My reflections on digital life boundaries and one of many ways to draw the line between work, personal life and rest.
I deleted an email app from my phone a few months ago. I installed it back in a week. Some days, I stay online for hours. Other days, I want to stay away from technology. Unfortunately, drawing the boundary requires multiple manual steps: turn OFF notifications, delete apps, turn ON an airplane mode, etc. Luckily, Apple announced a focus mode - filter for notifications and apps based on what user focus. Everyone’s relationship with technology is different. Somebody can be promoting a product on Instagram. They would want to reply to customers ASAP, so it makes sense to get every notification. Another person may use social media for occasional entertainment. Regardless, I believe we need to disconnect from technology more often. I hope that such discussions on digital well-being will inspire better products.
Importance of digital boundaries
“Okay, digital boundaries sound quite abstract.” - you might say. Fair. Here are specific situations I experienced and which I believe are common. Work and Rest are two basic digital modes. They are essential because they bring you close to accomplishing your aspirations. For example, I have the ambition to grow this newsletter to 1000 subscribers. I know that I need to read, research and write systematically. I try to set my technology (and brain) in the “writing mode” for at least 45 min/day. When I stay focused, I usually create something I am proud of. Technology both simplifies and complicates our lives. It makes it easy to stay connected with people and what’s happening in the world. It makes it hard to disconnect from the constant stream of information at the same time. A habit to constantly check a phone makes it increasingly hard to focus and create something meaningful. My favorite piece on this is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. While Cal Newport emphasizes the value of focused work in a modern economy, he also mentions effective rest without interruptions:
“… if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to email or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur.”
My experiments with digital boundaries
At work, I try to solve tasks as they come in and complete projects on time. Todo list, calendar and other tools remind me about it. However, when I try to rest, I keep getting notifications about the same appointments, tasks or messages. If there is one thing I learned in five years of full-time work - you never rest if you see a reminder about a deadline. I am not talking about a vacation here; it can be an evening rest. As soon as I see a notification about an email, my brain starts buzzing. Fast forward, I am on my phone at 12:45 a.m. But there is nothing wrong with me (at least I like to think this way). Modern technology was designed this way. It makes it easy to get distracted. One thing is clear - I need boundaries for work, personal life and rest. I heard stories from people who decided to disconnect completely. Others chose to accept an always ON mode. I couldn’t relate to either and found myself between two extremes:
Installing myriad of apps and following updates helps stay aware of what’s happening but leads to exhaustion.
Deleting most apps and turning OFF notifications removes distractions, but creates a fear of missing out. Lack of apps also leads to additional friction when I need to access something quickly.
Basic solution: connected and disconnected
Apple Watch helped me with a basic solution. My everyday watch face shows weather, activity, calendar, messages and time. However, when I went on a vacation, I did not need those features. I wanted a dumb watch. I tried to do the same with my phone, where each screen creates a boundary between work and rest. It worked because:
I could effortlessly swipe between modes;
I don’t need to set up each mode from scratch every time;
When in rest mode, I have no insight into what’s happening in a calendar or messages app. Out of sight, out of mind.
Still, there is a flaw in this setup - I get notifications from apps unless I enable 24/7 do not disturb. And this is a crucial point. Just like with content consumption in a specific mood, we have a specific mood when we’re at work. That’s why the promise of focus mode in iOS 15 is exciting: when you enable a specific mode, let’s say “vacation,” you can select what apps can send you a notification and be visible on your screen.
Advanced solution: work, personal,sport, etc.
I think rest and work are essential boundaries all of us need to have for digital well-being. The new iOS feature, however, inspired me to consider a more granular setup. For example, I like to read on my tablet; however, I get distracted by notifications. If I enable airplane mode, I can’t search for additional information. With a focus mode, I should establish boundaries - stay online, search the web, but not receive an email or slack notification while I’m reading. To find similar scenarios, I started reflecting on a typical daily routine and the different boundaries with technology I can introduce.
At work: I want to stay as connected with the team. Being readily available helps us address problems faster.
At rest: I try to stay away from notifications to have at least a few hours of uninterrupted time.
When I am engaged in a hobby like writing, drawing or reading, I don’t want to see work or personal notifications.
When travelling, exercising or just socializing with friends, I don’t want to see work or hobby related content or notifications.
For each of those “modes,” I have a specific set of tools and routines. The better focus I have, the more fulfilling work I create. The key idea I found here is that I usually switch between three modes. For two - writing/reading and work, I am actively engaged with technology. For the last one - rest, I want to minimize the presence of technology in my life without fear of missing out.
Digital boundaries help you focus on meaningful work and find a state of the flow. One default mode I believe we all need to embrace - disconnection. I don’t believe in occasional digital detox. Occasional detox is a painkiller that lets us ignore a systematic habit of finding a balance with when you need technology and when you don’t. What are your digital life boundaries?