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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

14 Tips for Getting Your Screen Time Under Control (Even When You’re WFH in a Pandemic)

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For those of us who’ve been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like we’re currently living our lives almost exclusively through screens. After staring at a computer to work all day, we’ve got our eyes glued to screens again in our off hours, whether we’re joining a Zoom happy hour, binge-watching our favorite comfort TV, or doomscrolling in bed. Even if you worked remotely in the Before Time, the pandemic means you’re probably leaving the house a lot less, especially during colder months, and filling your time with screens and devices, says productivity and ADHD coach Amy Voros.

But it’s not a bad idea to try to better manage your screen time. For starters, spending too long staring at screens can lead to eye issues and headaches (maybe you’ve already noticed). Too much tech time can also lead to all kinds of mental and physical issues, including sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety, and “an ambient fear of missing important information or opportunities,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, an expert on the physical and mental effects of technology and author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World

So how do you manage your screen time when you’re working from home during COVID?

Be Kind to Yourself About Screen Time Expectations

If you’re working from home during the pandemic, you’re obviously not going to eliminate all your screen time—not when all your meetings take place on video too and breaks are more likely to be spent checking the news than chatting with a coworker over coffee. Screens are now also our main gateway to socialization, entertainment, and shopping for essential (and not-so-essential) items—on top of the increased screen time necessary to do our jobs.

So it’s OK that your screen time is up, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. It’s a stressful time, to say the least, and while reducing the time you spend looking at screens is a worthy goal, you should cut yourself some slack if things don’t go according to plan.

Figure Out Where Your Screen Time Is Spent

“Any time people want to change their habits, I recommend spending a week as usual and documenting it,” says Aja Frost, author of the new book Work-From-Home Hacks. You can track how much screen time you’re getting and what you’re spending it on through a number of apps such as RescueTime, Clockify, and Timely, or via the built-in Digital Wellbeing (for Android) or Screen Time (for iPhone) functions. But be mindful of which devices each of these methods tracks and manually note the usage for screens that are missing, like your TV or gaming device. You can also manually record any or all of your screen time—just keep in mind that you might not catch all the moments when you look at your phone without thinking about it or accurately estimate just how long you were playing that phone game.

You might start to see some trends and areas where you can easily make adjustments. “For instance, maybe you realize spending a half hour each morning reading emails turns into online shopping more often than not,” Frost says. In a case like this, you’re also likely prolonging your workday and “wasting” screen time that could be better spent on the things you actually want to do. Or maybe a concerning amount of your time is spent scrolling through Twitter (a real example based on I have). You might also notice inefficiencies in your workday and may be able to “figure out which recurring tasks or projects you can spend less time on or cut altogether,” Frost says.

Align Screen Time to Your Priorities and Values

Not all screen time is created equal in terms of how much you personally get out of it. What matters to you? And what do you need to do to do your job?

“The basic premise I operate on is be intentional about your time!” Voros says. If you haven’t seen your mother in months, FaceTiming or Zooming with her is going to be far more fulfilling than watching The Office for the 22nd time or falling down that Instagram hole where you’re somehow looking at pictures of your friend’s aunt’s quarantine bread. If playing video games brings you joy or relaxes you, don’t feel like you need to stop doing it entirely in the name of less screen time—but maybe you can cut back elsewhere and spend one night playing a game with that cousin you wanted to catch up with anyway, so you’re using that time to socialize as well.

You might also be able to prioritize and reduce or balance out your screen time at work, depending on your job and situation. Maybe you don’t have to answer every email, or maybe you can shift that non-urgent screen-heavy task to a lighter day instead of one when you’ve been staring at your computer for 10 hours.

Think About Which Work Tasks Can Be Done Without a Screen

Zoom meetings are one work task that not only requires screens but can lead to fatigue. However, there are ways to curtail the amount of time you spend staring at your coworkers in tiny boxes. Maybe meetings without visuals can be phone calls or maybe you can record a training video once rather than repeatedly having Zoom meetings to train different colleagues on the same process or tech. (Find more video meeting alternatives here!)

You might also think about what tasks you can do with an old-fashioned pen and paper, like planning your day; outlining a memo, article, presentation; or sketching out a design. If you have a printer and something longer to read, maybe that can be done on paper as well. If you work in a creative field or are trying to problem solve, you might try brainstorming while you’re “walking, doodling, writing, or even taking a shower (one of the perks of working from home!)” Frost says.

Turn Off Notifications (During and After Work)

We’ve all been there. You settle in to read a book or work on that craft, and then your phone vibrates. Suddenly, you’re back looking at a screen. Or maybe you’re finally getting started on that work assignment you’ve been putting off, and you get a push notification on your desktop. Now you’re still looking at a screen, but not focused on the task you wanted to get done.

Turning off your notifications eliminates both these scenarios. You can also adjust your settings so that your notifications turn off at specific times when you want to be away from screens (or only using them for a specific purpose). With many technologies, like the iPhone, you can set yourself to “do not disturb” but let through notifications from certain people—like your boss or your nanny—so you don’t miss anything urgent.

If you’re turning off work-related notifications, set expectations with the people who might be contacting you, Dodgen-Magee says, so that they know you’ll be responding to emails once an hour at most or that Slack messages won’t be read after 6 PM. This will not only rein in your screen time, but also help you find better work-life balance and avoid burnout.

Schedule Screen-Free Breaks

During the workday, get in the habit of taking screen breaks every 40 minutes. Even set an alarm if you need to, Dodgen-Magee says. “Instead of jumping on Facebook or Google News, get up, walk around,” Voros says. Physically move away from your computer, leaving your phone behind if possible. This goes for meal, snack, and coffee times as well: “Take a full break,” Dodgen-Magee says.

Outside of work, you should also be intentionally scheduling breaks from screens into your day. Dodgen-Magee recommends setting at least two 10-minute blocks of time—one in the morning and one in the evening—to “do things that engage our bodies” free from any screen or internet connection.

Go Outside If You Can

Spending time outside gives your eyes a break from the two-dimensional screen world. Plus, getting some natural light and breathing fresh air can help improve your mood, especially during the darker winter months. If you’re used to getting out of the office for lunch or coffee during the day, a quick walk can help recreate the mental break. Dodgen-Magee suggests making it enticing to get outside. For example, make it your morning routine to drink your first mug of coffee outside, away from screens. You can even put your coat near your coffee machine as a reminder.

Of course, you'll want to stay safe, so use your judgment if you live somewhere extremely cold or crowded and follow public health guidelines in your area.

Create Device-Free Areas

Dodgen-Magee’s biggest tip for reducing screen time right now is “having a couple of zones in our homes where tech doesn’t come.” She suggests designating your bedroom and your bathroom as tech-free zones, but figure out what makes the most sense for you. If your home office is in your bedroom, of course the whole room isn’t possible, but maybe your bed itself is—which would keep you from scrolling instead of sleeping (and gets rid of blue light immediately before bed, allowing for better sleep).

Think of the reasons you’ll justify bringing your phone to bed and figure out ways to accommodate. For example, if you use a meditation app, you can practice with it during the day so that you don’t need it to guide you at night, Dodgen-Magee says. Or if you use your phone as an alarm in the morning, buy a standalone alarm clock.

Stick to One Screen at a Time

Even if you can’t scale back on screen time as much as you’d like to, sticking to one device at a time whenever possible will still help, especially when it comes to your brain and central nervous system, which are more stimulated by multiple screens at once than a single screen, Dodgen-Magee says. You might think that multiple forms of distraction at once will calm you down, but they don’t. So instead of texting while working or looking at your phone while you’re watching TV, pick one screen-based activity to focus on at a time.

Find Ways to Stimulate All of the Senses Throughout the Day

“The screens have become our go to. We crave the dopamine hit” that comes from using our devices, Dodgen-Magee says. Instead, look for ways to engage other senses like touch and smell. You might try lighting candles or slow cooking a meal throughout the day. Dodgen-Magee also suggests creating mini Zen gardens with salt that you rake with a fork. Anything you can do to stimulate other senses can help lessen the cravings for the dopamine surge you get from screens.

Make It Easier to Grab Something Non-Tech and Harder to Grab Tech

Set up your home so that it’s easy to grab items without screens that still entertain you. It could be a small puzzle, a game, a stress ball, or the supplies you need to participate in a non-screen hobby. Meanwhile, Dodgen-Magee says, you should make your devices harder to grab. If you have to go into your bedroom to get your tablet or your work laptop goes into a drawer at 5:30 PM every day, you’re more likely to pick up the screenless things within reach.

Be Intentional About the Type of Media You Consume

While it might be hard for none of your entertainment to come from screens right now, you can still choose things that relax you more and stimulate you less. Dodgen-Magee recommends “anything high-quality [and] slow-moving, anything where you can do one thing at a time.” Rather than watching 10 different YouTube videos, try a longer movie or show.

“Media is created to disorient us now,” Dodgen-Magee says. So “try to privilege content that doesn’t dysregulate or disrupt our emotions or our thought processes.” Choosing something calming can cut down on your stimulation even if you’re not eliminating screens entirely. It’s no coincidence that Animal Crossing and The Great British Bake Off have been popular during the pandemic.

Limit Social Media

“Excessive social media use is correlated with anxiety and depression and causes anxiety and depression,” Dodgen-Magee says. Social media is designed to be addicting and to keep you scrolling, thereby increasing screen time—not to mention the FOMO that can make lockdown restrictions feel that much harder. Place limits on your social media (and not just Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok—LinkedIn, Reddit, and other platforms can have the same effect).

If you need an extra hand, there are apps and browser extensions to block or restrict your usage of certain platforms. You can try StayFocusd, BlockSite, Freedom, or Apple’s Screen Time, which works whether you’re using the browser version of a platform or the app. You can also delete the apps from your phone. Or you can adjust your settings to log out of your social media accounts automatically. During the extra step it now takes to get onto social media, you can remind yourself that you’re trying to limit it and do something else instead.

Look for Downtime Activities and Hobbies That Don’t Require a Screen

It will be far easier to cut down on screen time if you know there’s something you want to do without screens. This is a great time to try out a new offline hobby or resurrect an old one, or even just plan a series of safe, screenless activities you’re excited about. “A hobby won’t just keep you entertained and off your screens, it’ll also bring novelty and fulfillment to your day—two things that are sorely lacking for most people right now,” Frost says.

Here are a few ideas to get you started, but the most important thing is that whatever you choose is enticing enough to get you away from your phone, TV, computer, tablet, or video games.

  • Bake something
  • Become proficient with a new skill toy (for example, yo-yo, balance board, Kendama, or Rubik’s Cube)
  • Build a Lego set or model kit
  • Call someone on the phone
  • Cook a new meal (glancing at a screen to check a recipe is OK, but if you can, print it off or look in a cookbook instead)
  • Create a reading challenge for yourself (whether that’s a certain number of books, books written in a certain time period or genre, or books by writers from a demographic underrepresented on your bookshelves)
  • Create art in a favorite or new medium (such as painting, sculpting, drawing, or collage)
  • Do a DIY project for your home or yard (for instance, building a new piece of furniture or refurbishing and/or decorating an old one)
  • Do a puzzle
  • Do yoga
  • Learn to knit, crochet, sew, or needlepoint
  • Learn origami
  • Look for local businesses offering at-home or remote versions of their services (such as a DIY pottery kit)
  • Make crafts (like creating some new decorations to liven up your space or building frames for some photos)
  • Meditate
  • Play a board game
  • Play single-player games (such as solitaire, finger labyrinths, or a Rush Hour-type game)
  • Play with a pet
  • Put together a package to mail to a friend or drop off at their front door
  • Practice a musical instrument
  • Read a book (paper is best, but an e-reader without a back-lit screen like the Kindle Paperwhite is still better than your phone or tablet)
  • Reread an old favorite book from childhood
  • Start a small garden (in your yard or even on your balcony, windowsill, or kitchen counter if you’re in an apartment)
  • Train a pet to do new tricks
  • Write something with paper and pen (or even a typewriter if you have one!)