10 evidence-based ways to take control of technology!

28 January 2020

From smartphones to laptops and everything in-between, our lives are filled with screens. Here are some ways you can take back control, without having to detox!

Woman looking at phone

In our age of digital distractions, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with constant notifications buzzing and requiring our attention. While digital detoxes may sound appealing, they are not practical in our day-to-day life. Through our research at the UCL Interaction Centre, we have collated a series of strategies that can help you take control of technology (and yes, just a couple of the tips involve using more technology) and ultimately become more mindful of your usage.

1. Prioritize people, not apps 

Play with settings on your phone to change what you get notified about: prioritize real people who want to get in touch (e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger, etc.) and turn off anything else that is just distraction.

2. Stop checking your email

Research has found that reducing the number of times your check your emails per day reduces your sense of stress. So pause your inbox, or hide your inbox until you are ready.

3. Separate work and personal apps

This one will come in handy especially when you start working and expectations around your availability might change. Think twice about syncing work and personal email to the same app – do you really want to see that work email on a weekend? Create folders on your phone screen to group any work-related apps and similarly, group any distracting apps into another folder.

4. Get focused with tomatoes

Yes, you read it right. Use the Pomodoro technique (pomodoro means tomato in Italian) to break down your focused time into chunks of 25min at a time, interleaved with 5min breaks. You don’t need a fancy tomato timer to do it, your phone’s timer, an online tool (Tomato Timer), or even your kitchen timer will do just fine.

5. Use your calendar strategically

In order to be focused and productive, you need recovery time, during which you can replenish your energy. At the beginning of the week, take some time to plan the week ahead, block out time to work as well as time to relax. In addition to going out for a run, or seeing friends, research suggests playing video games can be a good recovery activity. You can read the full journal article on ScienceDirect

6. Learn to manage expectations

Our messaging apps send several cues about our availability: when we were last online, if we’ve read a message, etc. There is no need to increase expectations of a quick reply (and the anxiety that might result from that) – take control by turning off when you were last seen online and/or read receipts on WhatsApp and Messages.

7. Organise your space

Living in London means we might not have the luxury of separate rooms in the house to work, relax and sleep. However, you can still create a dedicated corner of your room only for work: if you want to switch activity move to a different part of the room and keep your work space tidy (i.e. don’t dump your clothes there). Also, charge your phone away from bed.

8. Find out how you are spending your time

Being online has become a habit and most of us are not fully aware of how much time we spend on social media, or even working. There are several tools that help you track your online time, like Rescuetime. If you are not sure what to do with the data it collects, try looking at it after a few weeks to spot any patterns.

9. Get help from apps to block distractions

Plug-ins like Stayfocusd or Leechblock prevent you from getting distracted from websites where you tend to procrastinate (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.). If you struggle with self-control, this tool will be your best friend: it locks you out of any distracting website you choose once your allowed time is up. To stop you being distracted on your phone, try Offtime. Also, ad-blockers can be really useful.

10. Be more mindful

Finally, it’s down to you to know when things are too much for you. Interacting with technology should be done with conscious intent, but it takes time and practice to become aware of what works best for you. Practising mindfulness is a good way of learning how to be focused in the moment and build self-awareness. Try out Headspace.

If you are curious to try out more or different strategies, find out about the research behind them, or even just get a step-to-step guide on how to implement some of these tips, have a look at our manual - 'Taking control of work-life balance with microboundaries

By Marta Cecchinato, PhD Student and Researcher at UCL