For the last 12+ months, you’ve probably spent more time online than ever before. Whether working from home, homeschooling, keeping in touch with friends and family or all of the above, I’d hazard a guess that you reached the point of exhaustion ages ago. There comes a point where you just can’t face anymore Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype, Zoom and email. And now mum wants to talk for an hour on the phone. It can become too much, and it can really begin to affect your wellbeing in a very real way, causing frustration, stress and anxiety – not to mention straining relationships. Here are some of my top tips for restoring the balance so you can stay happier and healthier.
Why is online so intense?
Before I look at some solutions to the problem, allow me to explore some of the reasons that an online life is so intense.
Let’s be honest, talking comes naturally to most people. We meet and greet people we know, say hello to friends, neighbours and acquaintances in passing. We really don’t need to put that much thought into it.
In the online world, all of our communication is down via technology, and even if you are a totally tech-savvy lover of all things electronic, it adds an extra barrier between you and the person you are communicating with. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation through the wall with someone in an adjoining room, it is much the same, the reasons for which I will come to in the next section. Video and audio can be particularly challenging, and this is made even more intense if the quality is poor, forcing you so strain to see and hear clearly.
We use more than words
In reality, our words usually form only a small part of our communication – as little as 7%. The rest, known as non-verbal communication, comes through other signals such as our body language and expressions (55%) and tone of voice (38%) (Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction). These crucial elements are often lost in online conversation, meaning words are all we have – and this is actually a really intense and exhausting way to communicate.
We also have to remember that is it the non-verbal communication that gives us a sense of closeness, intimacy, affection, trust, etc. with the people we are speaking to. If you strip this out of a conversation, it can leave a real sense of emptiness. You will never get that same sense of satisfaction that you would get when sharing a coffee and a chat. And that’s without even mentioning our deep desire to have physical contact with those who mean the most to us.
In normal circumstances, you might temporarily move your relationships online because you are working away from home for a few weeks, travelling or engaged upon some other kind of exercise that takes you away from contact with your normal circles. The keyword here, however, is temporary. In most situations, there is a clearly defined endpoint – you know exactly when you will be able to return to seeing the people who matter to you, and usually, this is fairly short term.
In the current crisis, things are completely different. Never before in living memory have we had a situation where we are cut off from physical contact with no idea as to when the isolation may end. Not knowing when you will be able to see the people you are talking to in person dramatically adds to the strain.
Techniques to protect your wellbeing
1. Observe the 20/20/20 rule
Don’t panic, it’s not a mathematical equation. Created by Californian optometrist Jeffrey Anshel, the 20/20/20 rule is intended to encourage those using digital interfaces to take breaks and prevent eye strain. The idea is extremely simple. You take a 20-second break from looking at a screen every 20 minutes. During this break, you focus on an object 20 feet away, which relaxes the eye muscles. For best results, look out of a window. Shifting your attention to a tree or streetlight outside will help to encourage focus on more distant objects.
How to get into the habit
- Set a reminder on your phone to make sure you don’t lose track of time
- Use an app such as ProtectYourVision or eyeCare
- Position yourself where it is easy to look out of a window
How to get even more out of your eye breaks
- Use your eye breaks to practice mindfulness
- Get up and move around for 20 seconds
- Dring some water during your eye breaks
2. Set limits
Another way to protect yourself is to set limits on the hours you are available online and how long you are engaged in conversation for in any one day. For example, you may decide that you are not going to communicate after 7pm, to allow yourself time to relax, or that you will only participate in one video call per day. Because everybody has a different life, it is not my place to say how exactly you should apply this – but what I will say is this: Once you set the rule, stick to it steadfastly unless it is a real emergency, which is rarely the case. Even if somebody does try to call you, most things can wait until later.
How to get into the habit
- Set your phone up to go into do not disturb between specific hours.
- During your ‘off’ time, put your phone in silent mode and put it out of sight
- Set alarms to signal when you are changing ‘status’
3. Read more books
Reading can be an extremely pleasurable activity, whether as a form of relaxation or for learning and personal development. The proviso here – it must be a printed book. Ebooks don’t count as time off, neither do audiobooks. The point is you are taking time away from technology. Whilst tools like Audible or Kindle (other platforms are also available) have numerous advantages, they still tie you to your device of choice – and it is all too easy to be distracted at the first sign of a notification. For best results, combine your reading time with your phone break as described in section 2.
4. Get outside
A great way to take a break from the relentless digital world is to get outside for a walk – but leave your phone at home. Don’t worry about your step count or calories burnt – focus on getting out in the fresh air and appreciating nature. Unfortunately, we have become hooked on tracking our physical activities on our phones, and this means that we tend to go for a walk and then spend half the time checking our progress and most of the rest of the time on social media or messaging apps. Take the plunge – go for a walk every day and leave the phone at home. It’ll do you a world of good.
5. Engage with animals
Animals are a great distraction to get you away from the screen. Enjoying time with a furry friend or two will actually go a long way towards alleviating your sense of isolation – and guess why? Because of the contact and the non-verbal communication. Not to mention the laughs. If you have pets, spend some quality time interacting with them – preferably outside if this is possible. If you have a dog, then you can cover this and the previous point in one go. If you don’t have pets of your own but there are animals within a reasonable distance from your home, make a point of visiting them – it is surprising how much pleasure can be derived from a chat with the local cows, horses or sheep. Be sure to adhere to any requests not to feed or touch animals (and of course the rules for being outdoors), but make a point of seeking out company with animals everyday.
There are, of course, many other ways to combat online overdose, but these are a few tried and tested methods that I have found valuable. Got strategies of your own? I’d love to hear how you are maintaining the balance.