This guest post is by Clo S., founder of This Too Shall Grow.
Who are you, and what is This Too Shall Grow?
I’m Clo S., a certified digital wellness coach and the founder of This Too Shall Grow! My background is in tech—I used to work as a UX researcher and UX designer until I made the jump toward This Too Shall Grow. I first started by writing articles and my newsletter about how designers and technologists could build more mindful products that would protect users’ mental health and well-being, but as an end-user, you don’t have much leverage over how apps and websites are designed. That’s the reason I embarked on a 7-month certification to be a digital wellness coach: I wanted to help people use their devices in a way that actually worked for them. This journey involved studying coaching as well as neuroscience and the impact of tech on our brain, body, and psyche. I graduated in May 2022 and I’ve been putting all of that newly acquired knowledge to good use in my writing and my coaching. For group activities, I’ve also been building workshops on digital wellness.
What aspects of the digital wellness space are you most knowledgeable and passionate about?
I’m really into notifications! As a designer, I see a huge room for improvement in the way notifications are conceived, and some platforms have innovated a bit by giving users more control over them, how and when they’re delivered, what type of content is worth creating a notification for, etc. However, I still see them getting in our way. I often see people unlocking their phones for something specific and getting sidetracked because of a notification. I also see ridiculous amounts of information being shared there, where a lot of topics of very diverse degrees of relevance coexist. It’s so odd to me that you might get an important email saying you got accepted for a job offer, or a text about a loved one in the hospital, and the same medium is used to let you know that an influencer uploaded their latest vlog to YouTube. Social media is also a domain I find fascinating, yielding heavy benefits such as staying in touch with friends or learning new skills, but also sometimes impacting us very negatively, for instance with body image issues or cyberbullying. When it comes to coaching, I love asking my clients powerful questions that help them learn new things about themselves and guiding them into setting up the best system that’ll support their goals and ambitions.
How does distraction impact creativity?
Distractions get in the way because your short-term memory is key to your creativity, and it can only hold a few things at once. Anything that occupies your limited cognitive resources, whether it’s external distractions or random thoughts, leads you to have less original output. Studies have shown that when participants are asked to come up with original answers while having to maintain something else in their working memory, the higher their cognitive load is, the less creative solutions they come up with. Daydreaming is also an interesting one because even though it’s sometimes perceived as laziness, it actually has a few unexpected benefits, including to your creativity. Letting your mind wander seems to help you come up with more creative answers to problems you already knew of before mind-wandering—but not to new tasks you’re presented with after having been idle. As a result, rather than searching for constant stimulation online, letting yourself be bored can concretely help you come up with more creative ideas.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious at the sheer amount of content that exists online. Is it possible to use this content for good and have a positive online experience?
It absolutely is! There’s so much to be grateful for in social media. Honing your creativity is definitely one aspect of it: you can discover new hobbies, scout artists and fall in love with their work, and learn new skills and techniques from many dedicated content creators who share their know-how. Social media can also be a haven, especially for younger people. It’s where some find the comfort, bonds, and relatedness that they don’t get at home or in school. Being an active user seems to be the key differentiator that will make and not break your social media experience. Active use of social media implies connecting genuinely with others, sharing yourself, and having meaningful exchanges. By contrast, research has shown that being a passive user and not engaging with others in any meaningful way is likely to increase your stress and loneliness.
Is multitasking a myth?
Unfortunately, yes! We can’t actually multitask because our brain isn’t built for this. Instead, we jump from one task to the next very fast—but we’re not actually working on several things at once. This behavior is pretty bad for our brains. We’re often tempted to do it because it makes us feel more productive, but we actually aren't. Research carried out at workplaces concluded that we’re no more or less productive than when we don’t switch between tasks, but that we end up considerably more stressed. There’s a big cognitive cost to alternating between many different tasks in a short time span: leaving one topic for another means making a decision, and in case you’re not familiar with decision fatigue, this is quite a draining process that leads us to make bad decisions at the end of the day because we don’t have the cognitive resources to manage our impulse control anymore. We’re just too worn out. Another downside of trying to multitask is that we give our brains bad habits. By feeling productive and accomplishing a lot of tiny things, we get many rewards in the form of dopamine hits. However, getting used to these hits can be quite detrimental: it means that when we finally sit down to do enduring and focused work that doesn’t provide neurohormonal candy every minute or so, we find ourselves craving it. Said differently, having the habit to jump between tiny tasks will make it way harder for you to do important work that requires your sustained focus. Your brain will be banging on the door demanding to get as much dopamine as it’s used to.
What are media multitasking and its effects?
Media multitasking consists of using several types of digital media at once. This could be reading your emails while listening to a podcast, scrolling social media while you’re watching TV, or answering your texts while listening to music. It might seem counterintuitive, but the more someone indulges in media multitasking, the worse their cognitive flexibility gets, i.e. they decrease their ability to switch between different tasks and cognitive processes, probably because they’re not as good at filtering out irrelevant information anymore. Interestingly, doing media multitasking by learning something new while music or TV are playing in the background can lead to the new information being stored in the wrong part of your brain!
Why is setting intentions important to building a better relationship with our devices?
Setting an intention is a way to use your devices more mindfully. Opal’s feature to write an intention when taking a timer break is one of my favorite ones! It’s a small step that allows you to check in with yourself and make sure that you’re making choices that are in your best interest. This check-in is even more relevant given how easily we can get sucked into our devices and act on impulse rather than from a deliberate place. As you’ve certainly noticed, reaching your goals is often about resisting instant gratification to reap long-term rewards. Stopping in your tracks and giving yourself the chance to be deliberate with your digital behavior is a good way to train yourself to resist the appeal of instant gratification. Instead of obeying your impulse, you get another shot at following through with your goals.
Is becoming addicted to our devices our fault? Or, is it the fault of the creators?
In my opinion, the responsibility lies on those who create addictive design mechanisms, even more so knowingly. Considering that in 1996 scientists were already warning about the addictiveness potential of computers, this isn’t news. Internet addiction is a behavioral one, such as gambling addiction or gaming addiction, and certain design patterns are more likely to lead to it. Variable rewards, temporary content such as social media stories, daily streaks to maintain, and gamification are all addictive: they keep you coming back to the platform and create an internal urge in you to check it regularly. Some companies have employees whose job is to maximize the time you spend on their platform. So no, I don’t think addicts are the ones to blame—especially considering that Internet addiction is remarkably difficult to treat because our devices are everywhere. Abstinence is key to recovery, but omnipresent cues—ads for online platforms, people using their phones on the street, your family using their computer at home—make it very challenging.
How can we take effective breaks that restore our attention?
According to Attention Restoration Theory, there are several stages to taking breaks that will help you recharge efficiently. First, you need to reduce your cognitive load by letting any thought or information soliciting your attention fade away. Once this is done, you can finally start to recover from your mental fatigue. Taking part in a low-stimulation activity will allow you to experience what is called “soft fascination”, meaning you will begin to feel calmer. This activity could be doodling, knitting, or writing: something low-effort and low-stimulation that you’re already familiar with. Finally, spending enough time in a restorative environment will help you relax and reflect. Nature is an ideal restorative environment because it’s not as stimulating as the city full of cars, noise, and visual cues you have to pay attention to. Since you don’t have to focus on what’s happening around you, you can better relax. Additionally, being away from home can also help disconnect from your usual thoughts. A walk in the forest is a perfect break to restore your attention: walking and looking around you is a good way to experience soft fascination, and the forest is an excellent restorative environment to do this in. As you can see, you're very far from the mindless scrolling break between two work meetings or binge-watching Netflix when you come home from work.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
If you enjoy these topics, I’m currently working on a workbook you might like! It’s a collection of 30 digital wellness ideas for you to try out and potentially implement in your life as new digital habits. I explain the science behind these ideas and how to apply them concretely, and I share some journaling prompts for you to reflect on each of them and see what works best for you. If you want to stay in touch, you can either subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter, and I’ll let you know when the book goes out!
If you could give one piece of advice to help someone build a better relationship with their devices, what would it be?
Make your system work for you. Any behavior is encouraged or discouraged by your environment and the people you’re surrounded with. If you want to build a better relationship with your devices, whatever that entails for you, my advice is to make this change as easy as possible by making your system work for you. This might mean switching things up on your devices, asking your partner to keep you accountable, or even changing the disposition of objects or furniture at home. The easier you make it for yourself, the higher your chances of success.