Let’s face it, changing habits is hard.
If it were easy, then we would all live perfect lives – we would eat right all the time, get our 30 minutes of activity in per day with no problem. We would practice gratitude every morning, and put our screens away 2 hours before bed so that we would get the perfect night’s sleep every night.
But that isn’t what happens.
When we look at the simple steps for changing our digital habits (just below), people often ask me about step one – “Know your digital stressors”. A lot of the time, they feel they have lots of habits to address and get overwhelmed with the number of changes they’ll have to make.
I often compare healthy digital habits to eating well. We need to eat, and it is a normal part of our lives. And in this modern world, we also need to use technology. It’s a necessity that, realistically, we can’t do without. But just like our eating habits, there are things we do that make us feel good, and things that make us feel crap. Like eating crisps at 11pm, or skipping breakfast.
For digital behaviours, things that could be “digital stressors” are actions like checking your phone first thing in the morning, or scrolling mindlessly to relieve boredom. But sometimes these habits are so, well, habitual that we need to take some time to really figure out what they are and why we’re doing them.
For this, I recommend a really simple but powerful process called
“Observe -> Reflect -> Experiment“. I first came across this process at a Digital Mindfulness conference in London in May 2019. It was presented by Jonathan Garner, founder of Mind Over Tech, a UK-based provide of digital wellness workshops and training. I found it a simple but impactful way to assess your digital habits.
If you are starting to address some digital habits you feel aren’t serving you, the best thing to do is start by observing your behavior for a week and see where you want to make changes first. I recommend taking some notes over the week. Consider questions like “when am I on my phone the most?” or “how long do I spend on certain apps?”. Think about the habits you might be doing on auto-pilot but you’re not sure how they started. Maybe you aimlessly scroll through the news when you’re bored, or when you have a focused task to do and the distraction is more welcome. In your notes, include when and where you do these things, for how long, who you’re with etc. Get as detailed as you can.
The next step can be done in parallel to or after the Observe step. This is the time to reflect on how the habits or behaviours you have noted across the week make you feel. If you check your phone first thing in the morning as soon as you open your eyes, ask yourself “how does that make me feel?”, “do I feel anxious?”, “is my heartrate increasing?”, “is my mind going into overdrive?”. Again, make some notes here and try to really understand which habits are having the least positive effect on you.
Now for the fun part! This is where you choose one (and I nearly always recommend focusing on just one at a time) habit that you want to address. In the Digital Wellbeing Workshop, we go through step-by-step how to change your behavior and recognize the triggers that drive that behavior. A simple way to do this yourself is to write down the behavior you want to change, and decide what you want the new behavior to be. Be as specific as possible, and also be realistic. If you have a 4-hour a day Instagram habit, then deciding that you will only check Instagram for 5 minutes each evening probably isn’t going to stick. Once you have decided on the new habit, try to visualize you doing it. Do you need to do anything to help enable this new habit? Maybe you need to change some notification settings? Or put a reminder in your phone/calendar? Also write these down as these are the actions you will need to take to ensure this new habit succeeds.
At this point, you start the Observe<>Reflect<>Experiment cycle again. Start to observe the new habit. Are you sticking to it? If yes, why do you think that is? If not, can you make some tweaks?
This is a really simple yet powerful strategy that underpins how to change digital habits, and habits in general. Take a look at the attached worksheet here, print it off and get started today.