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Creating a Healthy Relationship With Your Digital Life

Alden Wicker

You might be feeling like your digital life is creeping too far into your real life, because, well, 2015. Maybe it’s a vague feeling of disconnection, the stress of managing an inbox, or the sharp guilt when your significant other gets upset that you were scrolling through Instagram while he was talking. Again.

“This is a boundary issue,” says Katherine Schafler, a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City that caters to highly driven and perfectionist women in their 20s and 30s. “There are no healthy relationships without boundaries. So to have a healthy relationship with digital media, you have to have boundaries, too. In a way, they’re meaningful habits, because they’re all about connection. The problem ends up being really shallow and endless.” She continued to say that being addicted to your social media feed can lead to fights with your partner, can get in the way of your other goals like getting to the gym on time or sending out your résumé, or can lead to feelings of jealousy as you watch someone else climb the social or professional ladder, among other things.

So how do you have a healthy relationship with the digital world? Well, you don’t need to get yourself a cabin by Walden Pond. Hey, you have a life and a personal brand to maintain. Schafler gave us her tips, specially crafted for the high-powered among us, and right in time for the New Year.

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1. You do you

OK, first of all, don’t let anyone tell you how to live your digital life. “Boundaries are usually better if they are not prescriptive from someone else,” Schafler says. “Rigid compartmentalizing is overrated, frankly.” And she doesn’t think checking your phone at dinner makes you a bad person. “Denying the work demands that you have and saying, ‘After 5 o’clock my phone is off limits to me’ is just not practical in some people’s lives. Only you can say what is the right balance for you, and you are setting yourself up for failure if you give yourself rigid blackout times. “Every day is different and particularly in professions like entrepreneurs, writers, etc. emails come in, opportunities come through at very non-9-to-5 parts of the day. You want to look at what is acceptable to you and what is not acceptable at all.”

Now that we’ve ended the guilt trip you’ve been carrying around in your head from that yogini, let’s get real.

2. Identify how and when digital is disrupting your life

If you’re reading this, you probably have a conflicted relationship with your iWhatever. But when is it actually getting in the way of your happiness? “You need to decide how and when the digital world is disrupting your ability to connect to the people and activities that make you happy,” Schafler says. “If you figure out the how and when, you can adjust based on that. For example: Is looking at your phone in bed a problem for you? Does it disrupt your daily functioning? Are you losing sleep; are you not having sex; are you fighting with someone because they feel ignored?”

Because, as Schafler points out, you have to really want to change something to change it. If you don’t want to stop checking your phone when you’re out with friends, then forget about it for now. Focus on the bigger problems, like how Reddit is eating up your work hours.

3. Observe yourself

“Don’t beat yourself up because you’re not immediately modifying your life. Thinking about it is actually a legit stage of change,” Schafler says. “It takes a while to find the right rhythm. Incorporate a bit of self-compassion into this.” So every time you engage in that digital self-sabotage, use that as feedback to figure out why. Maybe you’re stressed, or coping, or trying to avoid feeling feelings.

“If you say, ‘I’m going to stop looking at Instagram in the morning,’ and the next three mornings the first thing you do is look at it, it’s good emotional feedback that you’re anxious about something,” Schafler says.

4. Set micro goals

Go big or go home? Not in this case. Disconnecting from Facebook in a broad gesture won’t get you far. “You just return to your old habits,” Shafler says. Making a rule that you’ll never check your phone in the morning again won’t work either, because you won’t believe yourself. She recommends starting with micro goals. “Instead of thinking big, you think really small. Let’s say, you want to stop looking at Instagram. Your micro goal is to pick up your phone for a second in the morning, hold it, and encounter the thought, ‘OK, I want to stop doing this.’ But you don’t actually have to stop doing it.”

After a few mornings of this, you can build confidence that you can actually create new habits, and you’ll believe yourself capable. And you’ll stop checking your phone.

Another micro goal might be to turn off your phone when you get to the restaurant, because you don’t want to look at it. “That doesn’t mean you can’t turn it back on and look at it. It doesn’t matter if you go to the bathroom and turn it on and keep it on the table when you get back.” Yup, when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, we say baby steps.

Just remember, microgoals are best when they don’t involve anyone else’s participation. So no social media shaming, k?

5. Create a new habit

“Change is always about adding new stuff,” Schafler says. “You don’t have to eradicate what you’re doing, as long as you have something different to do.”

So back to the Instagram for breakfast example. “What are you going to do in the morning when you’re not looking at Instagram? Sit there and think about Instagram?” You could try setting your alarm to play a pretty song, and listen to that all the way through instead of checking your phone. Or you could set the time on your coffee maker so that it’s waiting for you when you open your eyes. The idea is that in the morning there is something else healthier to grab your attention.

See? You didn’t have to go to a digital detox summer camp! All you needed was a few simple steps to regain your life.

Alden Wicker is the Founder of EcoCult, a curious, provocative, utterly enthusiastic view into sustainable fashion.