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Ask @me_and_orla | How Do I Manage My Screen Time?

As our resident Instagram Agony Aunt, Sara Tasker of @me_and_orla answers your burning questions and helps demystify the secrets of great content creation.

With the new year upon us, the season of self-improvement-promises has arrived, so this is a question I suspect many of us can relate to. Not least because, if the Tumblr memes and think-piece articles are to be believed, screen time is the devil, stealing us away from meaningful conversations, real-world connection and mindfulness in the here and now.

Letter writer, I wonder - how true is that for you? That's not simply a rhetorical question but the first step I'd recommend for anyone exploring this topic for themselves: Gently explore what is motivating your desire for change here.

Do you feel your screentime actually needs managing, or have you simply been led to believe that by headlines (that depend on your guilt-induced clicks for ad revenue)? Does increased screen time make you feel bad, perhaps exacerbating your anxiety or depression as it does for some people, or does it leave you feeling charged up and energised about life? There are no right or wrong answers here, but it can be surprisingly difficult to untangle the personal answers about ourselves.

As a counter balance, let me issue a radical statement alert: Lots of screen-time is not inherently bad for you.

2018 brought us the news that the notion of screen time harm to children is not proven by science, and actually has very little effect on sleep. Your favourite contemporary author almost definitely wrote her latest book sat at a glowing computer desk. Stephen Hawking produced his entire body of work, and all of his communication, using a screen-based assistive technology device.

In fact, the very notion of unhooking from technology is something that requires a degree of privilege - people who work long hours in desk-based jobs, people with disabilities, and those who find it hard to socialise in face-to-face situations are all dependent on long hours spent basking in the blue glow of their electronic devices to take part in life. "Put down your phone and go outside" is all well and good for the percentage of people with the means and ability to do so, but where does that leave everybody else? Should we really be making ourselves feel guilty about doing something that is productive, educational, full of human connection and joy?

"Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral" - Melvin Kranzberg, the six laws of technology.

Most people, in my experience, are actually quite good at intuiting their own hard techno-limits. We might fall foul to a 3am Facebook binge for example, once or twice, but it doesn't become our regular habit because we know it doesn't feel good or bring us fulfilment.

It can be trickier when those lines become blurred. When scrolling on Instagram for hours and leaving comments and likes is both enjoyable and justifiably productive - we all know as content creators that extending our engagement is a sure-fire way to bring new eyes and impressions to our own accounts. How do we know when it's time to stop when these rewards are available 24/7?

Make use of technology to help

The tech giants behind Instagram, Facebook and Mac have all rolled out time-tracking software in their latest updates, in a bid to help users be more mindful and accountable for the time they spend online.

Check under your Settings menu in Instagram to find 'Your Activity' - a breakdown of how much time you've spent in the app each week, and set reminders when you've reached a specified time limit, or disable notifications for a time Apps like 'Freedom' and 'Self Control' offer functionality to block certain websites or platforms while you're working, too - but be aware that this is more of a 'bandaid over the problem' than a long term solution, for most people.

My personal favourite is an app called 'Rescue Time' that I have on my mac and iPhone tracking how I spend all my time on my devices each day. It sends me a weekly breakdown by email with nice graphs showing my time in categories like 'composition', 'entertainment' and 'social media'. I set myself targets for how long I want to spend on each, and can check in on whether I'm meeting them - and if I'm not, take some time to reflect on why, and what might be helpful for me in the week going forward.

Tune in to your signs of 'fullness'.

Recently I've been learning about Intuitive Eating - the theory that our bodies were born knowing exactly when we were hungry or full, but that all the societal pressure and conventions about food messed up our understanding of these cues. I feel like the same can apply to technology: our bodies know when we've had enough time sitting still and scrolling, and getting better at tuning into these signals is the key to having a natural and healthy relationship with our phones.

Pay attention to how you feel in your body and emotions when you first pick up your phone for the day. Are you anxious, or excited? How do you feel in your eyes, your head, your neck and shoulders, your wrists? What are your energy levels like? Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to check in on these feelings every hour or two for the next couple of days, and revisit the same questions each time.

For me, early signals that it's time for a break are dry eyes and tired legs. Some days I'll also find that my mood starts to slump - but just like with my five year old's appetite, each day is different, and I have to be responsive to what I'm actually feeling each day. Just as how regulated eating patterns override our body's naturally fluctuating demands for food and energy, imposing hard, inflexible limits on how we spend our time on and offline can actually get in the way of figuring out what feels good to us.

Pay attention to resistance.

If you're regularly catching yourself wasting whole afternoons on Twitter etc, it's likely that screen time and social media isn't really the root problem for you. What we're actually doing when we get sucked into spending hours on these sorts of websites is plain old procrastinating: indulging in distracting fun instead of getting bogged down in the less fun tasks on our to do lists. In fact, I find my screen time clocks in the most hours when I'm putting off doing something that feels too huge, too scary, or that I simply don't enjoy doing, as I flail around for any and every distraction to keep me from actually getting down to it.

When faced with this sort of internal resistance, we have two options: remove all temptation, or address the cause of the struggle. If it's a task that simply must get done, you might decide to do as Neil Gaiman does and retreat to a log cabin where your only options for entertainment are to either write, or stare out of the window - with the latter inevitably getting boring after a while.

When that isn't an option - which is most of the time for professional content creators - it's time to look long and hard at what's really stopping you from doing the work that you chose and supposedly love.

Find a hobby that doesn't depend on screen time. For a lot of us, we got into the business of blogging, photography, and social media because it was our hobby first. That makes it really tricky to delineate the two - how do we kick back and switch off when these are the very activities we used to use to do that?! Finding a hobby that doesn't require a screen or a wifi connection is a great way to bring back that balance. Crafts like knitting, embroidery or painting, learning a musical instrument, getting a pet that requires love and attention or joining a club or group activity are all good shouts, if you're able. It has to be something you love and enjoy, and that you have zero expectations of creating content from. (Of course, it's fine if you do occasionally share your new hobby within your content - but the second you approach it as a content-creation exercise, the joy and freedom of it is lost and it becomes yet another work-based activity.)

Build a workday you love. If you're a full-time content creator you have the luxury of designing your own working week. What do you want it to look like? Instead of starting from a problem - too much screen time - dial back and look at your day from a place of joy, love and freedom. You can give yourself anything you need to do your work today? What do you want and need? All the research shows that change happens best when instead of trying to take something out, we add something in that is more appealing. Can you work in time for a swim, regular lunch dates, reading on the couch or volunteering with a charity you love? What can you give to yourself that will nourish and feed your creativity and the skills you use for your screen-based work?

Ultimately, this month's question isn't simply about 'managing time' at all, but digging a little deeper to tune into what's really valuable and worth it to you. When you know what your time is worth, you automatically become much better at protecting it - and using it in the ways that best serve you, the people you love and your aims and goals for your life.

Banner image by @asideofsweet for Lipton