I love electronics — my android phone, the computer, the Wii, even occasional TV. I can also experience any one of them as a huge time vacuum. I can get lost in the plethora of choices I have when sitting at the computer or organizing my life on my phone. I am also aware that I am the one who makes the choices about how I focus my attention in any one of the 1,440 minutes I get each day.
Recently I did an experiment and installed Rescue Time, a free productivity and time-tracking program, on my computer and phone to see how “well” I use these minutes. Let’s just say I am working to increase my overall productivity, which brings me to the purpose of this article.
We are in the age of technology. Connection is still important now, though, if not more so than in the past. In light of this (and my observations), I have decided to unplug and use electronics more intentionally. While electronics can have immense value in our lives, they can also be distracting or detrimental if not used in ways that align with our own values. For some parents and kids, checking in with a social network or playing a game several times per day may work really well. For others it may be a sign that more connection in the home or local community could be beneficial. Balance is a word that comes to mind — an evolving concept we each get to define for ourselves.
In our home and family I am doing a few things to encourage both the healthy use of our fun electronic devices as well as simple, loving connection. Here are twenty specific ways I am turning off electronics (and using them more wisely) while tuning into myself and my family, to savor the moments we have together. I know they won’t last forever. Maybe you will find something helpful, too.
Observe how we use electronics currently. My first step is to, as non-judgmentally as possible, notice how we use electronics. What I mean by non-judgmental is notice any judgment, see it for what it is — neither fact or fiction — and still choose to learn from what I observe. As I noted above, I use Rescue Time to observe my own actions, as well as keen awareness of how I can get distracted while working to complete a task. I also note how the kids tend to use the various electronics. Through observation I am able to see what I don’t like and/or what’s not working, as well as how we may enjoy or be productive with electronics.
Choose how to use electronics. I get to choose, we get to choose. The kids may not see anything inherently wrong with using electronics from sunup to sundown, but as the parent I observe that they get irritated when they interact with electronic devices for an extended period of time. I notice the same about myself. There’s just something about staring at a screen extensively that we all need a break from.
As I notice what doesn’t work for me, I decide how I do want to use electronics and tune in to my self and family. I also talk to the kids about how they feel in their bodies when they are watching TV or playing a game. We talk about the need to eat, drink, use the bathroom, move around, and connect with another human being. We all value these other activities in our lives and realize that we get to choose how we balance electronics with self-care, exercise, and connection.
One way I am choosing to use my smart phone differently is deliberately changing my response to notifications. Instead of resisting them or turning all of them off (although that has its purpose at times), I am using an app called Notifications of Mindfulness. It is a simple app that I can program to alert me to affirmative statements I create. I can be notified as often as I desire, and I can input any statements I want to affirm with myself. I have completely changed my habitual response to notifications through setting the app to notify me regularly of thoughts I am incorporating in my life.
Here are some examples:
How am I choosing, experiencing and expressing gratitude today? I accept no excuses. I acknowledge and feel the space of potential in myself, others, situations and environments. I act in the face of fear. I am amazingly time efficient. I am aware. I am committed over the long haul. I am getting really good at creative problem solving, even when I feel pressure. I am grateful for clarity. I am learning to mother my children in the ways they need me to mother, nurture, and validate them. I am organized. I decide how I use my time.
Schedule various activities. Much like any other creative person, I like to move with inspiration when I have an idea to share, write about, or process through. This works well some of the time, but as a mom of five I just don’t have a lot of time to do whatever I want whenever I want. Plus, one of the things I want to do is enjoy mothering.
Scheduling work, writing, social media, email, research, calendar, and fun time on the computer or phone helps me use the devices in a way that works for me and my responsibilities. While on sabbatical I even decided to drastically adjust the way I use Facebook. Although I have made lots of wonderful connections through social media, I trust those that need to continue will do so in other ways.
Notice the tendency to get distracted and make a choice. This is a big one. We can observe our tendencies, be aware of them, and even make a plan to work around or with them. Still, distractions arise — whether it’s the baby crying, kids squabbling, or a tense thought or feeling. I get to choose how I respond to distractions.
One tendency I have noticed that I find interesting is in distracting myself from a feeling through looking up something on the internet or phone. So maybe I am using the electronic device as I intend, and then something uncomfortable comes to mind, or I am waiting for a page to load, and then I go look up something else on my to-do list. Now, in theory this may not be an issue because it’s on the to-do list. However, since I am working to use electronics intentionally while I also feel what I feel fully, this is a tendency I am shifting for myself and it feels really good to stop and honor how I am feeling.
Complete tasks or activities one at a time. One way I can keep my focus and enjoy the moment is to do one thing at a time. So instead of reading or texting while I breastfeed the baby, I hold her lovingly and sink into the moment while I appreciate her and my body’s ability to nourish. Similarly, when I pick up the phone to add something to my to-do list or calendar, I stay on task and make sure that I am intentional if I choose to move to another task and not just falling into distraction. This goes along with any activity — meal preparation, play, reading, scheduled writing time, whatever.
Allow multi-tasking to serve instead of drain. As a mom I am well-suited to multi-task. It’s in my biological make up. Still, multi-tasking is only helpful for me if I am feeling good about the tasks I am doing simultaneously. So, I can have a few pots on the stove while I unload the dishwasher and go downstairs for a minute to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I notice that if I combine work, house, and family stuff with the multi-tasking or if my intentions aren’t clear, I end up feeling drained or scattered rather than pleasantly spinning several plates at once. Consciously choosing what plates to spin at any given time helps me tune in to myself, the kids, and what’s going on around me.
Let people know when/what I am doing. Have you noticed how people carry on conversations with others through their phone or computer while in the midst of daily or family life? It sometimes appears to me like the person is either ignoring their family or hiding a conversation. When I am engaged with a phone call or writing project I am neither ignoring or hiding, but I acknowledge that it may appear that way to my kids.
I encourage communication and connection through letting the kids know what I am doing while I text away on the phone, whether it’s a conversation or an addition to the to-do list or calendar. I also share what, when, and how I will be using the computer so I don’t get carried away in task land and the kids know what to expect from me.
Turn off/pause when talking. Along with letting others know how I am using electronics, we are all working on turning off and/or pausing our activity to talk with others when we are asked to. Sometimes we put the phone face down on the table or counter, or just go plug it in to charge and turn it off. It feels good to take a break.
Use auto reply and forwarding with the cell phone. We have a house phone and a handful of cell phones. I use my cell phone for calls, messaging, calendar, to-do list, meditation timer, stopwatch, and calculator, among other little things that come up. As I scale down, I have started using some apps and services that help me tune in more while I’m with my kids or at home. Basically, when I am not working.
Auto SMS is an app that allows me to send an auto reply message to any text letting the sender know I am away from my phone. I can set it up to silence the phone, ask the person to call if it’s urgent, communicate that I will call back later, and/or forward text messages to my home phone.
Another helpful tool I have started using is the forwarding service on my cell phone. When I am home, all of my calls go to our house phone. This way I use just the house phone for communication while I’m home.
Trust the to-do list to do its job. Have you ever noticed how a running mental to-do list can be very distracting while you are playing with the kids or working to complete an item on the to-do list? Yeah, me too. One way I work through this is tuning into the present moment. What is going on right here and now?
Another way is to trust the to-do list will do its job and hold all of my important things to do until I choose to do them. Even if I don’t have a chance to write it down, I trust it will come back to me at the right time and I send it away in a little mental note balloon…out into the ethers to return sometime soon. Loopy? Oh heck, it’s just as loopy to obsess about stuff I “need” to do while I am in the moment with my kids or a project I feel passionate about.
Make eye contact. As an alternative to staring, or engaging meaningfully, at a screen, I make eye contact with the kids — and myself when I am in the presence of a mirror. If one of the kids starts to talk with me while I am working or using the phone, I stop and make eye contact, notice how I am feeling, and choose to connect with what my child is saying or needs.
Appreciate. I never tire of appreciating my kids, myself, or life. Sure, there’s plenty to gripe about if I choose to approach life that way, but I’d rather not. Appreciation continues to transform my life and parenting experience into one of acceptance and joy — even when it feels intense and yucky. Sometimes I appreciate in the moment and store it for later, other times I make a list, and sometimes I voice it out loud. It all works, and it’s all helpful.
Touch. Oh, how we need touch. As someone who has experienced touch that doesn’t feel good, I think I may be even more aware of how beneficial it is to touch and be touched in (non-sexual) ways that do feel good. Hugs, light tickles that are welcome, a back rub, a gentle touch to acknowledge I understand, and a snuggle can bridge a difficult moment with the kids. Touch can also help someone release tension, know that I care, and reconnect after a disagreement. Welcome touch is essential to a loving connection, and our kids need it even as they “grow up.” Safe wrestling and two-hand touch football can work, too.
Feel. Did I mention that one major focus for me is to cultivate the safe space to feel? Why is this so important? It is paramount to everything else in life, a basis for being. Our feelings are powerful indicators, messengers from within that speak volumes about who we are, where we are in our thinking processes, and what we value.
As I honor how I feel, the children experience implicit permission to do the same. We work together to learn from what we feel so we can grow together — even through the difficult times. We allow the space to feel, to listen to and respect our feelings, and express them in ways that help us all understand, develop compassion, and be responsible in our lives. It’s messy sometimes, but also very life affirming.
Listen. I love listening with my whole body. I need to first honor how I feel so I have the space to actually listen. As I listen to the kids, I feel into my body and connect with what they are saying and feeling. It’s both cathartic and practical to experience our connection through deep listening. I invite myself and others to do this often. Just listen.
Go outside. Winter is great for hibernation. Sometimes even when it’s warm we need to stay inside. One way to unplug and connect with the kids, though, is through getting out of the house – away from the electronics (sometimes I leave the cell phone at home). Whether we’re scooping dog poop in the backyard or setting up the basketball hoop, the fresh air provides perspective and the sunshine never gets old.
We are also enjoying other out-of-the-house activities like skating, community activities, rock climbing, and checking out local options for family togetherness. There’s a lot to explore!
Play a game. My son has been teaching me how to play just about any sport inside and in a way that can include anyone from the two-year-old to Grandma if she’s interested. Board games are a lot of fun, as are games that we make up in the moment. What five sounds do you hear? What five colors do you see? Waiting time can be turned into a time to connect and play a silly game, too.
Learn or try something new. You know how kids have endless questions? I often suggest we look up the answer on the internet. This can be a meaningful way of being plugged in and connected. Also, we are using the library, dictionary, and other people to learn. Sometimes we get bored with food so we try a new recipe. Being open to trying new things helps us connect and learn something new together.
Make chores into together time. Chores, tasks, responsibilities. Whatever name we give them, kids often experience them as some heavy thing they must do. I have been all over the map with chores. After twelve-plus years of being a mom, I realize that chores really must be done for a home to function effectively. I notice that when certain tasks are completed regularly, we all feel better (and we have clean dishes to eat from, bonus).
Instead of being the heavy and ordering that chores are completed as part of some militant effort to control my children, I am experimenting with assigned chores that rotate and the willingness to do them together. We get to talk, learn from each other, and spend some simple time together doing something meaningful for the home and each other. Even though some of my kids are still warming up to the value of doing chores on a regular basis, I enjoy the time we spend blessing our home together.
Invite kids into present moment awareness. The dynamics of the parent-child relationship coupled with how our world operates in its busyness these days can create some interesting distractions from the simple joy of being alive. People often talk about how kids are more aware and present than adults. This may be the case with little ones, but we are all subject to the distractions of life at one time or another.
I counter this by inviting myself and the kids into present moment awareness when it strikes me. Sometimes it’s while we wait, at bedtime, or when tense feelings arise. Anytime works since all we ever truly have is now.
Photo Credits: Riverstorm and Author