The Tech We Live With: Developing and Practicing Self-Awareness


By MJ Ali

As I was doing research for this article, I came upon a TED Talk by Tristan Harris about self-awareness in our use of technology. And, as I was thinking about my own ongoing efforts to practice more self-awareness in my own relationship with technology, I watched another TED Talk of Tristan’s, which linked to a related article and then another, which linked to a CNN interview with another proponent of mindfulness and tech, and realized I just autoplayed myself into the exact corner Tristan described.

There’s no question the links were a good use of my time, but I had no idea I’d spent so much of it.

So, how are my ongoing efforts to practice more self-awareness in my own relationship with technology? In progress.

Before I entered the tech field full-time, I was an award-winning graphic designer and managing editor choosing to work solely with non-profits and individuals. While this work required considerable time on the computer, it was balanced with my other work running clinics treating addiction with auricular acupuncture, training professionals in the field, and providing shiatsu treatment to people facing challenges with cancer and HIV. The variety provided a great work balance that allowed for use of very different skills and environments that changed every day. There was never too much of any one thing.

Now, working almost exclusively in tech for the past nine years, I’m in front of two computers for the entirety of my work day. And because I still have design and editing/writing clients, the computer time doesn’t end when my main work day is over.

So, how do I practice self-awareness with my tech?

I started by observing my behavior and deciding what I wanted to change about my relationship with technology. Then, I started to make conscious changes in my habits. And because we change as well as technology, this requires revisiting and tweaking on a pretty regular basis. Right now, though:

  • No technology in the bedroom
  • I use an analog alarm clock from bagby
  • I meditate first thing in the morning (still trying for consistency after all these decades)
  • I go outside before starting work and every break during the day (I work in a home office so going outside is not required to get to work. Hey, my carbon footprint is like the size of a tic tac)
  • All tech is off overnight and whenever it’s not needed
  • If I do use my tablet to read a book, wifi and bluetooth are off
  • I deactivated all notifications designed to pull me into a website (likes and tags and mentions, oh my!)
  • I gently but persistently ask myself whether this or that app is enriching my life, and if it isn’t, I delete it
  • I make a conscious decision when I launch an app or visit a website how much time and what content I’m going to spend that time on
  • I acknowledge that, as with pens, I have an unhealthy relationship with Google Earth and have seriously limited my use of this unholy time sucker

I also designate analog days, or portions of days, whenever I can. Over Thanksgiving, I warned the people I’m usually in touch with that I would be unreachable for three days. At the end of those three days, I was a little sad about having to turn everything on again.

It is amazing what happens to our nervous systems when we put technology down. Our rabbit mind starts to slow down, we look up and out more, we make eye contact, we’re present for the conversations and people around us, we touch surfaces other than glass and plastic… and we tend to take more meaningful breaths. Imagine that.

There are countless levels at which you can experiment with your relationship with your technology. Start by observing, decide on what you might like to change, and then take those baby steps.

Ironically, there are apps to help you do just that. Apple and Google have built in screen time apps into their operating systems, but as my sister said, it doesn’t really tell her much, and I agree. Being told you’ve spent a certain amount of time on a device or app is not always accurate (what if you’ve walked away from a device you don’t have locked or leave an app open you’re not actually using?), and it definitely doesn’t address how we use them, just how much.

Here are a few apps you might find useful:

Moment (for iOS and Android) takes screen time analysis to the next level, and offers tools to help you modify behaviors you want to change. Their strapline is “Less phone. More real life.” and its aim is to give you back time. It is a healthy use coach that helps you take a more holistic and balanced approach to your phone use to ultimately be present for the really important stuff.

Forest – Stay Focused (for iOS and Android) is a concentration app where you plant a seed that grows into a tree as long as you stay in the app. The intention is to help you break the FOMO habit of constantly checking apps and accounts, if even for a short time. I have my concerns about this, simply because it imitates the very hyperfocusing habit it’s trying to help you break, but I understand why. It may be helpful specifically with pulling you away from constant feed and message checking, which is a very hard activity to break once you’re deep in the habit. Think of this as a first step.

Insight Timer (for iOS and Android) is a free meditation app with 24,000 guided meditations. I’ve never found a meditation app that offers as much as this one does.

Breathing apps are such an easy way to simply practice and become aware of breathing. BusyMind (for iOS, Android and online), is, quite simply, a breathing app. I have tried many, and this one is phenomenally simple, straightforward, and more satisfying to use than any other breathing app I’ve tried. (NOTE: this may no longer be available for iOS since I can’t seem to find it on the App Store, but is still available online and possibly for Android, too. Look for apps like “Breathe” and “Calm” and take them for a spin.)

I think it is quite telling that more than a few tech giants, in their private lives, limit their children’s use of technology. Bill Gates didn’t allow his children to have cell phones until they were teenagers. Steve Jobs’ kids weren’t allowed to use iPhones or iPads. Former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya has three young children and there is no screen time at all in their home.

Technology is obviously here to stay. How we interact with it in our daily lives is up to us.

I leave you with this article by Tristan Harris, who not only calls out the issues, but offers solutions.

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