This is a followup to my last post, where I wrote about my big aha related to the negative effects of screen time on women. It was inspired by Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Today I’ll share insights and strategies about creating boundaries with the online world.
The idea of creating boundaries with a 24/7 world might feel daunting.
After all, you carry this world around in your pocket or purse.
And like I said in my last post, it’s a world deliberately designed to tap into your base desire to finish the to-do list, among other things. But the deck is stacked against you because it’s a never ending to-do list that’s been put in front of you without your permission.
The irony is that many women tend to show up online, particularly on social media, seeking connection and belonging. But they’re often left wondering why they’re not experiencing much of that.
My guess is it’s because a lot of us are working really hard—scrolling and clicking—even though it’s not a job we signed up for.
Just yesterday I saw a post from a woman who described her plan for creating boundaries with Instagram because she’d become too “scroll happy.” It’s a clever way to put it even though I’m pretty sure too much scrolling isn’t making her happy. So she needed to set a clear boundary around it.
Creating boundaries with technology can start with a few soul searching questions.
You can begin by asking:
- Does this truly make me happy?
- Is this my work in the world?
If you’re reading this I’m guessing it doesn’t always make you happy and it isn’t your work in the world. And when you’re online your brain may think it’s another to-do list.
Still, the intense scrolling and clicking does align with the 21st Century work ethic: hustle culture and grind mentality. Long gone are the days of slacker mentality. (Yes, I do sometimes miss the 1990’s).
For many of us the work ethic road travels far back into the past. Remembering how and when it started can make it easier to begin creating boundaries with your devices and the digital world.
For me it helps to remember that I come from a long line of strong and stoic women. There was never any question that we would work hard to try to finish the to-do list. In fact, there was a clear boundary around that: work before play.
Looking back, I also remember lazy times as a child and teen. And it was often a good kind of laziness: relishing the abundance of time, playing games, walking all over the town I grew up in, riding my bike, day dreaming, reading, hanging out with friends.
In spite of the to-do list, I could not stop my playful inner child from asserting herself.
The act of creating boundaries can have roots in your past.
Try this next time you’re in the trance of scrolling and clicking. Pull back and ask if this is who you truly are? Is this how your playful inner child wants you to spend your time?
When I think of my playful inner child, I remember the strong pull that the outdoors, the landscape had for her. That’s still true to this day, not just for me but for many women I know. We ache to be out in it, we ache to receive its deep wisdom.
This ache pulled Jenny Odell, the author of How to Do Nothing, out into the landscape too, as she began changing her own relationship with technology.
Despite the book’s title, she didn’t step away to do nothing. Instead, her research followed a path back to the wisdom of ancient philosophers, mystics and monks. She continued on to explore historical movements and political shifts. She discovered some that were focused on reclaiming time and solitude; others on paving over landscapes and pulling people apart.
Throughout the writing, Odell was creating boundaries for herself.
She writes about deep experiences with art, community and the natural world:
- a performance that woke her up to the literal background noises in her world
- a time when she lost herself in a painting
- her journey to delve into the origins of the landscapes surrounding her, getting to know them and the people in them.
At one point she describes sitting in a beautiful, lovingly cared for rose garden, looking down at her phone and viewing it as, “its own kind of sensory-deprivation chamber.” It seemed like an aha moments for her: a wake up call that setting boundaries with her phone was a critical need.
She also questions the “rhetoric of growth” embedded within our society, with its constant emphasis on producing something newer and bigger rather than concentrating on tending, caring for and maintaining what is.
About this she says…
I’m suggesting we take a protective stance towards ourselves, each other and whatever is left of what makes us human—including the alliances that sustain and surprise us. I’m suggesting we protect our spaces and our time for…maintenance, care and conviviality.
According to Odell, creating boundaries with the attention economy looks like:
- A real withdrawal of attention that happens first and foremost in the mind.
- The ability to not just withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else.
- Pausing for consideration when clickbait would have us click.
- Risking unpopularity by searching for context when our feeds are full of outrage and scapegoating.
- Studying the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions.
- Understanding the algorithmic versions of ourselves that are being manipulated.
- Knowing when we’re being guilted, threatened or gaslighted into reactions that come from fear and anxiety.
At this point you might wonder how you could achieve everything on the list.
Probably by beginning at the beginning, giving yourself time to reflect on what matters most to you.
In other words, when you give less of your precious time to screens and the attention economy, how will you invest the hours you’ve gained? Many women I talk with are yearning for more self-care, rest, exploration, play, quiet and creativity.
I think Odell gives us a clue about how to start when she describes the importance of tending, caring for and maintaining what is.
When I look around I notice a number of things that need to be tended, cared for and maintained in my life, both internally and externally. And I’ve learned that I increase my chances of creating boundaries to support these needs when I take the time to contemplate and prepare before I take action.
This is different from standard advice about digital boundaries and habit change.
Focusing on habit change is great if it works for you.
For many of us it just doesn’t. But it’s very compelling because it’s often presented as a quick fix. In fact, today an email landed in my inbox promising I could break “bad” habits (including phone addiction) and hack my brain’s habit loops if I signed up for this one amazing course!
Here’s the thing: the attention economy was created to siphon your attention in so many varied ways that it will likely take much more than habit change to defeat it. This is a battle of wills that you didn’t know you signed up for, and Odell even uses war terms to describe it: You must know your enemy.
So it really doesn’t help when someone tells you it’s a “bad” habit that you need to break. And at this point, what it means to know your boundaries in the digital age is definitely a work in progress.
Please know you’re not bad. It’s not your fault if the digital world has hooked you in and it’s difficult to define and set a clear boundary. (That said, if there are some habit change strategies that help you, by all means combine them with the ideas I’m writing about here.)
Odell claims her book isn’t self-help, but an activist book disguised as self-help.
Personally, it seemed quite different from most self-help books I’ve read.
It’s thoughtful and deep. A little nerdy. Full of heart.
And it doesn’t give advice. I really appreciated that, because there is an overload of advice in the 21st century that often makes you feel even more confused.
Instead of advice, the book opened my eyes to how we got to this place in the 21st century. Much of it I didn’t know and had never considered. If you’re interested, reading the book will help you understand all seven points on Odell’s list above.
There’s a lot of hope in the book too.
Odell’s descriptions of her own experiences and experiments with reclaiming and reinvesting her attention (away from the digital world) were particularly helpful.
Because that’s where it gets hard, right? It’s challenging enough to step away, but then what? After so much time spent online, it’s common to feel unanchored and uncertain when you begin stepping away.
She seemed to solve that problem not so much by deliberately stepping away, but by pulling the thread of her own curiosity. And then, by spending time creating relationships with things she cared about, things that were deeply meaningful to her.
So you might begin creating boundaries by adding rather than subtracting.
Years ago a friend told me that when she started getting a weekly CSA box filled with fresh fruits and veggies, other things began to fall away. She was less interested in some of the foods she normally ate, because she was nourishing herself in a way that crowded them out.
You could experiment with your own version of this by taking small bites of nourishing experiences. Like me, you’ll probably have to begin again and again.
It helps when you allow yourself to step back from any extreme or restrictive narratives that say you need to do this well right out of the gate. You can set your own pace, honor your own rhythms and grant yourself a thousand (or more) opportunities to begin again.
And then, over time, your nourishing experiences will add up, eventually crowding out more and more of the attention economy. Until the day arrives when you can say: “I’ve succeeded in creating boundaries that honor my need to care and tend what matters most.”