I was trying to prevent someone’s death or avoid missing a legitimate email telling me that I’ve just won a billion dollars. In any case, over the past couple of years, I have realized that, if I want to have time for meaningful activities with my loved ones and to get my work done efficiently, I need to use electronics in mindful manner. I have turned off any and all notifications, at least the ones I know how to turn off. I no longer receive notifications of incoming email messages, I turn off the text function on my computer when I’m working, and unless I need it, I keep my Internet browser closed. Even more shockingly, I sometimes turn off my Wi-Fi. I decided to schedule 1 to 2 blocks of time per day to respond to email. During any other time, I do not check my email. Even more importantly, I normally save all of my emails in drafts and generally only send them out once per day. This is because I noticed that, the more frequently I email, the more frequently I get emails. Another strategy, if you regularly read, is to read the newspaper or an actual physical book, rather than to do all of your reading on electronic devices. I noticed, for example, that when I got my iPad, that although I enjoyed reading books on the iPad, it became far too easy to quickly check email, text someone, or click on the various hyperlinks within the books that I was reading. Consider putting the device aside and sitting outside in the  sunshine with a good old-fashioned book or newspaper. You might feel the urge to go and get your device, check your email, and so on, but the more that you practice having periods of time when you are disconnected, the easier it will be. Then, when you want to be connected, dive into that activity mindfully. Text mindfully, email mindfully, and do social networking mindfully. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.