Since leaving Silicon Valley for the University of Washington Information School in the early 2000s, Professor David Levy has focused on the challenge of achieving contemplative balance. In his research and coursework, he investigates how we as individuals and a society can live healthy, reflective and productive lives in an information-saturated culture.
Levy distilled his thoughts on information overload, stress and distraction in the 2016 book “Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives.” We asked him for his perspective on dealing with such issues amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying onslaught of information on social media.
Q: A lot of the news these days is like a slow-moving car crash. It’s hard to look away, even if we know it’s causing anxiety and stress. What do you recommend to those of us who have a hard time tuning out?
A: There are a number of reasons why we spend so much time online. Work takes us there, as does our need to communicate with others, both personally and professionally. So too does our desire to stay informed, especially about the local and global challenges we’re now facing. But we can also go online — checking news sources, social media, and so on — in obsessive and largely unconscious ways. Many of us have deeply ingrained habits that don’t always serve us well. These can include, as you mention, the tendency to obsessively look at the news throughout the day.
A lot of my work has been about helping people see where they’re caught by their habits, so they can begin to change them. And here, perhaps the most important skill is the ability to notice the trigger or impulse (to check Twitter again, for example), then to pause for a moment and ask, “Is this a helpful or healthy thing to do right now?” And then to respond accordingly. Creating that pause, that moment of mindful awareness, is the heart of it.
Q: Could that be something as simple as turning off your Twitter notifications?
A: Certainly. If our habits are too strong and we’re not likely to catch the momentary, almost unconscious impulse, then we might make changes in our physical or informational environment that will nudge us in the direction we want to go. We can turn off notifications. Or maybe put a physical Post-It note on our screen or our keyboard as a reminder to do (or not do) certain things. There are also tools that can lock us out of certain apps.
Q: Why do social media in particular provoke stress in times of crisis?
A: We know that social media companies have tuned their algorithms to encourage divisiveness and strong emotional reactions. Right now everyone is pretty anxious, so naturally it’s going to show up on social media, where it’s likely to be amplified. If we’re not careful, we’re likely to be further drawn into our fears, worries and concerns.
Strong negative emotions are some of the most difficult triggers to deal with, both because they’re powerful and because we often respond to them unconsciously. One of the most common ways to deal with fear is to try to push it away, to distract ourselves from it. This can be a valuable strategy, at times. But it can also boomerang on us if we go online to distract ourselves, and end up on a social media site that only further amplifies our fear. You can see that there’s potentially a feedback loop here where our standard strategies for avoiding difficult emotions end up retriggering them.
Q: So what else can we do that might help us in these kinds of situations?
Something as simple as breathing more deeply can be helpful. When we’re feeling fearful or anxious, we breathe more shallowly. This fight-or-flight response, in itself, can further exacerbate what we’re feeling. So if we can notice what’s going on (here’s the basic noticing skill again), we might pause to take a few slow, relaxed, mindful breaths. Anyone interested in learning more about various breathing techniques can find lots of tutorials … online, of course!
Q: How are you managing your own news consumption through all of this? Any general strategies you could share?
A: I’ve reduced my news consumption to a minimum, for the time being. I’ll look at the Seattle Times once or twice during the day, scanning the headlines and reading the occasional article. I’m careful to ask myself whether a particular article will provide helpful information or possibly just feed my anxiety. I’ve read the New York Times my whole life (I grew up in New York), but right now I’m hardly reading it at all. It’s not helpful to me to have a daily dose of information about the spread of the virus around the country and the world. It’s not helpful to read how politicians have been mishandling the pandemic. This kind of information feeds my fear, anger and frustration, and doesn’t help me act in healthy or useful ways. The one news source I’ve continued to read pretty regularly is the New Yorker online. I read the articles that analyze longer-term trends.
Q: For a lot of us, this transition to remote work or school is an invitation to erase the boundaries between work and life. Do you have any advice for maintaining those boundaries?
A: This is a place where I have a hard time myself. It’s a matter of building up certain habits that strengthen the boundaries that are being eroded. I meditate in the morning, which helps me set my intention for the day. We have a very sweet dog, and it’s great that she sets the time when she needs to be walked — it’s not up to me! My wife and I take the rituals of cooking and eating dinner seriously as a time to be together and to talk over the day.
Q: What are some strategies people might use to help them get through the coming weeks or months of social distancing?
A: Find really interesting things to do, and that includes getting out and taking longer walks. Taking a walk can contribute to well-being in several ways. It gets us offline and away from those deep stressors having to do with the news (assuming we’re not still on our device when we’re walking!). It’s early spring and the blossoms are out. Just to be reminded of the natural world that is still here and still beautiful is a really wonderful thing.