Step Away From the Smartphone: How to Go on a Digital Diet

The author of ‘Wisdom in the Age of Twitter’ tells why and how we should curb mental obesity by striking a balance between information consumption and reflection.

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Do you feel scatterbrained? As if you’re going 10,000 miles an hour? Like your brain is fried? David Ryan Polgar calls these “symptoms of mental obesity,” and he recommends a digital diet as the cure.

“When you eat dinner, your belly knows when it’s full, but it’s harder to know when your brain is full,” says Polgar, an attorney, college professor and author of “Wisdom in the Age of Twitter.” “We were trained to collect information because information could save lives. We were also trained to eat what’s on our plate. But when the plate got larger, obesity became an issue, and the same is happening with information consumption. In the same way that managing food intake is a constant battle, so is information reduction.”

Start treating information like food

Polgar compares the endless stream of information and digital distractions to an abundance of wonderful food. But he says that while we have food pyramids and, more recently, food plates to guide healthy food intake, we lack similar visuals for managing information consumption.

“If you eat a plate of french fries, you’re aware of the consequences. And you know that you can’t just eat chocolate all day,” he says. “You lose weight by recognizing that the amount of food you eat matters, the type of food you eat matters, and how much you exercise matters. The same principles apply to information consumption and its effect on our thinking. If you are what you eat, you are also what you mentally consume.”

Give yourself time to digest information

Great ideas and great decisions result not from how much information is consumed, but from how it is used. Information converts into new ideas when people step away from the endless opportunity for digital data intake.

Those stuck at the information-collection stage “consume, consume, consume,” Polgar says, “without spending the necessary time to reflect and turn the information into knowledge.” The resulting overload turns people into worker bees instead of outside-the-box thinkers, impeding success at a time when business success is greatly aligned with creativity and the wisdom of leaders.

Manage how much information you consume

“Innovation relies on creativity, and creativity happens when the mind shifts from the collection to the reflection mode,” Polgar says. He offers this advice for shifting your consumption patterns:

- You don’t need to go off the grid. You just need to get off the hamster wheel by going on a moderate-level digital diet as opposed to a digital detox. He says moderation, not abstinence, is a pragmatic solution for those who value communication and technology along with sanity and creativity.

- Schedule time to recharge your brain. When people go on a digital diet by taking an Internet-free hike or reading a book on a hammock, they tend to realize that the world doesn’t fall apart in their hour of relaxation. Instead, creativity, which is essential in today’s knowledge-worker economy, is more likely to occur.

- Put yourself in places where quality thinking happens. Ask yourself: How do you get flow? Where are you when you have original ideas? Determine when you’re creative and when your brain feels fried. Then alter your environment and schedule accordingly.

- Batch activities. Instead of having digital channels open 24/7, establish set time periods for email, Facebook, Twitter and other online communication. Realize that you can be responsive without always being on.

- Step away from the screen. It’s a false choice to think that either you’re online all the time or you’re falling behind on communication. If an evenly spaced flow of information with others is important to your business, use an autotimer to send email and make posts while also allowing the time you need for reflection.

- Take Internet-free hikes or hiatuses to unleash your mind and give it a chance to relax, recharge and make the kind of random connections that lead to innovation.

- Create places where the brain can wander. Alter your workspace to include activities like foosball and table tennis that entice yourself and others to gain distance from the information stream and to let original thoughts develop.

- Find balance by committing to a digital diet. “Communication in today’s information age is essential,” Polgar admits, “but so is your level of creativity and overall sanity. If your current process of communication is having a negative impact on your output and creativity, then we have a problem. Going on a digital diet is a solution.”

I’m game. Are you?

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