One of the surprising things I discovered during a monthlong silent meditation retreat was how addicted I was to my iPhone. It’s a rare event to go an entire month without any digital technology—free from screens and free from the constant 24/7 pings and buzzes. I frequently caught myself habitually reaching for my iPhone only to realize it wasn’t on me. It took a week or so before the phantom vibration of the phone faded.
Many lawyers struggle to find a healthy work-life balance. I often hear lawyers lament that they’re never fully present—one lawyer shared that she felt as though she was constantly failing. “When I’m at the office, I’m thinking about my kids, and when I’m with my kids, I’m glued to work email.”
While there is no easy answer for how to live mindfully in the hyperconnected digital world, there are some practices we can incorporate into our lives to create a healthier relationship with digital technology.
Practice the pause
Mindfulness is the ability to add a moment of pause between the stimulus and your habitual reaction. When it comes to smartphones, we often grab them out of habit without pausing to explore why. Often, we reach for the smartphone because of boredom, loneliness, wanting to escape from whatever is happening or simply out of habit.
The next time you catch yourself reaching for your phone, ask yourself why. Is there a legitimate reason for checking your phone? Or is it simply an old habitual behavior?
When is the last time you intentionally “unplugged” from your digital device? I’ve found that carving out regularly scheduled time where I give myself an opportunity to unplug is helpful in allowing me to better connect with my family as well as myself.
There are many pockets of time where you can institute “unplugged” time. Some people observe the “digital sabbath” turning off the phone and laptop on Saturday evening and not turning them on again until Sunday evening, while others practice no screen time during meals.
If you’re like most lawyers and always eat lunch at your desk, looking at a screen, take yourself out to lunch once a week where you don’t look at your smartphone.
New morning routine
The other pocket of time where you may consider unplugging is in the morning, immediately after you wake up. Chances are, you check your email first thing in the morning. While there may be times when this is necessary, it’s not a habit that is conducive to reducing stress.
By checking your email first thing, you are allowing other people to set the agenda for the day—letting them dictate what’s important. Instead of email, fill the first part of your day with activities that will help to create calm.
This need not take long. You can spend the first five minutes of your day doing meditation, keeping a gratitude journal, doing yoga or whatever helps you to feel more grounded.
My husband and I have a no-iPhone-in-the-bedroom rule. This creates a bit of space every evening where we can catch up, talk about our day or just read a novel.
Whatever rule you institute, it’s important to be flexible. There have been times where my husband and I have fallen out of the habit of not using the iPhone in the bedroom—sometimes there are important client matters that need attending to or other life events. However, when the client matter settles or the family emergency passes, when life returns to normal, we go back to the rule.
Studies show that we’re much more likely to be distracted by the digital device if it’s close by, so consider some distance. Instead of walking around the house with it or having it in your pocket, leave it plugged in on the kitchen counter.
Notice how it feels
Periodically ask yourself: “Do I have a healthy relationship with digital technology?” I notice that when I’m glued to that tiny screen too long, I feel sort of hungover. There’s just a sense like I’ve consumed too much Facebook or been on Twitter entirely too long.
Let your senses guide you. Pay attention. Spending too much time looking at screens likely means you’re not getting much exercise or spending time outdoors. Strive to cultivate a balance that feels good to you.
As we come to the end of the year, it’s a wonderful time to reflect and make small changes in your life that can have a big impact. I invite you to start by making small changes and committing to doing it over a sustained period of time.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms on stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She co-wrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.