Two months ago I found myself back in Ha Giang for the second time and took the chance to enjoy it all: the unbeatable heavenly beauty of the landscape, the glorious colours of ethnic minority costumes at weekend markets, the magical light every morning shining on terraced rice fields, and the exotic food of smoked sausage, cured buffalo meat, and goat hotpot. It had everything I needed for a perfect trip.
I was so taken in by the photogenic scenery that I didn’t spare my Canon camera a single moment’s rest. At every turn I took hundreds of photos and hundreds more with my mobile phone. In a way I didn’t enjoy the landscape with my eyes; I was too busy looking through the lenses for a superb shot. My meals were served hot but had turned cold before I finished making food entries on Instagram, in which I only have a handful of followers. I constantly exchanged Whatsapp messages with some friends, and in some cases went the extra mile to stream live video of where I was. I didn’t make much effort to engage with the local people, instead trying to ensure that my family and friends stayed fully updated on my exciting trip. I even checked and responded to some work mails.
Only when I returned home did I realise that I was never fully ‘in’ Ha Giang. It was like I had never left Hanoi and the trip was like an illusion. Though I took thousands of photos, I barely bothered to look at them.
Like millions if not billions of other people, my means of communicating, working, and having fun and, ultimately, my way of living has been revolutionised by digital technology. Social media has had a tremendous impact on culture, business, and the world-at-large. But at the individual level it’s proven to be a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. When was the last time you saw someone without their phone, whether grocery shopping, having a meal with friends, or queuing to board a flight? People’s eyes are almost always glued to their phone.
Why do we rely on apps to tell us what to do with our life, how to do it, and with whom? We don’t ask our grandmother for recipes any longer, we depend on an app to decide what to have for dinner. We don’t count on friends and relatives to introduce us to a potential partner. We swipe left or right through hundreds of Tinder profiles hoping for the perfect match.
The huge benefits social media can bring don’t need to be repeated here. It can also wear you down, though, and provoke a false sense of connection, create stress and, ultimately, take over your life.
So for the last month, in a desperate quest not to be trapped in social media and networking, I have been following a personal strategy to seek balance and keep an even keel on Earth.
These are my seven tips for working effectively with devices while remaining mindful that the world is around you.
* Take a minute to look at your phone/laptop screen. How many apps do you have? Do you really need them all? The full collection of Whatsapp, Facebook, Viber, Zalo and Skype? Delete the apps you really don’t need and just use a centralised texting platform for different groups to avoid switching between apps.
* Wise waiting.
If you have some time to kill, install some educational apps. Duolingo, for example, is ideal to learn a new language wherever and whenever you can. Pocket, meanwhile, is a brilliant service for managing a reading list of interesting articles from the internet that you can read later instead of browsing through dozens of irrelevant pages.
* Install productivity apps.
StayFocusd is an extension for Google Chrome that helps you stay focused on work by restricting the amount of time you can spend on time-wasting websites. Once your allotted time has been used up, the sites you have blocked will be inaccessible for the rest of the day. I set 30 minutes for Facebook every day, for instance, and that’s the only amount of time I have within 24 hours to screen through for a quick news update or look at my friends’ photos, without wasting hours continuously checking feeds. StayFocusd proved to be a pleasant solution for all the problems with procrastination I used to have. If you are using a Mac, SelfControl is a free app that has a similar function.
* Applying Strict Pomodoro, a time-management technique that uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. The Pomodoro Technique can help you power through distractions, stay hyper-focused, and get things done in short bursts, while taking frequent breaks to come up for air and relax. It’s easy and can be applied to any kind of job.
* Go digital detox.
Do you notice that the moment you close your laptop to go to bed, you reach out for your phone or tablet and start flicking through the screens for at least half an hour? You read lots of trivial stuff before falling asleep with your phone next to you, so that the first thing you do in your morning is to check emails or messages. How unhealthy is that?! Schedule some deliberate time into your life where you won’t be using any form of electronic device at all. It could be at a certain time of the day or one day or one weekend. Instead of reaching out for the nearest device, clear your mind and embrace the freedom.
* Start a journal.
This is a great way to reflect and learn from what has happened to you in the past. You can do it the traditional way, with pen and paper, either before you start your workday or in the evening before bedtime. If you need a good app to start with, Day One is my recommendation. It helps you to quickly enter your thoughts and memories and have them synched and backed up in the cloud.
* Be mindful.
This is not exactly a tip, rather an attitude I try to practice every day. Being mindful when having a meal, going on mindful daily walks, taking deep breaths. Being aware of my surroundings and present moments. Isn’t that the path to a happy and fulfilled life?