Do you have a technology addiction? Are you ready to tackle it?
Compulsively checking your Instagram feed may seem like a far cry from drug addiction, but the two are more closely related than you might think. The good news is that you can meet your technology addiction head-on by answering questions that get to the root of the issue and provide a path forward.
Continue reading for several exercises designed for personal use or as part of a technology addiction group discussion.
Technology Addiction Group Discussion
We’ve put together 14 exercises based on the concepts and advice in four books:
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
- The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen
- Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee
- Indistractable by Nir Eyal
You can use these exercises alone or in the context of a technology addiction group discussion.
Exercise 1: Identify Your Digital Habits
Cal Newport explains in Digital Minimalism that, in psychological terms, addiction means that you continue to do something that makes you feel good or provides some other reward, despite the negative consequences. In recent years, psychology experts have recognized that behavioral addictions—like gambling and internet addictions—can strongly resemble addictions to substances like drugs and alcohol.
Are you in the grip of a technology addiction?
- How much time would you estimate you spend on your smartphone (or tablet or computer) per day?
- If you can, check the settings on your device to find out your actual usage time. How does this compare with your estimate, and why do you think you were close or not?
- Describe an example of how intermittent positive reinforcement or social approval is used by one of your favorite apps or websites.
- Do you feel you have control over your technology use? Why or why not?
- How do you want to change your digital habits, if at all?
Exercise 2: Think About the Consequences of Your Technology Addiction
In our overconnected world, there’s always an app notification begging for your attention, an email pinging in the background, or a news feed to scroll through. In Indistractable, Nir Eyal writes that technology can be useful if you have control over how you use it, but that’s often not the case. Many people are ruled by their devices—unable to pull themselves away even when they know they should. This takes a toll on your physical and mental health, your ability to focus, and your relationships.
Reflect on the distracting, unimportant activities that take your time away from goal-supporting and abundant actions.
- Think about your day-to-day activities. What do you consider your most distracting technology habits? (For example, checking social media on your phone or binge-watching Netflix.)
- What are the important things these habits are distracting you from? (For example, social media is distracting you from studying, and Netflix is distracting you from getting a good night’s sleep.)
- What do you believe you could accomplish if you learned to be indistractable? (For example, less procrastination and stress in school, more time focusing on your family without thinking about work, or less dependence on your smartphone.)
Exercise 3: Reflect on the Feelings Driving Distraction
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal provides practical advice on stopping and preventing distractions, which you can apply to a technology addiction. He writes that one key is paying attention to the internal triggers that usually drive you to undesirable behaviors.
- Describe the situations where you find that you’re most easily driven to distraction—pay attention to both the activity and details such as time of day or who’s usually with you. (For example, you might feel most distracted at work right after lunch or when you’re trying to study alone in your room.)
- What are the feelings—physical and mental—that usually precede giving in to a distraction? (For example, you experience restlessness, chest tightness, anxiety, or boredom.)
- How does giving in to distracting activities usually make you feel? (For example, you might feel relief, or you might feel more anxious.)
Exercise 4: Change Your Environment to Combat Interference
In The Distracted Mind, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen define the distracted mind as our susceptibility to interference that hinders our ability to achieve our goals. They contend that reducing accessibility to technology and combating technology-induced anxiety and boredom are key to minimizing interference.
Consider actions you can take to minimize interference caused by technology addiction.
- On a typical day, how much access do you have to your phone? What actions could you take to limit this access?
- How often do you feel bored, either at work or at home? In these moments, do you find yourself drawn to your phone? Why or why not?
- Of the strategies discussed above (listening to music, changing your environment, setting daily goals), which sound like promising approaches to alleviate boredom? Why?
- Describe how you’ve felt in situations when you’ve been disconnected from your phone. To what extent did you experience anxiety about being unavailable?
- If you chose to set clear boundaries with friends and coworkers about when you aren’t available, how do you think they would react? Would you ever consider setting those boundaries? Why or why not?
Exercise 5: Reduce Your External Triggers
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal explains that, left unchecked, external triggers can easily break your focus and pull you off task throughout your day.
- What external trigger(s) do you find most distracting? (For example, audio text notifications, your email, or recommendations at the bottom of articles.)
- Why do you think this particular trigger is so distracting to you? (For example, your audio notifications grab your attention even when your phone is put away, email always has something new to look at, or recommended articles give you something easy and interesting to browse.)
- Describe your plan for diminishing this trigger’s ability to distract you. (For example, you turn off text notifications, unsubscribe from unimportant emails and tag incoming emails to be processed later, or save your recommended articles to an app so you can read them later.)
Exercise 6: Reduce Your Technology Use
Cal Newport argues in Digital Minimalism that most people need a complete overhaul—and that starts with developing a philosophy of technology use. Digital minimalism is one such philosophy. Digital minimalism requires that you identify what values and activities are priorities in your life, determine which digital tools promote those priorities, and implement constraints for using these tools to maximize their benefits and minimize their harm and distraction.
Reflect on how you could apply digital minimalism to your life.
- Digital minimalism promotes using technology to support your values and interests. What are some of your values and interests (such as family or a musical hobby)?
- Name one of the apps or websites that you spend the most time on. How does it add value to your life beyond minor convenience? (For example, perhaps you use Instagram to keep up with work from an artist whose work isn’t displayed publicly anywhere else.)
- Is that technology the best way to support your values? Why or why not? What are alternative ways to support your values?
- What parameters could you implement to change the way you use this tool so that you maximize the positive aspects and minimize the negative (or merely distracting) ones?
Exercise 7: Create an Effort Pact
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal says you can help yourself avoid undesirable behaviors by making them harder to perform. Here, consider the undesirable behaviors that constitute your technology addiction.
- What’s an undesirable behavior that you’d like to perform less? (For example, watching TV or going on social media when you should be studying.)
- How can you attach an effort pact to this behavior to make it more difficult? (For example, putting the remote control in an inconvenient location or using a site-blocking browser extension that you must undo before visiting social media.)
Exercise 8: Design Your Digital Declutter
Even when you know the principles of digital minimalism, your persistent technology addiction makes implementing them difficult. That’s why the most effective way to adopt digital minimalism is to start with a digital declutter, which is a 30-day detox from all non-essential technology. Cal Newport explains that the digital declutter allows time for you to break your addictive habits, engage with more meaningful activities, and get a clean slate from which you can set the parameters for your long-term digital use.
If you were to commit to a 30-day digital declutter, what would that entail?
- Think of all the technologies you use, including websites, apps, and other digital tools that you access through your phone or computer. Which of these could you eliminate for a month without damaging your personal or professional life?
- If there are technologies that you only need under certain circumstances (for example, to talk to a relative overseas), what rule could you impose so that you only use that tool for that specific need?
- Predict which tools you would reintroduce after completing the digital declutter and explain why.
- Which tools do you think you would eliminate, and why?
Exercise 9: Reflect on Solitude
It’s easy to overlook the value of solitude because our culture places a high value on connectivity. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport asserts that emphasis on constant connection can also obscure technology’s harmful effects. While close personal relationships are a critical source of happiness, time with close friends and family must still be balanced with time spent alone with your thoughts. Solitude is essential in order to come up with new ideas, develop a better understanding of yourself, and support strong intimate relationships with others.
Reflect on the role of solitude in your life.
- When and how do you get solitude in your daily life?
- If you can remember a time in your life when you had significantly more or less solitude than you get now, how did it affect your mental and emotional state?
- What is one point in your day when you could have solitude but you normally use your device instead (for example, to play music, talk on the phone, listen to a podcast, or browse the internet)?
- In the next few days, when could you leave your phone at home or put it away for a few hours?
Exercise 10: Strengthen Your Relationships
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes that relationships have always been vital to humans’ health and survival. Now, digital communication has replaced most face-to-face and phone conversations. But, texts, comments, and emails fail to feed people’s deep social needs.
Reflect on how you could improve communication with your closest friends and family.
- Name two of the most important people in your life.
- How do you generally keep in touch with each of these two people?
- What is one way you could decrease some of that text-based interaction and increase face-to-face or phone communication?
- If you were to implement conversation office hours, what day(s) and time(s) would you schedule them?
Exercise 11: Commit to Indistractability With Friends
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal discusses the “distracted time” you spend with friends, noting that you all miss out on important moments and conversations that deepen your relationships. Think about the ways you might indulge in your technology addiction in conjunction with others.
- Describe situations where you and your friends often become distracted. (For example, you always end up looking at your phones while at dinner together.)
- How can you minimize these distractions? (For example, calling out inappropriate phone use.)
Exercise 12: Reduce Your Need for an Escape
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal contends that adding challenges to everyday activities makes them engaging and interesting—reducing your need for a distracting “escape.”
- Describe an activity that often makes you feel bored, restless, or otherwise in need of escape. (For example, practicing an instrument or writing article pitches.)
- How can you “dive deeper” into this activity—that is, break it down into smaller parts and examine them closely? (For example, you might research each of your instrument’s chords and which chord combinations work best, or go through old, accepted pitches to identify “best practices.”)
- How can you create a challenge within this activity? Keep in mind that engaging challenges usually set limits. (For example, you challenge yourself to learn one new song per week or make a goal of sending three pitches in two hours.)
Exercise 13: Upgrade Your Leisure Time
In order to successfully reduce your digital habits, Cal Newport recommends that you first identify the meaningful leisure activities that will take their place. In recent decades, the rise of technological overuse has coincided with the decline of high-quality leisure activities. Employers now demand constant access to employees, the line has blurred between people’s personal and professional lives, and community bonds and traditions have fallen by the wayside. These lifestyle changes have created a void in satisfying and social leisure activities—and, instead of facing this void, most people fill it with mindless social media browsing and other digital fill-ins, the equivalent of empty carbs for your brain.
Reflect on how you could enjoy more high-quality leisure time.
- What are a few of your most common leisure activities?
- Give one or two examples of high-quality leisure activities you would do if you had more time.
- If you were to build or fix something each week, what would you do the first week?
- If you were to join a group or association, which one might you join?
- Name one objective or habit you might include in a seasonal leisure plan.
Exercise 14: Start Now
In Do Nothing, Celeste Headlee points out that one major impact of the frequent use of technology is that it allows work to seep into people’s personal lives when they’re off the clock. There’s less separation between on-the-job time and off-time, and many people feel like they can never fully relax. Headlee recommends that you create your dream schedule and include ample leisure time.
To truly embody Headlee’s advice of embracing leisure, consider spending the next 30 minutes doing fun or restful activities—anything from sitting and staring out the window to listening to music or playing a game with a friend. Write down a few potential activities—make sure they’re activities you enjoy and that don’t have a specific goal attached to them.