July/August 2019

The Digital Toolkit

Practicing Digital Mindfulness

Tom Mighell

There has been a lot of talk lately, in legal circles and otherwise, about the benefits of the “digital detox.” This is described in various places as a period of time during which a person stops using his or her smartphone or other computing devices in order to reduce stress, reconnect with others and be more present in the physical world. Everywhere I go these days, I tend to see people in much the same posture—heads down, intently focused on a small electronic screen. So I get the appeal of the digital detox.

Mindful, Not Disconnected

Perhaps I am too addicted to technology myself to know better, but I think the notion of the detox is a tad extreme. I don’t think that disconnecting completely is necessarily the answer to having a healthy relationship with your technology. Don’t get me wrong, I think taking a completely technology-free vacation is a great idea; it allows you to better engage with friends and loved ones, and maybe rest and relax a little more. It’s just that I personally can’t do it because I want to take pictures (with my phone) when I’m traveling, or even use my Kindle to read a book when I’m relaxing. And I don’t think that’s an unhealthy relationship with technology.

It’s a little bit like my reaction to technology journalists and other pundits who advocate the idea of “email bankruptcy”—literally deleting all of the email in your inbox and sending a message to all of your contacts that “I am deleting all of my email because I cannot handle the volume. If your message to me was important, please resend it.” Never mind that a client’s reaction to a lawyer sending this email out might be a grievance or even a malpractice suit. It’s unprofessional, and it doesn’t address the underlying problem. It’s a little like trimming bamboo; you can get rid of some of it for a while, but it always grows back.

Instead I want to advocate for a more reasonable way of confronting our technology addictions, and that’s to practice “digital mindfulness.” Take a look at your relationship with technology, identify the issues and find practical ways to address them. Being conscious or aware of how you use technology is a critical step toward being able to disconnect when you want to, without becoming completely disconnected.

So how do you get started? Ironically, technology comes to the rescue, from our friends at Google and Apple. What’s interesting is that Google tends to take a more forceful approach, while Apple’s goal seems to be supplying enough information to help you make better decisions about how you use technology.

Digital Wellbeing

Google’s tool for Android users is called Digital Wellbeing, which can be found in Settings, and it offers a couple of ways to understand how you use your phone or tablet. Up front is a dashboard that tells you how often you are using your apps; as of right now, I have spent 2 hours and 54 minutes on my phone (I have to keep it on to write this column, remember), and I’ve unlocked it 23 times. Interestingly, I have 232 notifications so far. That’s a lot of notifications. You can tap on any app on the dashboard to get more information about the days or times of day that you use the app the most.

Google then offers you the option to put a timer on any app, which will restrict access to the app after you have used it for a predetermined number of hours or minutes. After the timer is up, so is your app usage; you’ll have to wait until midnight to use the app again.

Google also offers a Wind Down feature that offers a few options to limit technology use for a preset number of hours per night, including:

  • Turning your phone’s apps to grayscale, to make them less appealing to use. (Yes, this is really a thing.)
  • Turning on Do Not Disturb, so you do not get any notifications or phone calls, except for emergencies.
  • A Night Light that will tint your screen amber, which makes it easier to read at night, and arguably make you fall asleep more easily.

Digital Wellbeing also provides a number of ways to reduce interruptions. You can manage notifications for each app on your phone, configure your Do Not Disturb options and, on certain Android phones, you can turn on Flip to Shhh, which turns on Do Not Disturb simply by placing your phone face down on a flat surface.

Screen Time

Apple is more direct in letting you know that its well-being functionality is mostly about limiting screen time. The Screen Time options are found in your iOS settings and, like Google, they present a dashboard of your current app use. Apple’s options are not as granular as those of Google, but they cover most of the high points:

  • Downtime. Enable this option to schedule time away from your screen, much like Google’s Wind Down feature.
  • App Limits. You can set time limits for apps with iOS, but only by category, not on an app-by-app basis. For example, you can set time limits for all social networking apps, not just Facebook or Twitter. Further, when your time is up, you are not restricted from further using the app. A notification reminds you that your time is up, giving you the opportunity to decide whether you’re ready to stop.
  • Always Allowed. Here you can choose the apps that you can always use, even if you have Downtime enabled.
  • Content and Privacy Restrictions. This is an option more for limiting the ability of children or others on your account to do certain things, or allowing apps to perform certain functions, such as enabling location services or turning on the microphone.

Whether you are an iPhone or Android phone user, give one of these tools a try. They will definitely show you where you spend the most time, which is a good start on figuring out how to be more mindful of your technology use.

Other Ways to Be Mindful

Technology tools also offer other ways for you to improve your digital mindfulness, which in my opinion almost always involves ways to be more efficient with the technology we use. Here are a few examples:

  • Using voice-enabled tools like Google Home or Amazon Echo will help you to look at your devices less during the day.
  • Most email apps now offer a Priority or Focused Inbox that will allow you to see only the emails that really matter to you, placing newsletters and other nonessential messages in a separate tab that you can easily delete in a few swipes.
  • It’s also a great idea to avoid distractions while driving. Tools like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have features that will disable texting and other notification features while you are driving.

So what do you think? Have you tried a digital detox or found a way to introduce mindfulness into your relationship with technology? Or have you welcomed the social media and email overlords into your life and acknowledge the addiction? Maybe it’s not quite in keeping with this topic, but let’s continue the conversation online anyway. Send me a tweet @TomMighell or an email at tmighell+dt@gmail.com. I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog (lawtechnologytoday.org). 

Tom Mighell

Tom Mighell is vice president of Delivery Services at Contoural and has served as the chair of both the ABA Law Practice Division and ABA TECHSHOW. tmighell@gmail.com

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