Before you start reading this, take a moment to notice how you’re reading it.
Are you leaning into or looking down at your screen? Are your shoulders rolled forward? Is your neck or back bent?
What you have just done is start to bring the practice of mindfulness to your digital device use – a positive step in preventing the health problems that can be associated with using these devices.
In its recent report, the United States Bone and Joint Initiative reveals that one in two US adults has a musculoskeletal disorder, costing an estimated $213 billion each year in treatment and lost wages. Many of these have been caused by or made worse by poor physical habits associated with digital device use.
But the problems go far beyond the musculoskeletal system.
Our collective collapsing shoulders, heads, necks, and backs are being linked to a long list of physical and mental health problems – everything from decreased functioning of lungs and digestive organs to lowering of mood, assertiveness, and self-esteem.
Considering that we’ve yet to see 10 years of widespread use of smartphones – the iPhone came onto the market in 2007 – this may be just the beginning of our digital health problems.
Get on the mindfulness bandwagon – and bring your smartphone
A new analysis of mindfulness research from Case Western Reserve University reinforces the practice’s breadth of benefits in the workplace, including the positive effect it can have on attention, cognition, emotion, behavior, and physiology.
Given that we spend most of our day staring at one screen or another and the negative effect it’s having on our health, it’s worth applying the practice of mindfulness to our digital device use too.
Start by bringing your awareness to the present moment – every time you pick up your smartphone or sit down at your laptop. Notice how you’re using your body. Notice the relationship between your body and your digital device – whatever it is – phone, laptop, tablet, etc.
Once you’re aware of how you’re using your body while you’re using your digital devices, you’ll be better able to make safer, healthier choices.
Pay attention to your physical habits
We all have physical habits we default to when we’re typing and tapping that we’re often unaware of.
I know someone who holds his mouth open in a giant ‘O’ as he types. I know someone else who leans into her screen when reading something important. (In fact, there appears to be a correlation between the amount of lean and the deemed importance of the document.)
Our physical habits can create tension in our muscles and throw the body out of alignment. When performed repeatedly over long periods of time, they can contribute to aches, pains and much worse, so it’s worth bringing your awareness to what yours are.
Once you’ve developed the habit of noticing how you’re using your body (eg, looking down at your smartphone), it’s easier to shed the unnecessary and the downright harmful and choose safer positioning.
Pay attention to your thoughts
We often allow our body to react to what’s going on in our heads. So if your colleague (or a stranger on a bus) has a habit you find annoying, eg, shouting into their phone, become aware if it’s causing a physical reaction in your body. (Perhaps the sound makes you clench your jaw?)
Our thoughts can influence how we use our body. For example, they can cause us to employ more effort than is necessary (eg, being heavy handed on the keyboard) or to introduce harmful positioning (eg, holding your shoulders up around your ears).
Noticing if your thoughts are affecting your body gives you the time and space to choose a different physical response if need be. But first you have to develop the ability to notice.
Know your screen time total
Imagine there was a pill you could take that would allow you to eat as much as you wanted and still be as thin as you wanted to be. No more dieting! That would be amazing.
Unfortunately, there is no such magic pill. Research shows that the best way to maintain a healthy weight is to exercise and be aware of what and how much we are eating.
The same is true of screen time.
No ergonomic chair or neck positioning sensor can guarantee unlimited pain-free screen time.
Instead, you need to bring awareness to how you’re using your chair or your neck as well as how much time you’re spending staring at screens all day – including desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone.
Does my smartphone time count too?
A lot of us grab that smartphone first thing in the morning and don’t put it down until the head hits the pillow again in the evening, yet we don’t really consider this screen time. It is.
Indeed our smartphones are the most insidious of our digital devices, tempting us with their convenience and mobility while encouraging the worst offences of body positioning. See any street corner, coffee shop, co-working space, office, bedroom or sofa for a good demonstration.
Try this exercise: count the number of times you pick up or look at your smartphone in one day. Keep a running tab from the time you wake up until you go to bed.
Add to that the hours you’ve spent in front of your laptop, tablet or desktop screen too. Also make a note of where your head, shoulders, neck, and back are while you’re doing it.
Once you’re aware of how much time you’re devoting to your screens, you’ll be better able to determine if you need to make some cutbacks.
Bringing awareness to the amount of time you devote to your digital devices is an important part of developing positive habits around their use.
Remake your mindfulness all day
Mindfulness isn’t something you do once in the morning and you’re done. You need to continue to bring your awareness back to your body all day long.
You won’t be perfect with this. After all, we get busy, distracted and start to morph back into our bad positioning habits. (Are you leaning on your forearms again?) That’s ok. It’s natural.
Developing the habit of awareness takes practice. Being able to make new choices about how we’re using our bodies takes even more practice. Don’t get upset with yourself while you’re learning, just continue to bring your awareness back, make adjustments, and try again.
Bringing the practice of mindfulness to your smartphone, laptop and all digital device use will help you stay healthy, happy, and productive – typing and tapping for years to come.