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technology working against productivity red phone screen.jpg

First off, let’s all appreciate the irony here. I used technology to compose this article. And unless you’ve hired an assistant to read the internet to you, you’re reading this article on some form of technology.

So this article will not be a diatribe against technology. How could it be since technology does so many amazing things!? The technology in our cars keeps us comfortable (via climate controls and heated steering wheels) and warns us when we’re in danger of backing into oncoming traffic (via radar-assisted backup cameras). The ubiquitous cell phone is an amazing and powerful piece of technology. We can use it to look up directions, send text messages to friends and family, check sports scores and watch cat videos. I’ve heard some people even use it to make phone calls.


And, as technology has gotten smaller and more powerful, it’s also become more central to our work productivity. Our calendars are pushed from the cloud to our phones and laptops. We’ve traded in the rolodex for a CRM we can look at wherever we are. We can communicate in real-time with colleagues across the world through internet video conferencing. I can send a document or project file to a client and have it arrive at their computer screen in a few seconds. Can’t get into the office? No problem! I can reach you on that hard rectangular block you take with you everywhere. Do you need to put in a few extra hours on work? No need to miss dinner with your family; you can just pop open your laptop once you’re in bed to get that work done.


But, as it turns out, our technology is also working against our productivity. And it all comes down to a lack of sleep — both in quality and quantity.


How technology interferes with restful sleep

Here’s what I mean: when we’re unrested, we don’t think as clearly or as quickly. We are less aware of our emotional responses in work situations, which snowballs into poor choices and actions that create conflict, which then further sap our energy and time. In short, the lizard brain starts calling the shots and ruining our productivity.  And technology can contribute to this lack of rest, and the accompanying consequences, in a couple of key ways.


The first is that the wavelengths of light (primarily blues) emitted by our screens suppress and chronologically shift the release of melatonin used in the brain during a healthy sleep cycle. There have been many studies showing this effect, but here’s a good place to start. Due to the shifting of the sleep cycle, our sleep quality suffers, and we end up suffering the results of sleep deprivation.


A second way our sleep is impacted is due to the types of psychological, emotional (and neurochemical) responses that technology use triggers. Here are a few examples:

  • Work email. This problem actually masquerades as a virtue. It feels so productive to work through your email inbox before bed. The problem with work email is that it usually requires work, generating the kinds of psychological processes that are beneficial for responding to project requests and solving problems. And this headspace, though beneficial for work, is different from that of going to sleep. And most people can’t radically shift from work issues (like responding to clients and defusing problems and brainstorming) one minute to being sound asleep the next minute. That shift takes time — and that time costs restful sleep.
  • Social media. Social media is great for many things, but leading to a state of restfulness might not be one of them. This is due to the cacophony of emotions sparked by most of our social media. One post has you happy. Then you scroll a little and the next post makes you angry. Then you scroll some more and that post has you intrigued enough to start a Google search. Then you scroll some more and the next post… back and forth and up and down. Posts and stories that upset or shock us set off a cascade of other emotions that will take time to subside. And there’s a growing body of research showing that social media consumption is generally correlated with constant social comparison, self-criticism and (eventually) mood disorders. And so this can lead us to staying up even later engaging with coping strategies (watching cat videos, eating some Ben & Jerry’s, etc.) that take time and further reduce our sleep.

Alright, there are the problems. Now let’s do something about it.


Two ways to Rewire technology for better rest and productivity

1.Change up your screen settings. 

One of the recommendations from the above studies is to avoid all screens once you’re two hours away from going to sleep. However, this may be difficult if you use your technology close to bedtime. Thankfully, there are plugins you can run on your monitor to reduce/eliminate the amount of blue-spectrum light that comes through on your display. I recently starting using a program called f.lux on my laptop (example here).

flux desktop


Starting at sundown, it automatically shifts the wavelengths of light used by your computer display so that your brain utilizes the normal neurochemicals associated with healthy sleep. Sure, it’ll look like your computer has gone over to the dark side of the force, but you won’t get your circadian rhythms thrown off, you’ll get better sleep and work better during the day. I’ve been using this for over a week now, and I can already tell a difference.


The same thing applies to mobile devices. They can be a main source of sleep-interrupting technology for many, so you’ll want to look at changing up your display settings here as well. And, since mobile technology providers are also recognizing this dynamic, it’s getting easier.  iOS 9.3 (due out from Apple in the coming weeks) will employ “Night-shift Mode” for display settings that functions similarly to f.lux. There are similar programs available for android devices in the Google App Store, like Bluelight or Twilight.


2.Look at your (social) media consumption through the lens of mindfulness.

My goal in the section above on social media was not to say that we can’t engage with social media before bed. As with all technology, it can be used to do good things! The question is how to engage with social media in such a way that we can enjoy the benefits and still get a good night’s rest.


And here, as in other arenas, mindful awareness is a great tool. Here are a few simple ideas to bring mindfulness to social media as you wind down for the day (I’d also be remiss if I didn’t recommend my colleague Edie Raphael’s excellent primer on mindfulness practice):

  • Write down what you want from social media. Let’s assume that social media has an agenda for you once you open their app or go to their site. But what’s your agenda for social media? Before you engage, take a few moments to think about (and maybe write down) what you want from this excursion into social media. This will help you filter what you engage with (and what you don’t) as you scroll through the feed.
  • Take a breathing break a few minutes into your feed. As I mentioned above, social media can set off a cascade of thoughts and emotions that may work against resting and moving towards sleep. So, I’ve starting setting a timer for 7 minutes. After 7 minutes in social media, my timer goes off, I close my eyes and take 10 calm breaths. And as I breathe, I pause to notice different things. I breathe and notice my emotions. Do I feel happy or sad or calm or anxious or…? I breathe and notice my own body. Am I warm or cold or stiff or comfortable? Do my eyes feel tired? Maybe it would feel good to close them for the evening…

These two strategies have made a huge difference in how I engage with technology in the evenings. I find myself going to sleep more easily, getting better sleep, and feeling more productive in my “good hours” during the day.


What about you? What’s been your experience with technology (for better or worse), productivity and rest? Any strategies you can share? Feel free to chime in in the comments section.


busy person's guide to work-life balance