It’s that time of year when people make resolutions to live better lives. Perhaps you’re looking for ones that will make a real difference rather than the token efforts of previous years? Or perhaps, like me, you’ve decided that if something’s worth changing then it shouldn’t have to wait for the start of the year to do it, and out of sheer contrariness have resolved that January 1st is the one day you won’t be changing anything at all.
Some of the most popular new year’s resolutions reflect our approach to food, alcohol and money – things that are not bad in themselves. It's just we recognise our relationships with these things have become slightly unhealthy. The good news is that we notice them and decide to do something about them.
But what about the habits that aren’t so easy to spot? Our relationship with communications technology often falls into this category. The web, smartphones and social media are a part of every area of life and every waking hour, and they are so ubiquitous that we often don’t realise how they impact us. But they do impact us – and the pervasive nature of these technologies means we often miss the values we’re passively consuming along with endless content and updates.
These technologies can often exert an unhealthy influence over us, getting in the way of our faith and other relationships. So the challenge is for us to engage with them consciously – keeping the good but drawing a line where we need to. Here are six suggestions for helping us to do this:
1. Stop checking your phone when you wake up. 80 percent of smartphone owners check their devices almost as soon as they wake up. If that’s you, then consider charging it in a different room and starting the day with a different habit (a prayer, reading a verse of the Bible, making a cup of tea for a loved one).
2. Keep certain times of day and activities smartphone-free – for example, family mealtimes, or conversations with friends. Alerts have a way of demanding to be answered, but are rarely as urgent as they feel. Make Sundays as free of work and work-like activities as you can.
3. Do one thing at once. Our minds aren’t designed for multi-tasking. Instead, they end up flitting from one task to another. We become sensitised to distraction and it becomes harder to concentrate on a specific activity, or person, or prayer.
4. When you engage with social media, do so in an active and deliberate way, ideally aiming to further relationships rather than passively consuming updates.
5. Change your alerts so you know without checking your phone whether it’s an SMS, email or social media notification. While you might want to answer a text message fairly quickly, emails can generally wait a while longer. Knowing what’s coming in helps you gauge whether it’s worth interrupting another conversation or activity to answer it.
6. Take the occasional day (or better, week) without a smartphone. You can let people know on social media first if you need to. What effect does it have on your friendships and relationships, your free time, your headspace? Do you miss anything important? It’s only when we unplug like this that we get a real sense of how always-on connectivity shapes our lives and minds.
Guy Brandon is the senior researcher for the Jubilee Centre, a Cambridge-based Christian social reform organisation. He is the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, a book that challenges us to think through the relational and spiritual implications of our digital world. Digitally Remastered is available from Christian bookshops and muddypearl.com, priced £9.99.