Digital Wellbeing: How to Take Control of the Tech in Your Life

I recently got a new phone. During the setup process, a notification flashed to customize the Digital Wellbeing settings. I investigated and discovered a whole app dedicated to monitoring and tracking my phone/app use. A dashboard summary neatly displays the results, such as:

  • how often I unlocked my phone
  • which apps I used most frequently
  • how long I spent on each app
  • the number of notifications received

The settings include ways to silence notifications, set up bedtime mode (i.e., gray scale based on scheduled times), and limit usage of time-consuming (aka addictive) apps. I’m trying out the bedtime mode. I haven’t set up time limits on the apps yet, but I glance at my dashboard once in a while.

The difficulty with this sort of tracking is that a benchmark hasn’t been set. I have no idea if 2 hours/day is good, average, or a waste of my time. I suppose the goal is for me to make my own decisions about my level of addiction. Additionally, it’s difficult to determine the quality of the time spent. Was I sending work emails, billing clients, catching up on news, doing research, or just goofing off on Instagram?

The one stat I’m really curious about is how often I consult my phone for the time and then get distracted by notifications. My watch battery died about the time the pandemic started. Between lockdowns and restrictions I haven’t managed to get the battery replaced yet.

The Irony of Using Tech to Track Tech Usage

It always seems strange to me that the problem is the solution. Tech companies invested lots of time, money, and resources to ensure that we became (and remained) addicted to their products and services. Now, likely because of criticism, studies, and backlash, those same companies are swooping in with a tech-based solution for too much tech.

While reviewing the Google pages on Digital Wellbeing, I was pleased to see some basic, common-sense solutions. These included tips such as “Create device-free zones and times (Tip 04).” Nothing complicated or high tech about this suggestion.

Two low-tech tips from the “Minimize Distractions” section include “Minimize your device use when with others,” and “Put your phone out of sight and out of mind.”

Is Digital Wellbeing about using tech to track, monitor, and control our usage? Or should it be about establishing a healthy relationship with tech and how we interact with it?

Decree of the Digital Mob, How the Internet Makes or Breaks You

Growing up, everybody talked about getting their “15 minutes of fame.” With the long digital memory of online presences, it seems that this time period is extended. Sometimes all it takes is one bad tweet, or post, for something to go viral. After that, who knows how far the information will spread? Or where it will end up. Or what happens to it.

The really challenging part is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of, or change, falsehoods, rumor mongering, and disinformation that takes hold. Bad information plagues, or sometimes destroys, people. Rebuilding a reputation takes a lot of work. If that’s even possible when so many untruths are floating around the internet and social media.

What’s always most surprising to me is how quickly this all happens. And how quickly people latch on to something untrue, unsubstantiated, biased, or sensational to start spreading it around. Often this happens before the information, bad or otherwise, has even been verified. Once the mob mentality takes hold, the momentum picks up.

Digital Mob Behavior

Mob behavior is fascinating to me. I remember in undergrad taking a course called “The Gaucho and the Cowboy: A Comparison of North and South American Cultural Myths.” My professor often reminded us that humans and cows behaved differently in groups. One cow alone is nervous. It remains agitated until it reunites with the herd. Humans, by contrast, are calm on their own. However, humans get worked up easily in a group setting.

In a digital setting, this behavior seems to be just as easy to replicate. In some ways, I think it’s worse. The reach of the internet is immediate and global. In a physical setting, the mob needs time to assemble their pitchforks and torches. It may slow them down slightly. Digital weapons of choice include malicious words, manipulated images, and sensationalized disinformation. Easy to assemble and instant to disseminate.

What isn’t easy is controlling, monitoring, or shutting down online mob behavior. This is especially difficult because sometimes great changes come about from people rallying together digitally. It’s hard to create rules when the outcome could be beneficial or disastrous.

I’m not sure there’s a good answer for how to manage this type of online activity. The only thing I could stress is acting responsibly online, reading things before sending them along, and validating information sources.

How to Increase Capacity When You Have None

In 2013 I obtained a certificate in Business Process Management. A key lesson I learned was the difference between efficiency and capacity. Recognizing the differences is not always easy, or apparent. However, when you feel like you just can’t keep up with what you need to do, it’s worth examining both.

Efficiency determines how quickly tasks can be finished up to a certain standard. A lot of people confuse efficiency with working faster. In some cases, being more efficient can increase speed. However, I consider efficiency as a way to complete tasks without missing anything or reworks. Sometimes this might take a little longer, but if it prevents reworks or mistakes, it’s worth the extra time. Reworks take twice as long, or longer, to finish.

Capacity refers to the total output of a particular process. Often when a business, or person, needs to get more done, they focus on efficiency rather than capacity. Making a process, or action, more efficient can lead to a perceived increase in capacity. However, there is a limit.

For example, a customer service center has the capacity to help 1000 clients/day. They currently serve about 800/day on average. However, each day they are receiving nearly 2000 inquiries. Even if the process was as efficient as possible, the customer service center only has the capacity to assist 1000 people. Or 50% of the clients, working at 100% capacity. There is no space to grow.

The problem is a lack of capacity, not working efficiently. Although in this example efficiency would definitely help.

I’m sure many people, like myself, are falling behind in everyday life. In my case things that normally could have been delegated to other people (or services) I now have to do myself because of pandemic restrictions. Or common tasks, like shopping, take longer because they have to be done a different way (read more here).

Tips and Tricks to Increase Capacity

My capacity is 100%, but I need to squeeze it for more, without exhausting or injuring myself. This is no easy feat, but I’ve discovered a few tips and tricks.

  • Commit to doing one extra thing a day. The pace is slow, but in a month you will have crossed off 30 (extra) to-dos.
  • List everything so you don’t forget about it.
  • Plan which things to do when. Decision fatigue is a real thing. If I already know what I need to do, this saves me time and energy.

The Perils of Online Shopping

Almost a year into the pandemic, online shopping still has challenges. (Read more here.) We’re currently in lockdown. Everything has to be pickup or delivery, except for the pharmacy and groceries.

I recently ordered something online from Home Depot. This definitely took at least twice as long as a trip to the store would have taken. I’m not familiar with the items at Home Depot. Consequently, I spent a long time searching the website. Eventually, I ended up having a lengthy chat with a sales rep for recommendations.

I made a mistake placing the order. I called customer service to fix the error. He cancelled part of my order. However, a miscommunication occurred. I thought the whole order was cancelled and reordered everything. Again. Re-entering the whole order took more time.

I received the wrong order at pick-up. Somehow the employee didn’t match the order number to the order correctly. This resulted in another customer service call. Then another trip to the store.

Now I realize something similar could happen with in-person shopping. I could have picked up the wrong item, or forgotten something. However, these trips would not have included lengthy calls and chats with customer service reps.

The Pros of Online Shopping

Online shopping definitely has some winning points. You can shop from the comfort of your home, after normal business hours, and from anywhere. Plus, if you’re willing to spend time researching, it’s possible to locate good deals or specialty items.

Many stores have made efforts, or improvements, to offer a seamless online shopping experience. Some retailers even include promotions such as free shipping or bonus items.

The Cons of Online Shopping

I typically find it time consuming. This is primarily because of poor search features. Or being offered too many options. Often, I end up reviewing hundreds, or thousands, of items on a screen to find what I want.

Another peeve is creating online accounts for everything. Some retailers offer guest accounts. Others require a full account set up, even if you’re only going to shop at the store one time.

Finally, all the extra shipping has an environmental impact. Every order usually includes plastic or styrofoam packing materials, boxes, padded envelopes. Plus the resources required to physically deliver items.

Once restrictions are lifted, I’m hoping to get the best of both worlds. Some online and some in-person shopping.

The President’s Tweets: First Amendment Right or Failed Social Media Policy

I first blogged about Former President Trump’s tweets in 2018 (read here). In the post, I offered my expert opinion on whether or not these tweets should be taken seriously. The answer was “yes.” As an elected official, the president’s tweets are a valid form of communication.

However, some basic questions were missed. If the president is tweeting, does that mean he has freedom to write anything without editing, proofing, or monitoring? Is it allowable for the president to maintain a personal account?

Answering these questions gets tricky.

A solid social media policy could provide some clarity. It’s common for organizations to create social media policies to establish guidelines. Guidelines may include rules on posting acceptable content. Or what employees can post as professionals and sometimes even as personal individuals outside of work. Or if maintaining personal and professional accounts is acceptable.

It’s also common for organizations to establish posting procedures. For example, the communications department must vet all tweets before posting them.

Before writing this post I wondered, did the Executive Office of the President for former President Trump have a social media policy? I wasn’t able to locate one. And if they did, it’s hard to imagine it would have allowed the president so much freedom. As far as I understand, the president is neither an emperor nor a dictator. He’s an elected official.

However, while obtaining my Masters in Archival Studies, I was shocked to learn about the history of presidential records. Prior to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidential records belonged to the president. He removed them when he left office.

Maintaining personal and professional accounts

The second question is even trickier to answer. Clearly Donald Trump had his own Twitter account, with followers, before taking office. As president, he maintained his personal account and one for POTUS. (Read about All the President’s Tweets.)

However, as a highly elected official, it would have been almost impossible for Trump to separate himself as an individual from his role as president. When one holds such a high title and prominent role, little space exists for the personal individual. Therefore, in this instance, it would have made sense to put the personal account on hold until the term finished.

The answer seems easy and straightforward, but it’s not. Herein lies the complexity of using social media.

Feeding the Feed: Social Media’s Greatest Triumph

Social media wouldn’t exist without users to create content. Or without users to promote, share, comment on, and like content. In other words, social media’s survival depends on two main ingredients: content and interaction with the content.

In order for social media companies to exist, they have to convince people to create content. New content. Flashy content. Interesting content that people will read. Or in lieu of reading, clicking on an attractive, sensational headline and sharing it.

Slowly, social media became an integral part of our lives. People now rely on it for things like communicating with friends and family. Or for promoting businesses and services. Or for socializing and forming groups.

However, social media also relies on us, as potential content creators, to create content. This is the sneaky part of social media. We become addicted to it and dependent on it. The more we use it, the more social media companies can survive and thrive. We continually feed the social media beast. In most cases, we do it willingly, voluntarily, and gladly for what we perceive that we’re getting in return.

When you disconnect from your device, and favorite social media apps for a few moments, the relationship becomes clearer. Social media needs us and we need them. Even for those of us who have become wary of using social media (e.g., The Deletist!), we still have to use it once in a while. If we don’t, we miss out on too many things. It’s a complicated relationship.

Without users to feed the feeds, social media wouldn’t exist. Who would bother to use it if content never changed?

Although I haven’t done any research on this, I suspect that the 80/20 rule applies to social media. Essentially, this means 80% of the content is created by 20% of the users. Some people are prolific, and successful, content creators. Other people are happy to share and interact with existing content, rather than create new content themselves.

Either way, the social media companies benefit. They’ve convinced us to do the dirty work of running their machines. Sure, we get some benefits from it. But if we really understood the true cost of what we’ve been giving up, would we still “feed the feeds” so willingly?