Five Practices for Using Information More Mindfully

We’re coming up on the end of the year, and you may be contemplating resolutions for the New Year. I haven’t had success with lists of resolutions drawn up before January 1. Invariably I’ve faltered on one of them by the second week of the year, and then all falls apart. Instead of writing resolutions, I use the quiet time afforded by the holidays to consider what I could’ve done better in the past year. Then I think about small habits I can implement or experiments I can try to help me fix those things.

Talking to people this year while promoting Living in Information makes me think many folks are feeling overwhelmed by the information environments in their lives. If this describes you, then you may need to be more mindful in how you use information. One way to do it is to establish daily habits and routines around the use of your digital devices and apps. Here are five practices you can try to start off the New Year with a healthier relation to information. I’ve tried (and had success with) all five; any one of them can help you.

Take a digital sabbatical

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is a relatively quiet time for many people at work. This makes it a perfect time to take a digital sabbatical. By this,​ I mean severely curtailing your use of information environments.

When I take a digital sabbatical, I go entirely off social networks and only check my email sporadically, perhaps once every two or three days. (You may want to avoid checking email altogether if you can help it.) I let people know beforehand that I won’t be availabl​e, and set up an autoresponder on my email so they know when I’ll get back to them. I use the time to do things in the “real world” with my family (such as skiing) and reading books.

Start a book journal

One of the effects of our notifications-driven information culture is that our attention spans are becoming shorter. One way to combat this is to read more books. (The digital sabbatical is an excellent time to finally tackle that book you’ve meant to take on for a while.)

While reading longer-form can be more challenging if you’re used to the pace of social media, I find that taking notes on what I’m reading helps. I’ve kept a journal of the books I’ve read for the past eleven years. Knowing I’ll be writing about what I’m reading helps me do so more mindfully. I also retain more of what I’ve read. There’s also a sense of achievement that comes from periodically reviewing the books you’ve read. A journal is an excellent way of keeping track.

Uninstall time sinks

By now you may be thinking, these practices sound like work. Well, here’s one you can do right now and which won’t require much effort: uninstall the time sink apps from your phone/tablet. Just delete them; you can always install them again if needed.

When we’re tired or overwhelmed, we don’t make the healthiest decisions, whether it be overeating or checking Twitter mindlessly. Removing opportunities to indulge is a time-tested approach to managing these things. Spending time without them may make you realize you don’t need them as much as you thought you did.

In the past few months, I uninstalled Twitter and Facebook from my iPhone and iPad. I haven’t gone off these places completely; I now use them only on my Mac, and only at certain times of the day. I still occasionally find myself waiting in line at the coffee shop and wanting to check Twitter. When I do, I remember why I uninstalled these apps from my phone.

Create daily information rituals

Instead of mindlessly checking into Twitter and Facebook whenever I have a bit of downtime, I now do it at particular times of day I’ve set aside for social media. Setting aside time to do so helps me be more conscious in their use. Nothing’s likely to happen in these places that can’t wait.

I’ve created several small information rituals that I do every day. One of them has to do with engaging with people in those information environments. Others include keeping a daily journal and writing for this blog. I have a sequence of steps that I go through when I’m doing these things. For example, I’m writing this post while enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day.

Any day when I don’t have time to write for the journal or the blog, I feel something’s missing — much as I do if I don’t brush my teeth. Getting to the point where these things felt necessary took time; the first few weeks I had to drag myself to the keyboard. I kept coming up with excuses of all sorts. Resist that temptation! Eventually, it’ll become second nature.

Use tools to monitor your screen time

Again, sounds like a lot of work. It can be. But there are also some simple tools that can help you become more aware of how you’re using your computer/phone/tablet. They’re especially useful in helping you identify the apps that are using up your time.

Some of these tools may already bee installed in your device. As an iOS user, I’ve found Screen Time insightful. (Here’s more on how I’m using Screen Time.) On the Mac, I use a third-party app called Timing that offers more extensive time tracking. (If you’re an Android user, look at Google’s Digital Wellbeing program.)

So there you go, five practices to help you make more mindful use of the information environments in your life. Many aren’t easy, but the payoff can be significant. One final piece of advice: be gentle with yourself. Building new habits takes time. (Some people say it takes as long as ninety days!) If you falter after the first day, pick yourself up and try again. You’ll be more successful if you go at it one habit at a time. Don’t overload yourself. The point of these activities is helping you have greater control, not less. Good luck!