A User’s Guide to Living Well in Screenworld

3 tech insiders on making digital technology work for us—not the other way around. 

Illustrations by Andrew Bannecker

Digital technology is woven into nearly every aspect of our lives—how we work, how we play, how we raise and educate our children. It brings great opportunities for us to communicate and connect with each other, and it also raises challenges of living well in Screenworld.

Technology is something that we must learn to master, rather than letting it master us. By applying mindfulness, care, and attention in how we work with our devices and screens, we can avoid a state of “continuous partial attention” and disconnection from our own lived experience, our bodies, and the people around us.

For a few years now, a number of people in the tech world have been incorporating mindfulness into both their personal and professional lives. Irene Au and Arturo Bejar are two leaders in the field with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work and practice mindfulness. We talk about getting the best from our technologies while remaining mindful in the midst of busy lives.

—Rich Fernandez

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Rich Fernandez: Digital technology has made many good things possible. Skype is connecting families over long distances, social media is creating widely distributed communities of interest, and the information flow is freer and more empowering, as we witnessed during the Arab Spring.

At the same time, digital technology can disconnect us from ourselves and each other, as we spend time experiencing our world through screens. So how do we use this technology to maximize its benefits and minimize its negative effects?

Irene Au: Technology is here—in multiple forms—and it’s not going away. It has contributed to our quality of life tremendously, but like anything new we need to incorporate it in a way that doesn’t disrupt our quality of life. This requires our mindful attention and making conscious choices about when, where, and how to use our devices.

For me, there are times that are sacred, so to speak. In yoga class, I don’t expect anyone to be texting or answering the phone. When my family is having dinner together, there are no phones or video games or iPads at the table.

If you stop and think about it, it’s just a matter of applying to the new technology the same basic principles about how people should spend time together. For example, if family dinner is a sacred time, a time for interaction, it’s not appropriate for the children to bring a book or toys to the table, or for me to be reading a newspaper. It’s about more than the new technology. It’s about understanding our intention.

If my attention is fully focused on the morning rituals—getting dressed, having breakfast—that grounds me and recharges me. If I wake up and check my email right away, my attention is divided and the day gets started on the wrong foot. —Arturo Bejar

Arturo Bejar: We need to make it a practice to continually be aware of our relationship to technology and the place it holds in our lives. Then we can use it consciously, rather than automatically. This has always been true when a new communication technology emerges. We go through a process of learning how it can connect us to our loved ones and help us manage our lives, and how it can distract us.

No one exerts overall control over how technology is used and what habits people will develop. There’s a big element of personal responsibility. Being aware of how you use the technology will allow you to make conscious choices so your relationship with your devices is what you would like it to be.

RF: In some ways, it’s seems like these tools are intentionally designed to capture our attention, more than technologies prior to the digital explosion. Our devices reward us and set off our brain chemistry in ways that keep us coming back.

IA: I’m not sure I completely buy that. TV shows have always been designed to keep our attention riveted. Novels are written to keep you absorbed. With the internet, though, you’re more in control of what you’re consuming, so you can be a more interactive participant. Maybe that’s part of the addiction you’re talking about. Why wouldn’t you want to be engaged in something where you have more control?

RF: In social interactions, we have less control over where things will go, so perhaps we’re tempted sometimes to withdraw into a space where we can exert more control over what we’re taking in.

AB: I don’t think most technologies we use today are like junk food, designed to make us come back for more. It’s not the intention of designers to create something that people will do all the time to the exclusion of other things they need and want to do.

We worked out a protocol. I pledged not to get offended when he picked up the phone, and he agreed not to let the phone make him forget I was there. —Irene Au

At Facebook, our aim is to connect people with each other over distance and time. Of course, people choose how they engage with that, just as they do in any sphere. Each of us makes our own choices and takes responsibility for them. I can choose to put the phone down because I’ve learned it’s important for me to be present in the circumstances in my life. I can choose not to be thinking about something else when I’m having a conversation with my daughter.

I’m grateful for technology’s ability to keep me in touch with my loved ones. I love it when I get a text message that lights up my day. And when I’m with my family, I also appreciate having time when I interact directly. It’s great to have both.

RF: So setting clear intentions about how we use these compelling technologies is important to our quality of life, because while they may not be specifically designed to distract us, it’s easy for us to let them do that.

IA: Yes, but I don’t think it helps to be Draconian about it. You need to negotiate the space you share. My husband has a job in which lots of people rely on him to be available 24/7. When we first got together, I could have taken offense at his lack of attention, but I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about the job, and we had chosen that kind of life. So we worked out a protocol. I pledged not to get offended when he picked up the phone, and he agreed not to let the phone make him forget I was there. It could be as simple as saying, “Excuse me for a moment please.”

It’s also important for us to have times when we truly unplug. We do that on vacation and when we go on yoga retreats. That’s one of the rules there, and we happily follow it.

AB: I recognize key times when it’s important for me to pay attention. It’s important not to check email first thing in the morning. If my attention is fully focused on the morning rituals—getting dressed, having breakfast, helping get the day started—that grounds me and recharges me. I start the day with my feet on the ground. If I wake up and check my email right away, my attention is divided and the day gets started on the wrong foot.

RF: It sounds like a real practice for you. Are there specific situations where you’ve found that more awareness has changed the way you use digital technology?

AB: If I get an email, particularly an important one, it’s best to be in a position where I can give it my full attention. That’s why I strive not to check email in situations where I won’t be able to respond effectively. It makes no sense to be checking emails while I’m pumping gas.

I’ve been working on arranging my day so that I have times I dedicate to email and times when I just don’t do it. I’ve increased the transition times between different parts of my day—especially between meetings—so I have a space to check and respond to messages. It’s a real practice to carve out dedicated time, but it pays off. When I had back-to-back meetings and I would pick up the phone in the middle of one of them, or check my email just before I got home, it put a strain on what I did next. Now I give myself 10 minutes to check and respond to the one or two pressing things, and then I arrive in the next place better able to pay attention.

Parents have always needed to take a strong interest in what their children are doing, and the same applies here. If their digital world is a strange black box to you, you can’t be very helpful.
—Arturo Bejar

RF: You plan your day at that level of detail?

AB: Absolutely. If you want to minimize disruption, telling yourself to stop is probably not enough. Planning is key. First, observe the relationship you have with a technology, and then tweak the structure of your day to increase your focus and minimize the distraction.

RF: Even if we do all that, though, the intense absorption we bring to our screens can mean we’re not paying enough attention to our bodies.

IA: I have become the poster child for bringing the body back into work. It’s really important. I’ve had a standing desk for years and I’m also a proponent of walking meetings, because there is a strong correlation between cognition and movement. We’re more creative when we move.

When my designers are presenting mockups here at Udacity, we could just project the screens on the wall and sit around and talk about them. Instead, we tape printouts of the screens on the wall, and ask everyone to stand up and come look at them. When people are more actively engaged, when they get their body involved, it sparks a different kind of brain activity.

A lot of research has shown that you build relationships differently with someone you’re walking with than with someone you’re sitting beside in a conference room, particularly if you’re both looking at a screen. Out walking, you’re exploring the world together, encountering new experiences together. I’ve worked in some walking wastelands in Silicon Valley—no sidewalk, no scenery—so sometimes we would just do some laps around a local department store to get the blood moving.

RF: Both of you have children. There has been lots of discussion about whether children spend too much time looking at screens and engaging in social media in unhealthy ways. What are your thoughts? AB: I don’t think having a good childhood and spending time on screens is mutually exclusive. I spent a fair amount of time on screens as a child, and for the most part I think I turned out okay.

IA: These are the technologies we use to run our world these days. There is not much point, in my view, in going Luddite around your home. You miss an opportunity to model for your children good habits of using technology in ways that enrich our lives.

AB: Whatever I’ve learned about being a parent generally, I try to apply when it comes to technology. Children and teenagers are not going to make a big dividing line between social interaction digitally and in person, as some of their parents might. Part of their life is being played out in a digital realm. For us to understand and support them, we need to embrace that and try to see from their perspective. Just because something seems unnatural to us, it doesn’t mean it’s unnatural to our kids. Norms change.

Based on that attitude, we can apply our values and guidelines as we would in any other sphere. You tell your children not to talk to strangers. When you have a digital device that makes communication with strangers possible, the rule still stands. Don’t make friends with people to whom you haven’t been properly introduced by someone you know and trust.

IA: My children, who are 8 and 11, approach technology with a sense of moderation. That’s partly because I have set limits for them ever since they started going online. They’re allowed no more than 30 minutes a day on the computer, with extra time if they’re doing something educational.

Another thing we’ve done is to put the computer the kids use in a space that’s shared with the rest of the family. We want to be able to glance over and see what they’re seeing, and some cool things have happened as a result. If we’re videoconferencing with my nephew, we all gather around. If there’s an interesting video that my husband has seen, we’ll all enjoy it together. It’s become a social device—a way to bring everybody together rather than to alienate people from each other.

AB: We need to be mindful of the problems that can occur online, but the solution isn’t to ban the technology that kids use to connect with each other. Bullying online can have the same dynamics as bullying in person. We need to help our children understand how not to be hurtful, even unintentionally, and how to deal with it when other people are doing the hurting. We can help our children understand that disagreements don’t get resolved easily at a distance. It helps to see and hear each other, so don’t try to do it by texting. The mechanisms we use in the world at large need to be mirrored in the online world.

RF: Both of you put a premium on staying present in whatever you’re doing. What about multitasking versus serial processing? Can we effectively multitask from your perspective, or are we better doing just one thing at a time, fully present and fully engaged?