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352 times per day.
That’s the average frequency at which Americans check their smartphones — the equivalent of once every three minutes — and according to Techspot, there’s an associated term for the fear of being without a device or cell service: nomophobia.
The name is fitting, and let’s face it, we’ve all suffered from it, at least a little. As hard as it is to admit, we’re addicted to devices and so are deluged by information, with overall wellness often suffering as a result. From funny cat memes to self-help articles to TikTok videos, we are flooded with input. Left unchecked, this leads to burnout.
I’ve been CEO of my form-building company, Jotform, for more than 16 years, and throughout that time have found it essential to practice what I like to call “intermittent info fasting.” In his book The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (O’Reilly Media, 2015), author Clay A. Johnson makes the case for placing limits around how we use technology, in the process detailing how “…eminent scholars are worried about our state of attention and general intelligence” as a result of info overload. Similar to how fast food negatively impacts health, Johnson notes that too much junk information can lead essentially to cluelessness— that it’s a good idea, for several reasons, to consider being more selective about what we absorb.
And though I recognize that the word “diet” might sound a bit cringe, hear me out: This process doesn’t have to be steeped in deprivation.
Related: How to Stop Information Overload in its Tracks
The benefits of intermittent digital fasting
Entrepreneur contributor Murray Newlands asks us to consider the following in a 2016 article: “With so much technology in every aspect of life, are you more productive, or are you losing an essential part of what keeps you passionate and alive to a digital addiction?”
He adds: “Though tech has drastically improved many things (coffee maker on a morning timer, anyone?) it can also have a detrimental effect if you’re relying on it too much.”
Newlands points to research showing we can be addicted to devices in much the same way we might be to a drug that gives a dopamine hit. “And with that addiction,” Newland writes, “comes a decline in productivity, creativity, and joy.”
In my new book, Automate Your Busywork: Do Less, Achieve More, and Save Your Brain for the Big Stuff (Wiley, 2023), I detail why peace of mind is necessary for success, and why without it we’re just spinning wheels. There are ample additional reasons why limiting the intake of non-essential information can help you reset, rethink and replenish.
Related: Overwhelmed With Work Emails and Messages? Follow These Strategies to Manage Communications
It reduces cognitive load
Intermittent info fasting isn’t about starving yourself of technology, but rather about finding a healthy balance. It’s markedly different than a digital detox, in which the goal is to completely disconnect, but rather an attempt to design habits that allow for better care of mental health, and to fuel mindfulness of the info we do consume.
Doing this helps reduce what’s referred to as cognitive load — the amount of info a working memory can process at any given time. And pushing this load can have real and lasting effects: One 2020 study found that our reliance on smartphones has been linked to a form of psychological dependency, and can have pronounced and detrimental effects on mood.
It enhances focus
Making more empowered and conscious decisions should be the priority in this “dieting” plan. Once the kind of info we’re taking in is adjusted, a sense of autonomy is restored. It also helps to improve focus: In the same way bodies work best when sugar intake is limited, the mind becomes unhindered as a result of not having to process junk info. Then you can start to see the bigger picture.
Such a process can begin very simply. One very basic piece of advice I often give is to charge your phone in a different room than the one you’re in, which can help quiet the mind and free it from distraction.
CEO of online marketplace Rated People, Celia Francis, told Forbes that she uses the Moment app to monitor how much time she spends on social media, and then acts on the feedback she receives. “It helps you understand how you use your phone, establish usage goals and disconnect at the right times,” she explained. “My phone is always off by 9 p.m. and isn’t switched back on until after the morning routine, which consists of meditation, yoga, breakfast and a walk to the tube station.”
Like Francis, understanding how you use devices can help you set up an info diet.
Another way is to batch digital work: Pick a specific time of day when you batch replies to emails, social media and group chats. For me, that means turning off notifications for hours at a time to avoid being distracted and enhance focus.
Related: How Time Batching Helps Improve Your Productivity — and How to Do It Effectively
When in doubt, opt for the middle path
In my experience, taking an extended digital detox isn’t a practical solution, and I certainly don’t advise that anyone go radio silent without cluing in colleagues. You simply want people to respect and honor your boundaries, as you would theirs. The idea is to find a balance where you’re able to carve out time for yourself without disrupting a team’s collective goals.
And you don’t have to cut out all the funny cat memes, either — just as you occasionally splurge on chocolate. Put simply, what’s needed is a healthy relationship with the info we consume, and that starts with understanding habits and then establishing a moderation plan to withdraw at strategic times.