I have a confession: I’m a tab hoarder. My days online are spent digitally skipping from one tab to the next. I open new tabs, filling them with compelling news stories, Google docs, social media, and various random pages, then abandon several of them for weeks. I rarely return to complete the task I’d started, but leave the tabs open with an optimism that’s frankly not justified by my track record.
So, naturally, this was the habit I tackled first when I decided to overhaul how I use the internet and my devices for the coming New Year. With more concentration and less distraction as my guiding principle, I called Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who’s written extensively about tech use and the author of Restart: Designing a Healthy Post-Pandemic Life, for advice.
She offered several helpful suggestions that go beyond the commonsense tips you’ve heard already, like setting a timer for social media and removing apps from your phone. But before I get to those, let me share what happened when I attempted to work in a single tab versus the 26 open in my Chrome browser and 14 in my Safari browser.
My first task: pruning my work inbox. Every morning, I receive at least 100 emails, only about a half-dozen of them worth thinking seriously about. Most days, I bounce back and forth between email and other tabs, often Twitter, Facebook, or news sites. (For journalists, social media is a form of reporting and thread-gathering.) This time, though, I sat with my single tab and combed through the messages, feeling unusually focused on the work.
Once finished, I returned to my 25 other tabs and didn’t feel overwhelmed. It was actually worse than that. Instead, I had an urge to click on whichever tab might give me the strongest satisfaction. At the moment, it was Twitter, where a parade of distractions might deliver fresh insight about the Omicron variant or humorous beefing between high-profile users. It brought to mind research experiments that offer rats doses of an addictive drug, like morphine or cocaine, and the way those rodents will sometimes just keep pressing a lever to get their hit, even if it eventually kills them. That’s when I realized it: My brain had not organized my choices around actual priorities but a physiological sensation of instant gratification and pleasure.
Even if I’d deluded myself into believing I was savvier than that, I couldn’t ignore the revelation. I had a problem. I needed to make changes that reoriented my brain away from distraction-based impulses and toward periods of deep, sustained focus.
In her book, Dodgen-Magee lays out strategies to do just this. The five that I found most transformative were: introducing pauses before I reached for my phone or opened a new tab; putting down my phone or closing a window after I’ve accomplished a certain goal; unitasking, or focusing on a single task rather than trying to juggle multiple things at once; changing my physical environment so that there’s a tactile activity that helps ground me when I’m spending a lot of time online; and silencing and distancing my devices, specifically my phone.
Dodgen-Magee also developed a comprehensive approach for identifying exactly which “habits” are best to adopt for your life. First, she recommends assessing your values to see whether your tech use aligns with the things you hold dearest, which could be principles like authenticity, knowledge, and competency. (Dodgen-Magee offers dozens of values as examples from which to choose.) Next, compare the two or three habits that dominate your daily life with your cherished values. Someone who prizes curiosity, for example, might think they’re fulfilling it by researching their interests online. Yet Dodgen-Magee says that when the browsing leads to nothing else — no lived experiences like taking a pottery class or learning a new language — it’s become a one-dimensional pursuit, with little in the way of genuine fulfillment. That makes it a habit to target for change.
To develop new habits, Dodgen-Magee suggests using “spotting points.” Think of the gymnast or snowboarder who goes tumbling through the air, but keeps her eyes fixed on a single point so she doesn’t come crashing down. Dodgen-Magee argues that we need the same kind of reference points to form healthy habits as our devices — and the algorithms that fuel our internet use — sometimes threaten to pull us far away from the most important things, like time spent with family, personal hobbies, and screenless adventures. A spotting point, then, is a value, goal, or role (like parent, friend) we use to steady ourselves and correct our worst online impulses.
“I think we’ve all spotted to being informed and quote-un-quote connected when in reality that doesn’t fit most of our values.”
“I think we’ve all spotted to being informed and quote-un-quote connected when in reality that doesn’t fit most of our values,” says Dodgen-Magee. “When you’re trying to spot to 18 different true norths, let’s actually take a look at your values…and see if they’re actually even attainable via connection with your tech.”
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet gone through the values assessment Dodgen-Magee recommends step-by-step, partly because I knew I needed deeper concentration and less distraction from the outset. But it’s an exercise worth trying, and something I’ll be doing to better reinforce the following new tech habits I’ve adopted.
Build in pauses
In some ways, pausing before grabbing a device or clicking a link might be the hardest skill to cultivate. But Dodgen-Magee says it’s essential for reacclimating the brain to a less frenzied existence. When there’s no pause and you follow an impulse to check out the clothing sale that just landed in your inbox, or to chase the next level in the game you’ve been playing, or to respond to the last five texts in a group thread, the brain will repeat that pattern again and again. For more internal stillness and external control over my digital choices, Dodgen-Magee recommends doing something to interrupt the habit of moving from one click to the next.
She likes setting a timer for two minutes each time you feel tempted to get online or use a device when it’s not necessary at that moment. Pausing between the reflex to act in a habitual way offers the brain an opportunity to develop new expertise, Dodgen-Magee writes in Restart.
I like the idea of expertise. My brain can master, for example, waiting before I randomly check to see if the recently renovated house in my neighborhood sold, and for how much. Home sale prices are one of my banal curiosities — and a habit totally enabled by the internet — but I don’t need to reach for my phone on a dog walk to get the miniscule rush that comes with knowing exactly how much someone paid. Indeed, if I really need to know, I can just set a time once a week to check, rather than making it a daily, random, time-wasting habit.
Dodgen-Magee also recommends adapting an acronym used in 12-step recovery programs known as HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) to introduce pauses during tech use. When the temptation to scroll, click, browse, or game comes over you, try first checking whether you’re feeling any of the emotions or sensations in HALT. If so, address those first, perhaps with a snack, meditation, outdoor walk, or another soothing activity. That break can make it easier to forego tech use and keep “spotting” toward your values.
Turn away from the screen
I’m not a Twitter power user, but there’s something about the platform that draws me in. I enjoy reading other people’s exchanges, finding new experts, and drawing insights about what’s on people’s minds. Sometimes scrolling on Twitter feels like I’ve got a metal detector in my hands, scanning the ground endlessly for a bit of treasure. So it’s unsurprising that Twitter is my go-to when I’ve finished writing a story, checking my email, or another task. Opening that window is like a reward, but I also waste a lot of time scrolling, then lose sight of what I want to accomplish next.
That’s why I appreciated Dodgen-Magee’s recommendation to turn away from my screen once I’ve completed a task. This is a kind of pause, but in the reverse direction. By setting my phone down after replying to a text message versus randomly checking my bank account or fitness tracker simply because I can, I give my brain another opportunity to direct itself with purpose and meaning. What I choose to do in the minutes between meetings, deadlines, or online tasks is up to me, but Dodgen-Magee suggests making it an activity that aligns with my values and goals. For me, that could be five minutes doing physical therapy or leaving a sweet note on my daughter’s desk.
Change your physical environment
The longer you spend online, the easier it is to lose touch with your body. Body posture falters, breathing shortens, muscles tense. To bring yourself back into your physical being, she recommends adding something tactile to your desk, or wherever you most use your phone or tablet. This could be kinetic sand, fidget toys, Legos, or something similar. I opted for a medium-sized bowl of clothing buttons, which I collected from members of my Facebook Buy Nothing Group. As a child, I used to plunge my arm into a giant bin of buttons at the fabric store where my mother shopped, and found the motion surprisingly soothing. When I’m feeling particularly stressed during work, or struggling to turn away from my screen, I dunk my hand in the buttons as a way to restore calm. In turn, that makes it simpler to practice my other habits, like pausing or turning away from the screen.
Prior to adopting Dodgen-Magee’s recommendations, my tech use looked like an impossible-to-finish maze. I would begin at my inbox, take a detour to Slack, then back to my inbox where I’d click on a story, read half of that, then text a friend about its contents, go to Twitter to see if anyone posted about it, and then forget what I’d set out to do in the first place. My personal tech use, filled with lots of scrolling, texting, weather-checking, online cart-filling, and podcast listening, was no less chaotic.
Dodgen-Magee reminded me that multitasking isn’t a thing. The brain simply can’t do it. A better name for multitasking would be task-switching, says Dodgen-Magee. But as a parent, spouse, sister, daughter, friend, and employee, I tricked myself into thinking otherwise. I stocked my online grocery cart while also cooking dinner. I meditated without silencing notifications, even though I know better. I texted my parents pictures of their grandchildren while walking and listening to a podcast.
Now, I’m building in pauses and consciously making a decision to do one thing at a time. I’m not always successful, but the truth is that it’s liberating. Surprisingly, my brain feels less overwhelmed. I’ve tried staying present for real-time Slack and text conversations with friends rather than toggling between windows and tasks during the brief silences while I’m waiting for the other person to respond. It’s more gratifying than I expected.
Silence and distance your devices
This may be the suggestion you’ve heard most, but it’s a critical one: Spend chunks of the day — even three-minute bursts— without your phone or device. To truly reorient the brain toward quiet and stillness, you need…quiet and stillness. I’m experimenting with iOS 15 Focus Mode, which lets you schedule silenced notifications during the workday, as well as at night and when driving. I’ve tried putting my phone into a zippered pouch during dinnertime. Sometimes the thought that I’m missing something, like an important text or Slack, tugs at me during the silence. More often than not, nothing happened.
Ultimately, I want to be comfortable with nothing happening. After nearly two years of pandemic chaos, I am grateful that my life is relatively uneventful. I just need to keep teaching my brain that’s a good thing, too.