Let’s face it: 2019 was horrible. I don’t know anyone who had a good year. The best that most people in my circles achieved was a resounding “meh.”
My prime suspect for this: Skyrocketing anxiety. Like Defcon 2 high.
Without doubt, life feels chaotic and spinning out of control for a lot of people right now. There’s the continuing shitshow in Washington, Australia and the planet is burning, and there’s the perennial stress of life in late-stage capitalism.
And those are just the background stressors for the daily struggle that is law practice.
Most of us walk into work already anxious, and not necessarily due to the state of the world. Why?
One big reason is that we are letting our work tools dictate a frenzied mental pace that far outstrips our actual ability to deal with that pace. All those little islands of downtime that we used to have–waiting rooms, lines, the commute–are now filled with chatter and productivity.
If you could make one single change that immediately lowered your anxiety level, improved your legal and problem-solving skills, and decreased your depression, would you do it?
I know all you anxious, unhappy lawyers are vigorously nodding your heads. But I also know when I tell you what will deliver these magic results, there’s gonna be a looooonngg pause.
All you have to do is quit using your phone so damned much.
Not Me! I’m Fine
What’s that? You’re not hooked on your phone? OK, so
- Your heart rate doesn’t spike when you get an alert or notification;
- You check your email and alerts only a few times daily, and certainly not multiple times hourly; and most importantly
- You never pick up your phone when you’re feeling stressed or bored, to distract you from that unpleasantness.
If you can truly say you’re innocent of these behaviors, congratulations! You are in charge of your phone, and at least aren’t exacerbating any anxiety or depression you already felt.
But I’m betting most of you need to dial back your time on the small screen.
Not a Starvation Diet
I did not say you have to quit using your phone. First, that’s impossible in this day and age, if you want to keep your job.
Also, the phones themselves aren’t the problem; it’s how we misuse them. Our relentless quest for productivity has given us the idea that more apps and reminders will make our lives a glorious vision of efficiency, with piles of completed tasks and therefore less stress.
Is Distraction Your Solution?
Most of us have streams of notifications and alerts 24/7. And they stress us out.
In a Business Insider article, endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig said that “notifications from our phones are training our brains to be in a near constant state of stress and fear by establishing a stress-fear memory pathway.”
Wow, that sounds fun.
He continues, “[S]uch a state means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that normally deals with some of our highest-order cognitive functioning, goes completely haywire, and basically shuts down.”
Call me crazy, but this doesn’t sound like peak lawyer performance.
Add to that how we have conditioned ourselves: We get anxious if we don’t have our phones near us constantly.
It’s so bad that WE TAKE OUR PHONES TO THE TOILET.
A good 95% of the time, it’s not because we have a gravely ill family member or friend.
No, it’s because we want to scroll through social media, read news updates, maybe play a game, or text a friend. Y’all, this is not healthy behavior, even if it is the norm.
You Can’t Solve Your Stress on a Screen
And in the “irony of ironies” category, consider that many of us use our phones as a distraction when we are stressed. Like drinking a bit too much wine every night, instead of dealing with the source of our stress and unhappiness directly.
I’m not saying you’re on the verge of a breakdown if you decide to check out Facebook or Twitter after dealing with the umpteenth unpleasant email or conversation on a particularly craptastic day.
But if that’s your primary way of dealing, things aren’t going to magically improve via your phone. The data is very clear that using your phone to stave off anxiety actually increases your anxiety over time.
Renovating Your Phone Habits
To be clear, depression/anxiety doesn’t increase solely from lengthier phone usage. If you’re using your phone to look up some information or connect with someone, great! That’s like a free food on a diet.
But just for kicks, let’s assume you find yourself endlessly scrolling, or compulsively reading upsetting news stories more than once in a while.
Take a breath and simply notice how your body feels. Tense? Muscles clenched, heart beating fast, maybe a headache or stomachache? Whatever the feeling, notice it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you did not notice a lightness of being, either physically or emotionally.
5 Tips for Reducing Screen Time & Anxiety
Of course you probably knew you need less time on a screen. Here are some small ways to get started:
- When you’re walking somewhere—inside or out—don’t look at your screen. Bonus: Everyone around you will thank you for not mowing them down.
- Stop taking your phone to the bathroom, unless you are literally waiting for news about someone who is dying.
- If you are in line, watch the people and scene around you, rather than looking at a screen. Your anxious brain needs downtime to process, and you can get that while waiting in a line.
- Resist the urge to fill small, idle moments. Letting your mind wander is restorative, plus it helps lower anxiety. (At least, once you endure your own guilt trips about not being “productive.”) Let your brain catch up and process a bit.
- Turn off alerts for almost everything on your phone. Be ruthless.
None of these are huge changes, individually. Incorporating them over time will help you feel calmer, more productive, and more in control. Sounds like a win to me.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who curses if she gets a group text, even from people she likes. She also had A+ anxiety even before smartphones took over our lives. If you are interested in decreasing your job anxiety and increasing career joy, contact Jennifer for a sample session at email@example.com.