Manoush Zomorodi nods as I recount my sister’s separate Whatsapp groups for her three primary school children’s classes, work, family, friends and sisters, plus work and private emails and social media and the reams of news updates that flood her iPhone.
As she told me recently, she feels like she is drowning – and her phone is sweeping her further out to sea.
Zomorodi knows the feeling well. As the host of WNYC’s tech podcast Note to Self, the New York mother tackles overbearing technology on a daily basis. Tech has given us connectivity, information and opportunities we could not have imagined, yet, so often, it can feel suffocating. It was a topic she explored in depth for her show’s Infomagical project and touched upon during her appearance at OzPod: The Australian Podcasting Conference on Friday.
“Right now we’re just doing it all, because we haven’t figured out which one works the best,” she tells Daily Life, pointing to her own correspondence from her children’s school alongside her heavy work and other tech commitments.
“It’s time to start whittling it back down” and, in doing so, actively manage her information diet.
Zomorodi began researching and, once she understood that “our phones and the web are infinite, but our brains our not,” she was able to take steps to help her stay afloat as a working mother.
She explains. Every time we make a decision and switch tasks, we are burning through glucose – of which we only have a limited amount. And we only have the capacity to manage five decisions at once. Take an email. “You open it, should you answer it, should you file it, should save it for later, should you delete it?
“That’s five decisions right there and you haven’t even had coffee yet. No wonder you feel so tired and exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the day. We are literally physically taxing our brains to the point where they can’t make smart decisions.”
Knowing we have these limits, how do we build barriers into our lives that help us get the most out of tech while protecting us from its excesses? It takes work, but Zomorodi says the key is to prioritise. Shield yourself from distractions, ignore unnecessary information, encourage boredom and cut yourself some slack.
“Now, instead of berating myself, I set realistic expectations. And I don’t feel like shit all the time,” she says.
“Everybody wants a piece of you and they will take it unless you set boundaries and rules for yourself.”
Manoush Zomorodi’s 10 ways to beat your smartphone use into submission
Train your phone Citing Stanford University’s Alex Soojunh Kim-Pang, she says phones come out of the box like newborns, with everything turned on and demanding attention. “It’s up to you to turn them into formed human beings and teach them how to stop squawking at you. That’s the number one thing to do.” Turn off push notifications, alerts and anything that is designed to jump into your space while concentrating.
Know how the sausage is made The more we deconstruct tech, understand how it is made, what it is setting out to do and what it wants from us, the more powerful we are. Why does Snapchat want you to constantly update it? Why does Whatsapp want access to your microphone? Be new digital literate.
Reply to sender When emailing or group messaging, reply only to the sender and only read their initial email rather than the whole chain.
Be boring Set aside a moment in your day – the five minute walk from the station to home, the drive to work, the supermarket shop – to be phone free. Allow yourself to be bored during those moments, because boredom is a potent pathway to creativity.
Organise your brain “Being organised is more important than ever because of all the demands and information coming at you. What’s the point of taking in all this information if you can’t use it and synthesise it and put it to work? We need systems.” Make a to-do list. Prioritise within that list. Stick to it.
Singletask Multitasking is a myth. Focus on one thing at a time and avoid distraction: It takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds for the brain to regain focus once it has lost concentration on a task. Plus, research has shown the less we concentrate, the less we are able to concentrate.
Batch Make reading lists and start “batching”. Avoid going from Aleppo to puppies in a single glance of the news by categorising articles into topics rather than using eg. Twitter, which presents a barrage of disparate subject matters and flavours. Zomorodi uses the app, Pocket, to batch, so that she can concentrate on a particular topic at a time.
Change the pace You don’t have time to go for a walk at lunch – “I hate people who are like ‘Use your lunch hour to walk around,’ I’m sorry, I’m working through my lunch hour, but now I make a point get outside at least once,” says Zomorodi. Make time to go outside, take a breath and change your mindset.
Be realistic “There is still a burden on women to be the leaders at home and also to be professionally incredible as well, and I’m sorry but physically it’s just not possible. So, I’m giving myself a little space,” she says. “Whenever I think I’ve made some headway, I spend a day with my children and that destroys any smugness. Yes, I feel guilty, but this is a day-to-day battle that we are waging. I’m trying to not set expectations for myself.”
Some is enough This one’s not about tech, but is a Zomorodi gem. “I hate all this shit about date night once a week. F— you! I wish I could do that, but it’s never going to happen. So now my husband’s like, ‘I’m going to walk you to the subway.’ Awesome! And that’s just the right amount of time – we don’t get in a fight, we enjoy each other’s company … I want it all, but how about being ok with just some?”