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Spring cleaning 2014: Time to tackle your tech habits

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A couple of weeks ago, a disgruntled teenager slouched on my couch recounting how his mother had disconnected their home Internet. He pled for my sympathy.

It’s not normal. I need you to talk to her.  

While I understood Jake’s frustration – he did need the Internet for his summer job search – I also admit I found myself impressed with his mother’s gumption. After weeks of noticing Jake was online when she’d prefer him out in the world, she took charge. I started to wonder if we’d all benefit from some form of Internet intervention.

We typically associate spring with the self-improvement aim of spring-cleaning. Perhaps one of the biggest messes we may find ourselves entangled in is subtler than our piles of clutter – it’s our amassed social networking and web browsing.  

According to Nielsen and NM Incite's latest social media report, researchers estimate that on any given day, we may spend roughly 6.5 hours a day online, spending 20 percent of our time on computers and 30 percent of our time on mobile devices.  Like our closets that seem to burst when we don’t intervene, our time online continues to mount each year.  From 2010 to 2013, our daily time on digital devices increased by 59 percent.   

Now, the Internet offers many practical benefits – yet there may be consequences of spending so much time in a virtual world. 

My client, Lana, hated her job and spent a lot of time at work discreetly bouncing from virtual clothing sales to Instagram. When we tried to target her Internet problem, she insisted she must distract herself to stay sane in an unnerving work environment. 

In noticing the subtle details of her day, we realized Lana ended up staying at work later due to her procrastination and then felt less motivated to work on her resume in the evenings, leaving her stuck. She reluctantly agreed to experiment with limiting Internet browsing at work to 30 minutes each day for a week. Instead of spending and scanning, she started going to her local gym for a lunchtime workout. She also left work a bit earlier each day. 

Lana realized her technology habits were not only depleting her energy, they also contributed to her feelings of depression and stagnation.

This spring, in addition to cleaning your living space, you might consider a technology cleanse.  

Here are 5 steps to get you started on a plan to tackle technology clutter in your life:

1. Target one habit 
Is there a website or habit that’s depleting you of energy and mental space?  Think about it, are you spending too much time on Facebook? Do you find yourself reading nonessential emails rather than doing your work? Think about your routine and choose one habit to target.

2. Set a time frame 
How long do you want to work on this new goal? A week? A month?  Give yourself enough time to see some results.  You also need to choose a realistic time frame so you don’t feel too overwhelmed or quit because the concept of “forever” seems impossible.

3. Search for tech friendly solutions or a spring-cleaning buddy 
Ironically, technology may help free you from technology.  If you’re trying to cut down on Facebook, TimeRabbit is a free app that measures your time spent on the social media site. If you’re worried about your willpower, Freedom is an app that blocks distractions from your desktop for a set period of time. If you’re not sure where to start, RescueTime gives you a sense of your daily technology habits. 

Or, if you’d prefer, you can enlist a friend to provide you support. Compete to see who sticks to the tech cleanse the longest.  

4. Log it 
Jot down how you feel when you cut back on tech so you can remind yourself why this matters when urges surface. For example, maybe you feel a little unsettled going to bed without checking ESPN.com – but notice you feel more rested the next morning when you skip it. Keeping track of the benefits of the changes you're making may help you resist the next night.

5. Clean again 
Like good spring-cleaning, you need to continuously tidy up to stay in order.  If your goal for the week felt too daunting, try again.

Jennifer Taitz  is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. She is the author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop Healthy Relationship to Food. Visit her website drjennytaitz.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.