Meaningful Tech Connections – By Anna Kotwinski

How to create a positive relationship with ourselves and our technology

We’re delighted to interview Anna Kotwinski, co-founder of Shine Offline in our expert interview this month, about establishing Meaningful Tech Connections. Shine Offline are a digital wellbeing consultancy that helps businesses support their staff to have healthy, effective relationships with their smartphones and other devices in today’s 24/7 connected world. Shine Offline clients include O2, PwC, Barclays, Pret a Manger, 3M and National Grid.

ONLY GOT 30 SECONDS? HERE ARE 3 TOP TIPS FROM ANNA TO HELP YOU CREATE A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR TECHNOLOGY.

  1. GET AN ALARM CLOCK! If you are to change one thing I would say get an alarm clock and make your bedroom a tech free zone! Start and end your day tech free: have an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening when you don’t look at your phone. It’s a small thing that can have a really big impact to your sleep, your mental health and your relationships. 
  2. CONSIDER GETTING A SECOND PHONE! If you have problems with work life balance and you use one smartphone I would seriously recommend getting another to help create some boundaries around your personal and professional parts of your life. This is relevant whether you are a self-employed gardener or working for a big corporate. If this isn’t an option there are some brilliant apps that are useful to help with digital balance and I have two particular ones that I use all the time: one of them is OFFTIME and the other is Forest. 
  3. PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY – the majority of us live with our phone in arms reach and never switch it off. I recently saw someone checking her emails whilst doing a downward dog! Create some space between you and your device and out it out of sight. You’d find it hard to diet if you were sat working with a jar of cookies on your desk and the same goes for digital temptation! Whether you are meeting a friend for a coffee, walking the dog, focusing on an important piece of work or settling down to a good book, get your phone out of sight and be present in your life. Start using it with intention rather than to fill every moment. Be here now.   

There’s no doubt that digital and technology can be a force for good – helping to advance medicine, society and the way we live our lives. But with all the good, comes the inevitable downsides. Please can you share your perspective on what we know and what we potentially don’t know about the impact that technology is having on us as human beings.

The answer is not a simple one – we are only just starting to learn what the impacts are. When we consider the sheer speed at which the digital revolution has unfolded, that it was only 2007 that the smartphone was launched and now we are using them for our work, social life, exercise, navigation, entertainment, banking… the list goes on. It’s no wonder we’ve started to feel an over-reliance. But the speed of change has outstripped our ability to adapt.

In the right hands there is no question that these new incredible technologies have enormous potential for good but devices, apps and websites media haven’t been designed for human wellbeing but to maximise our engagement, getting us to stay on them for longer and keep coming back for more. We don’t yet know what the unintended consequences are on our minds, communities and our relationships. Research is limited and often contradictory. I could give you the data that tells you about these negative impacts but my personal view is that we don’t need stats and data to know that we are not happy with our relationships with technology. So many of us just feel it in our guts.

Laura and I set up Shine Offline because we knew the impact a poor balance in use of technology had on us, and we work with people everyday who tell us it is causing them stress, they feel out of control and they want to get back in the driving seat.   

Thinking about mental health first and foremost, what insight and advice can you share about digital/tech on our mental wellbeing?

There are three areas I’d like to touch on – impact of social media, loss of work life balance and thirdly the effect on our ability to focus.

Firstly, social media is definitely an example of new technology that should offer us connection and support and yet often has a negative impact on wellbeing. Psychologists and researchers are consistently finding that heavy use of social media, especially passive use, is linked to depression and increased feelings of loneliness. A University of Pittsburgh study found heavy users were more than three times more likely to be depressed. A big part of this is feelings of inadequacy when we are presented with bottomless feeds of other people’s curated ‘best bits’, it is hard not to make negative comparisons to our own less than perfect lives.

The second big factor is the impact on technology on our work-life balance and increase in work related stress and burnout. Technology has now made it possible for many of us to work anytime anywhere – the possibilities of flexible working are amazing but what we have found is that without boundaries it is easy to feel like we are working all the time and never getting a break. The fact we can carry our work email and can be contactable all the time means many of us are just not getting the breaks that we need.  

There is some really interesting research on how smartphones and internet use has actually changed our brains and diminished our ability to focus. We are so used to being interrupted, to flitting from one piece of digital information to another that our brains have effectively become trained in distraction. In short the more we allow ourselves to be distracted the less we are able to focus. People tell us that when they go on holiday and sit down to read a book they can’t concentrate, and the inability to focus has an impact on how people do their jobs. Being able to harness your attention in a distracted world is a valuable skill and we think that it is no coincidence that as the demand for smartphone technology had risen so has the interest in mindfulness. As distractions from digital technologies are constantly pulling us out of the moment, so mindfulness helps develop our ability to focus and stay present. 

To help concentrate and develop the ability to focus I recommend people try ‘Deep Work’ which is a practise defined by academic and author Cal Newport as “…the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. It has been proven that multitasking is a myth. The human brain is not capable of focusing on two things at once. Instead what we do is ‘task flitting’, a practise that makes us less productive as we lose time regaining concentration after each interruption. Cal Newport recommends removing all distractions for periods of time to get work done, switching off smartphones, closing inboxes to be able to escape from being in ‘response’ mode and give some space in our brains for proper thought, true focus and flow.

And from a physical perspective, what is the latest thinking on technology and its impact on our physical health?

I think we need to consider the impact of our reliance on screens on growing levels of obesity. Many people’s lives are increasingly sedentary, kids are spending more time on social media, YouTube and gaming. So many people claim they are too busy to exercise, but then when you look at the stats on the dramatic increase in the amount of time we spend in front of screens whether that is always connected to work, checking the news, social media or Netflix you have to wonder whether there is time to be reclaimed from our screens to prioritise other parts of our lives – including exercising more! 

In many ways apps can be great, especially around fitness and meditation. But there can be tech for tech’s sake and we need to be clear about what is actually helping us. For example, you might use some running tech – this is great – but don’t let it stand in the way of you listening to your body and finding your own rhythm. Make sure you look around you and appreciate your surroundings rather than constantly checking your pace. And be sure to take a moment to exhale at the end of your run rather than immediately checking your stats on your watch!

Sleep is another area of our lives that technology is notorious for affecting. And this isn’t just about the blue light affecting the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, or even missed sleep lost to binge watching the latest Netflix offering. Many people are sat in front of multiple devices through the evening dipping into news, social media, work emails. And as 8 out of 10 of us use our phones as their alarm clocks, we are sleeping with devices by our beds with a third of us checking for messages in the middle of the night (according to Deloitte research). We live in a 24/7 world but we don’t have 24/7 minds and we are not designed for this much stimulus. The mind doesn’t have a chance to wind down if checking work email, latest on Brexit or social media feeds last thing at night and the minute you wake up!

And finally, what are the trends that you are seeing in terms of how the use of technology is impacting us from a human/emotional point of view?

As animals, we’re not designed to be in a 24/7 connected digital world. We are social creatures. We need quality, real life interactions and relationships. People are designating more and more of their relationships into an online space, which means we don’t get the nuances of what people are saying, we don’t get to look into people’s eyes, hear their tone of voice, see their body language. This is having an impact on the sorts of connections people are making. And our devices often accompany us when we are trying to build and nourish our real life relationships whether that is in the pub with your mates, the meeting room at work or the meal table at home. This impacts on our ability to focus on the people we are with and actually be in the moment. A book called ‘Reclaiming Conversation’ talks about ‘continuous partial attention’ and how that’s our default state now. We’re only ever half there!

AND TO FINISH, WE ALWAYS ASK THE FOLLOWING THREE QUESTIONS OF OUR INTERVIEWEES…

How do you keep fit physically?

I was the kid that got picked last for the netball team at school. Zero coordination and slow. But what I discovered I could do and love was run and keeping running. Forest Gump style! I ran my first marathon in 2005 and have notched up a fair few since then. I’m not training for an event at the moment but will still run maybe three times a week on my own, with friends or the brilliant Bearcat Running Club. I much prefer getting out in the park than working up a sweat in the gym – it is an amazing way to discover new places on your doorstop or when travelling, it is free (if I can keep my Lululemon addiction in check) and I always feel more alive afterwards. I also go to Pilates at least once a week. It really helps stretch out my tight runner’s muscles and prevent injury. Although I have occasionally been known to drift off on my mat. I love my food and try and eat well most of time. But I’m a sucker for a Percy Pig.

How do you keep fit mentally?

Running plays a big part here too. A run in a green space will refresh body and mind, set me up well for the day ahead or if I take a break from some challenging work to go for a run (also known as ‘Runch’) often I’ll have the ‘aha!’ moment I was looking for. It is also a brilliant opportunity to see those friends who are also runners and have a proper chat. It is amazing the things you learn about yourself and others running miles by the river as the sun rises!

My friends are super important to me.  Life is really busy for me at the moment and it is easy sometimes to let things slip and months go by so I am making a real effort to get dates in diary, make actual plans.  Nothing recharges me so much as catching up for a laugh, a moan, a hug!  

I discovered mindfulness about 4 years ago. I practise with a lovely local group, or sometimes with an app such as Headspace but I don’t do either as often as I’d like to. One thing I believe it is incredible tool for – harnessing our ability to focus in an increasingly busy and distracted world. As much as I can I try and be mindful in everyday life, to be present with whatever I am doing be that watching Netflix in the evening, in the pub with my mate or writing a report for work.  

Any other tips/tricks for wellbeing?

Smell the roses! I recoiled when someone first suggested I should practise gratitude daily, but I am so glad I shook off my very British reaction and gave it a try! Now I can safely say that consciously choosing to appreciate my lot is the single most powerful thing I have for my own sanity, happiness and relationship with others. I’m not naturally a glass half full type and my imagination can spin out of control and the next thing you know I am its 3am and I am lying in a cold sweat catastrophising!

By consciously stopping to appreciate regularly I gain perspective and see the world with more positive eyes. It still takes effort especially on the crappy days, to look for the ‘lessons’ when you feel you have failed, to tune in to life’s tiny joys rather than getting hooked on the injustices. I try and see and love what you have in the face of scrolling feeds of other people’s sunsets, new shoes and perfect smiling families! Every night my kids who are 9 and 10 write down and share 3 great things about their day. It is a lovely way to learn more about them, help them celebrate everyday joys, look for the best in people and keep the glass half full!

Thank you to Anna for sharing her wisdom on the subject of technology and our relationship with technology. You can get in touch with Anna directly here.