By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.―Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Because National Day of Unplugging is observed in March, our focus for this month’s column is spending less time engaged with digital devices.
Are We Too Connected?
Most of us can’t imagine a life without the Internet, computers, or smartphones. The youngest generation of attorneys won’t know a world without these modern forms of communication. Our evolving relationship with technology is altering how we connect with the world around us. Digital devices have become our constant companions, helping us stay connected with loved ones, play games, surf the web, read the news, and check our email.
The pandemic spurred an unprecedented reliance on the digital space in our personal and professional lives. During shutdowns and social distancing, our smartphones and computers served as lifelines of social connection. Technology has empowered us to keep moving forward, even affording new opportunities to connect and expand our worlds. By way of example, your co-authors met virtually at the start of the pandemic and launched The Legal Burnout Solution despite having never met in person! To this day, we run this initiative virtually with Cynthia Sharp residing in Philadelphia and Becky Howlett in Kansas City.
The Dangers of Digital Addiction
Technology is the double-edged sword that is increasingly shaping our everyday lives. Despite the myriad benefits of technology in our modern lives, the digital space also presents new risks and challenges. Overall, more than half of Americans have never gone 24 hours without their cell phone. Technology such as social media is consciously designed to be addictive. (Have you watched The Social Dilemma yet?) Is it any wonder that our technology usage can easily spiral into addictive behavior even when we are aware of and trying to reduce our screen time.
Although half of Americans want to spend less time on their phones, smartphone usage has been climbing at breakneck speed in recent years. A 2019 survey showed that the average American checked his or her phone 96 times a day. At the time, 50 percent of Americans were trying to decrease their phone usage. The ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, however, had other plans. According to December 2021 polling data, Americans now check their phone an average of 344 times a day―a 3.5 times increase since before the pandemic. This year, the average American will spend almost three hours a day on their phones―added up, that’s 45 days!
Research indicates the pandemic led to an increase in digital addiction, which can have dire consequences on our mental health and overall well-being. A 2021 Psychiatry International study found that more than half of Americans are either at risk of or severely addicted to the Internet. Critically, those suffering from severe Internet addiction are eight times more likely to be depressed, nine times more likely to have anxiety, and 14 times more likely to experience depression and anxiety concurrently. Given the already epidemic rates of mental concerns among legal professionals (see our article “Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Profession” in the May 2021 issue of GPSolo eReport), it is critical that we take a mindful look at how we are interacting with technology in our day-to-day lives.
In reality, effectively managing technology use may be particularly challenging for attorneys as we largely rely on digital devices to complete our work. For example, one solo attorney who we interviewed found that she averaged six hours per day on her smartphone in December 2021―that’s more than double the average American. Many lawyers are also working remotely, which can make “turning off” our digital devices even more difficult in practice.
True, technology enables us to work faster, but this can also contribute to an environment ripe for careless errors that threaten our reputations and ethical responsibilities. Constant connectivity leaves us susceptible to hastily drafted or even ill-advised communications sent in the heat of the moment. Some attorneys may even check their email after-hours and respond while intoxicated. Indeed, mismanaged technology use can lead to strained relationships, unsatisfactory case outcomes, and disciplinary action for attorney misconduct.
Managing Digital Life: Mindful Perspectives
If you are one of the multitude who spends too much time connected to devices, you may be motivated to shift your behavior after reviewing the dangers of digital addiction outlined above. We hope you find the following targeted suggestions helpful to take charge of your technology use:
● Before meaningful change takes place, the current reality must be assessed. While measuring the time spent online is a good start, hybrid use of devices makes the problem a bit thornier. For instance, if you use a tablet to read books, are you able to resist the urge to scroll Facebook, check email, or play Wordle while you’re reading? As a starting point, check your screen time to get a breakdown of the specific apps you use and how much time you spend on them. If you are having trouble with digital impulse control, consider implementing mindfulness meditation, which can help by increasing awareness and redirecting attention to the present moment.
● Set reasonable limits for personal digital use, especially on devices used for work. Remember that attorney who found she was using her cell phone for six hours a day? At the beginning of the year, she imposed daily time limits on her phone for social media and games. We are happy to report that these accountability measures have proven successful in reducing the amount of time she was spending on her smartphone. She continues to use her phone for both work and play, but on her terms; in fact, she plays Wordle at the Championship level.
● Make a call! One way to decrease email use is to make a telephone call. This may not only save time but also lend to deeper relationship building. Recently, one of your co-authors had an eye procedure that resulted in blurred vision for several days. Instead of writing emails, she was forced to call several folks, which resulted in extremely productive conversations about work and life! As we continue to navigate pandemic restrictions, many of us are yearning for connection. So pick up the phone and make a call! You may be surprised by the results.
● Take periodic mini-vacations from technology. Digital detoxing can help relieve stress, strengthen focus and concentration, and improve our relationships. This year’s “National Day of Unplugging” may have already passed, but what would prevent you from taking a 24-hour respite from technology next weekend on your own or with an accountability partner? To support your day-to-day success, you may find it helpful to establish device-free zones and times, such as family dinner or bedtime.
● Communicate mindfully. In this digital era, giving someone your undivided attention is the ultimate sign of courtesy and respect. Whether you are connecting via conference call, Zoom, or “IRL” (in real life), strive to listen actively and be fully present. During conversations, minimize distractions and put your smartphone away (not just face down). For further tips on cultivating conscious communication in the digital space, check out our article “A Mindful Approach to Email” in the July 2021 issue of GPSolo eReport.
Creating healthy digital habits can be challenging, but we must remember that our devices are tools for us to control, not the other way around. Implementing any of the above recommendations can help you take charge of your digital life today. Are you ready to begin?
Next month, we will share information on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) designed to help attorneys interested in building a “trauma-informed law practice.”