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3 Tips for Setting Boundaries Around Technology Use

Nicole Johnsonby Nicole Johnson

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.
1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)

Our dependence on technology can be crazy-making. Many people have been trying to sound the alarm for years, but it doesn’t appear to be working on a large scale. Our devices are more popular than ever and more ingrained in our lives than we realize.

This was certainly true for me, but seeing this become true in the lives of our kids prompted me to do something about it.

I began to notice them going from one screen to the next. As soon as they laid down one device, they would quickly pick up another. I realized I couldn’t get upset with the kids for their nonstop use of technology unless I was modeling good limits on my own tech use. I know, it pretty much stinks that a double standard doesn’t work.

For years I have allowed computer time to bleed over into other areas, leeching time away from walking or reading or being still and quiet. I’ve actually thought, Why don’t I have as much time as I used to? Guess what? I do. I have always had twenty-four hours in a day. I have as much or as little time as I’ve ever had, but I have lost my sense of time by not setting boundaries with technology.

When I thought about what healthy use of technology might look like for me and what limits I needed to set, these are the ones that came up first. I’m not doing them perfectly, but I am doing them regularly.

Turn Off Email When Engaged in Something Else

When I turn off the email program on my laptop, I can think of it more like my outside mailbox. There may be mail there because I heard the carrier outside, but I’ll go and get it when I’m dressed and ready to do something with it. Since email requires none of that getting dressed stuff or even having to walk outside, I have a tendency to let it spill all over the place and gobble up all my time. I find myself looking at email at times when I can’t do anything with it, which may be the biggest time waster ever, because I will have to look at it again when I am going to deal with it properly. I’m much better at setting boundaries with snail mail, probably because it doesn’t beep and pile up every two minutes!

While I cannot control how often people send me email, I can control how often I look at it and when I respond to it. I do not have to give my attention to email just because it clamors for it or because everyone else seems to devote the day to it. When my children yell for me to come and see the biggest spit bubble ever, but I’m in the middle of something, I do not respond immediately to their request. “I’m cutting up fruit, sweetie. When I finish, I’ll come.” I know the bubble will probably be gone, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. I want to give my children my attention when I am able to give it as completely and freely as possible. Who wants a frustrated mother who comes and rolls her eyes at the biggest spit bubble ever? No one.

I am not strong enough to be working on my computer and not look at my email as it comes in, but I am strong enough to turn off the email program so I can pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. I cannot live in calm if I’m trying to squeeze living, working, mothering, and connecting with people in between emails that will never stop coming. But when I turn off my email, even for a few hours, I am free from those demands and free to concentrate, to play, to rest, to shop—whatever I am choosing to give my full attention to.

A beautiful byproduct of setting limits on the reach of my email is that I inadvertently created time for myself. I discovered while writing one afternoon when my email was off that not only was my concentration better, but I got work done in much less time. I didn’t fully make the connection that day, but after a few times I knew I’d been more effective, and also more efficient. Whenever a project takes longer than the time allotted, it causes me to scramble, moving things around to give myself more time, creating crazy. But with a secure boundary around this huge time waster, I was finishing within my estimated time and sometimes even early. Who knew I could do more if I wasn’t distracted twenty times after I’d begun?

Mute Alerts, Alarms, and Ringers

Whenever a text alert comes from my phone, it startles me a little, and where is my phone anyway? I find it hard not to stop or interrupt what I’m doing and check my phone. Why is that? It’s because our brains get a little shot of dopamine (its favorite drug) whenever we hear that ding. Something has happened! Someone’s trying to reach me! My lives are refilled for Candy Crush! Come quick! But if I don’t hear those rings and alerts, they don’t distract me. Much like turning off my email, muting all the alerts provides me the freedom to concentrate on whatever I am trying to concentrate on.

This boundary keeps those pesky, nonstop alerts from physically changing my brain. I am more able to embody calm when I am not getting dopamine surges every few minutes. Our brains are dopamine addicts, and my phone had become my dealer. During the first few weeks of putting my phone on silent, I would forget I had done it and my brain would start to wonder, Why isn’t anyone texting me? I’d better go check my phone. I would remember I’d put it on silent and congratulate myself for getting clean. It felt so good that I could call the shots (literally) regarding the dopamine, and not my dealer, um, phone.

You might be saying to yourself, What if a text is critical? It could be something really important. It isn’t. If I’m waiting for a critical text, I do leave my phone on. When I am out for the evening and there is a sitter with my children, I don’t turn my phone to silent. When I am waiting to hear the results of a friend’s MRI, my phone is on. But for the most part, the text messages and calls I receive are not critical, unless you count as critical someone needing the recipe for Picnic Potato Salad.

When I am having family time, or quiet time, or just goof-off time, I want to be fully present. I don’t want to interrupt that time for what might be happening somewhere else. If I don’t set this boundary, my phone brings distraction opportunities twenty-four hours a day. I can’t function like this, and not because I don’t like smartphones or because I resist technological advances. It is because I no longer want to live in crazy, and constant distractions create crazy. An old German proverb applies here: “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair!”

I keep my devices quiet to limit the disruptions they inevitably cause and also to model control for my kids. If I am okay with their being on their phones all the time (when they actually get them—at age thirty!) then I can be on my phone all the time. But if I want my kids to know a different way, a way they might not appreciate for a long time, one that cultivates their creativity and shores up their concentration and allows them to work more efficiently, then I have to stay off my phone. I have to model the kind of control I want my kids to exhibit, and lead the way in setting limits on some things to make space for the things we love most, like each other.

I still forget to do this at times, because with the number of devices I have, it seems like it takes an hour to make sure everything is on silent, but when I mute the bells and whistles, I feel calm coming in like a breeze off the ocean. I feel in control of my technology versus feeling like the technology is controlling me.

Take Sabbaticals from Social Media

Are you familiar with the term FOMO? The letters stand for Fear of Missing Out. Someone coined this phrase to give words to the fear and anxiety that we might be missing out on something. Magazine ads compete to create FOMO so we’ll buy the clothes that show we’re “in the know.” Who doesn’t want to be invited to the party? We don’t want to miss out or be left out of anything, especially something we want to be included in. This desire is so normal and human. I remember feeling FOMO every single day of junior high. As social beings, we want to experience what others are experiencing; we want to belong.

Through the creation of Facebook and the like, FOMO has become an epidemic. Every single hour of every single day it is possible to open your computer and see a hundred or more things you are missing out on! Our friends all over the country are doing amazing things and going fabulous places (yay, them!), but, hmm, without us (ugh). I’ve never seen anyone post a vacation photo looking sad that I’m not there (but a cool idea!). FOMO could also stand for Facebook Only Makes Outsiders! It’s hard on the psyche to see photos of happy, tanned people on vacation if I’m stuck at home with kids and the stomach flu. I am not bashing social media—well, not completely. I’m simply advocating drawing a boundary around it to protect our emotional health. We can do this by giving social media more realistic context in our lives.

Research has revealed a connection between the high usage of social media and depression. The reasons are not surprising. Social media heightens depression because of comparison, which was one of the ingredients that created crazy in my life. We look from the outside at other people’s lives and we rank ourselves in ways that lead to discontent. Remember, comparison never reveals the whole story, only as much of the story as we need to feel inferior. Every comparison we make is like a dry twig, and before long we have a dangerous pile of kindling in the middle of our living room. One spark, which social media is happy to deliver, will start the fire that burns up satisfaction and gratitude faster than we can click “like.”

Facebook cleverly creates the illusion that we are connecting and participating in the lives of others simply by looking at their posts. But that’s not participation. We are not engaged with most of our Facebook “friends” on a relational level unless we spend time with them in person. We are merely spectators who can look at the lives of others and leave comments.

Fortunately, Facebook hasn’t been a habit for me, so consuming less has not been difficult. I’ve never liked the way it tries to connect me to other people. While I’m trying to decipher how Facebook connected me to some guy named Albert across the country who knows three of my sister’s friends in Alabama, an hour has gone by and I have no idea where it went. However, I now know that Charlene’s dog died yesterday, Mary’s daughter went to the prom with a really goofy-looking boy, Sarah got engaged at the Arboretum, and Michael, an old friend from high school, bought a new truck. I feel awful. Not because I feel left out, but because I feel overwhelmed that I can’t keep up with all the relationships I’m not really in. Should I send a card to Charlene? Or just post a couple of sentences? I’ll have to get a gift for Sarah, but she didn’t exactly tell me about her engagement, so should I wait for the announcement or like her pictures? Thank goodness I don’t need to send a gift to Michael for getting a new truck!

Social media is simply that—media. It is not possible to have five hundred friends. It is possible to have five hundred people’s posts to look through, but I can barely keep up with the people that live under my roof! So even trying to stay current on people’s posts creates crazy, never mind trying to post something about yourself! Especially if you feel like I do that stress comes from what you’re not getting done.

If you are trying to create calm in your life, take a sabbatical from social media. Come up with a schedule that lets you detox and get a break, such as, three weeks on and then one week off. Be wise and intentional about the amount of usage and always remind yourself that looking at other people’s lives from the outside is depressing.

Technology brings information, photos, apps, even movies, right to our fingertips. The possibilities are endless and conveniences are practical. But technology asks for a lot in return: our attention, our information, our choices, our focus, and our time. Use technology wisely; make conscious choices about what you’re willing to give away and what you’re not. In doing so you’ll limit the reach of the crazy and take an important step in extending calm to yourself and your family.


Adapted from Creating Calm in the Center of Crazy: Making Room for Your Soul in an Overcrowded Life by Nicole Johnson. Click here to learn more about this title.

Author, speaker, and actor Nicole Johnson knows what it’s like to feel as if you’re drowning in crazy. When she couldn’t catch her breath or stay awake long enough to talk with her husband, let alone God, she sought to find new ways of “being” in her life. Creating Calm in the Center of Crazy is a voice of possibility and peace for those seeking to find a calm spiritual center in a crazy, runaway world. As a wife and mom of young children, Nicole recognized that life had become out of control. And, with the help of a crisis, she started her journey to create the very calm she was craving.

Nicole’s personal story grounds the book as she abandons mere tips and tricks (and the empty promises of time saving apps), to explore new practices—like creating a room of her own, setting technology boundaries, rediscovering the spiritual disciplines of quiet and still (they’re not bad words)—and then extending those practices to provide a safer, stronger refuge for calm to dwell.

Nicole’s journey is shared with relatable stories, insightful help, and practical ideas that explore the inner life of a recovering crazy busy woman finding her way to calm and a deeper relationship with God.

Nicole Johnson, author of Fresh Brewed Life, has a uniquely creative voice. As an accomplished writer, speaker, and actor, Nicole has performed in thousands of churches and venues over the last twenty-five years, including more than a decade of touring with the national conference Women of Faith. Nicole lives in Santa Monica, CA with her husband and two children.

Filed under Culture, Family, Guest Post