Digital technologies have taken the world by storm, giving us more ways to connect and express ourselves than ever before. We can tune into news from all over the world, or discover answers to any questions that might come to mind. Yet, with so much information available to us, it’s incredibly easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of time, energy, and attention we spend looking at our screens.
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
As part of a recent movement towards digital wellness, mindfulness is one of the many skills that can help us thrive in the modern world. It gives us the ability to use technology in a more balanced way, in which we appreciate the benefits, while staying attentive to the elements that may lead to unhealthy behaviors.
By cultivating mindfulness in our own use of technology, we can become better advocates and builders of products and services that contribute positively to our wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what’s going on in the present moment. As meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says in a Mindfulness in America Summit interview, it’s the capacity to look nakedly at our own experiences.
When we exercise mindfulness, we’re paying broad attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and sensing in our bodies. It’s a type of mindset that’s characterized by openness, curiosity, and acceptance, as opposed to the laser-focused attention that drowns everything out. We might notice thoughts as they come and go, or sounds and smells that elicit a certain feeling.
We simply observe what’s going on around us, without being swept away by any single thought or emotion.
Another way to understand mindfulness is to look at what it’s not. Much of our daily behavior consists of automatic responses, writes psychology professor Ellen Langer in her book, Mindfulness, such as apologizing when you bump into an inanimate object or habitually reaching for your phone. She calls this mindlessness, as it contrasts with the awareness and reflection that surrounds mindful behavior.
When we’re mindful and attentive to our own experiences, we can take better charge of our health and wellbeing. Through exercises like meditation, mindful movement, or mindful eating, or simply introducing small moments of contemplation into our daily lives, we can train ourselves to be more present and engaged in the moment. However we choose to practice mindfulness, the important thing is to create space for learning and growth as it relates to our own experiences of the world.
Bringing mindfulness into design and technology
When it comes to digital technologies, we can embrace a more mindful approach to how we design and use products in our daily lives. We can start by reflecting on our own technology use, through the following qualities of mindfulness:
Openness. When we direct our attention to what’s going on, it’s important to remain open to whatever your current experiences might be. As you’re reading this article, what do you notice about the words and type on your screen? What subtle feelings do you observe? How does this translate into your posture or your breath?
Non-judgment. When things come into your attention, it’s important to hold them there without judgment. Say you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of fun people seem to be having on Instagram. You notice that you’ve started comparing your own life to that of others. When we ruminate or make these sorts of judgments, we can end up feeling stressed and disconnected. It’s therefore extremely important to recognize your thoughts and feelings as they are, without labelling them as being good or bad.
Compassion. When we take moments to observe ourselves free of judgment, we can become more compassionate toward ourselves and others. As you’re scrolling through your news feed, you might suddenly wonder where the time has gone. Instead of viewing this as a personal failure, you can take a more compassionate approach, realizing that a news feed might be engineered to hold your attention for long periods of time. By exercising self-compassion, you’ll be able to take a more balanced look at how you can adjust your behavior next time.
Non-attachment. Part of being mindful is letting things go, even if it’s something great. Let’s say your newly posted video just got tons of views and a handful of encouraging comments. You’re feeling fantastic and validated. When you take a mindful approach towards this moment, you acknowledge that feeling of exhilaration, yet don’t stay attached to it for very long. Letting go of a feeling means we don’t let it define us or control our behavior in the future.
By examining our personal experiences with technology, we can gain awareness into how we relate to digital products in our daily life. To go even further, we can take these insights and extend them outward into our design practice.
Transforming how we design
Bringing mindfulness into our work can enrich the ways in which we design, and the products and services that we help to build.
We can start by asking ourselves these questions: What do you notice in your own use of technology that you’d like to change? What promotes your wellbeing? How might you take mindfulness principles and build them into a product or service?
Let’s explore some possible answers to these questions:
Giving people more choices to interact with information
A lot of mindless technology use stems from a constant reaction to what’s in front of us, especially when it demands our immediate attention. We fear that we’ll miss out on something important or that we’re failing to fulfill our social obligations. We don’t feel quite in control of the space that technology occupies in our lives.
One way to design for more mindful technology use is to give people thoughtful options for interacting with technology. This means providing options that are well-considered, rather than just more options.