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Which world do you live in?

When the film The Matrix was first released in 1999, its use of bullet-time was hailed as one of the greatest advances in special effects in decades. Yet, it is the underlying story - that of humans living in a fabricated matrix, a false-reality, designed to keep their brains stimulated and their bodies alive, to help generate the power needed to keep robots ruling the earth moving - that piqued my interest. What if we do live in a computer generated world? How would we know? In October 2016, the Guardian reported on the fact that a number of wealthy tech billionaires are convinced we do, and have invested money to prove (or disprove) just that. Whilst science fiction films such as The Matrix might seem far fetched and far removed from the world we live in, I would argue that more and more of us are living in our very own self-styled computer generated simulation, through digital personas, detached from reality.

My days are pretty eclectic, somedays it is head down trying to design a new workshop, on other days I will be busy writing my book or a blog, and, on others, meeting with clients and prospective clients and delivering workshops. On most days, I will try to incorporate some sort of physical exercise, whether that be accompanying my wife on her morning cycle to work, going for a run around Greenwich park or hitting the gym. yesterday, following breakfast with a friend, I hit the gym for a couple of hours.

I have got into a new routine of listening to audio books when I train - according to research, we learn 20% faster when exercising, but that's not why I do it. We're all time poor (I am no exception) and I have a mountain of books I want to read. For me, listening to a book whilst cycling on a static bike is the perfect solution. However, I digress.

Whilst I was on the static bike, listening to my new book (the Compassionate Achiever, in case you were interested), I couldn't help but notice three work-men, on the pavement opposite, sitting next to one another, not talking, all three fixated on their phones. They were there for almost 20 minutes in all, and at no time did they speak to one another. It appears to be happening more and more, people walking into solid objects, such as walls, doors or other people, twisting their ankles or tripping over inanimate objects, or simply sitting in silence at a social gathering, mesmerised by the the blue light being emitted form their smartphones, unaware of the real world unfolding around them. It got me thinking about writing this blog.

One of the core pillars of our wellbeing model (and other wellbeing models for that matter) is social connectivity, and by that I don't mean how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers we might have, at any given time. Having at least one confidant, someone who we trust implicitly, and can turn to in our hour(s) of need, is critical to our wellbeing. It is not the quantity of friends we have, but the quality of those friendships that matters. Research has shown that bottling up emotions can have a negative impact on both our mental and physical health; talking about our problems lessens the negative impact those problems have on our health. Yet, there is an increasing risk that, by living our lives through our digital personas, we are missing out on fostering the very relationships needed to thrive in the real world.

Whilst most of us are concerned with our work/life balance, we should be equally concerned with our digital/life balance, and how much of our life we "live" online. I have a Facebook and Twitter account, but I try to use them sparingly, and certainly don't live my life through them. I would much rather experience the ups and downs of life, in person, in the moment, rather than living life virtually, online, through a digital persona (which may or may not reflect reality). Fake news is currently in the spotlight, but it's certainly not new. People have been photoshopping photos since well, Photoshop was invented. Whilst a picture may well paint a thousand words, the question is whether those words accurately depict the moment that the picture was taken. When someone posts a photo of themselves on Instagram, having an amazing time at a party, the fact that they have time to post a photo raises the question: how much fun were they having in the first place?

You may ask yourself: what's the harm with living life online? Isn't just a bit of escapism from our daily worries? Aside from the potential detrimental impact on our social relationships, there is the potential damage to our longer-term mental health and the very real risk of addictive behaviour - smartphones can be addictive. The shiny blue light draws us into a world full of fascinating news updates and messages, that can prove difficult to resist - there is a real fear of missing out, but missing out on what exactly? More fakery?

You may have heard of some people suffering from separation anxiety, as a result of being apart from their smartphones. I have, in the past, felt similar pangs of anxiety. It is no real surprise - our brains are hugely complex, but also remarkably simple. They are efficient, and in their quest for efficiency, they create subconscious habit loops. When we consciously choose to repeat certain behaviours regularly - our brain hardwires these behaviours into our subconscious, which is far more energy-efficient. To activate a particular habit or behaviour, we simply need the right trigger or cue. Once our subconscious notices the cue, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, to drive the behaviour and complete the habit loop. The urge we sometimes feel to do something, is due to dopamine driving the behaviour. If we don't complete that behaviour whilst the cue is still present, the urge gets stronger and stronger, and we might even start to feel anxious.

In the past, I have found myself unconsciously, fuelled by habit, repeatedly checking my newsfeed. See phone -> check newsfeed -> bask in the eternal glory of wasting yet another 2-3 minutes of my day/life. Did I manage to end world hunger? Foster world peace? It is safe to say, that I did not. Life is precious, our time is precious, and it scares me to think how much of our time we are devoting to a make-believe digital world which has no consequence, other than to deprive us of experiencing real life. Thankfully, I have implemented a number of measures to either remove the triggers that fuelled my unhelpful habits or replace the habits with new healthier ones (see further below, for some ideas to help curb yours).

When I am in a social environment, I have always ensured my phone is nowhere in sight. For me, time with others is precious. Having a phone present suggests that the phone is more important, and that I'd rather be anywhere else than with the person (or people) I am with. Those who (rudely) interact with their phones at social gatherings, including work meetings or over a meal, may profess to be able multi-taskers, but the science says otherwise. Laboratory studies have shown that those who think of themselves as good multi-taskers perform worse on multi-tasking tasks than those who don't. The brain cannot consciously perform two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time. What it can do, is switch between tasks extremely quickly. However, that consumes more energy and therefore comes at a cognitive cost and can even trigger our stress response. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to a computer. We can have multiple programmes working at any one time, but we can only work in one programme at a time. Additionally, if we have too many programmes open at once and attempt to switch between multiple applications rapidly, the processor will likely grind to a halt and the computer may even crash. It is strange to think that the simple act of thinking requires energy - our brains account for 20% of our daily energy expenditure, even though they make up only 2% of our total body mass.

Invariably, the greatest risk of not finding the right digital/life balance is to ourselves. If we don't take the time to be present in the real world, we miss out on opportunities to forge real relationships and foster compassion. If we don't get to know our co-workers, because we spend our lunch breaks scouring for the latest celebrity news online to escape from the worries of modern life, will they be inclined to show us empathy or compassion when we need it most? We may well have personal or work problems, that cause us great angst and stress, and which may even prevent us from sleeping at night, but will our colleagues be any the wiser about our situation if we don't invest in fostering those relationships? Yes, we can spend more and more of our time in a make-believe digital world, our very own self-styled Matrix, but will it make us happier? It may temporarily distract us from experiencing our worries and fears, but those worries and fears will be there waiting for us when we return. Unless we face them head on, they risk chiselling away at our wellbeing. By immersing ourselves in a digital world, at the expense of real life relationships, we risk isolating ourselves from the very people that contribute to our wellbeing and help keep us sane.

Some ideas on how to reconnect with the world around us

The obvious solution might be to disconnect from our digital devices. However, that is easier said than done and disconnecting completely isn't realistic or even desirable.

There are some fairly easy measures we can all put in place, if we are struggling to find the right balance or contain some undesirable subconscious habits. Removing the trigger is the most obvious solution. If you have a social engagement, whether a meeting at work or a meal with friends, put your phone away. If you can't see your phone, you remove the trigger and you won't have the urge to check it. If you normally keep your phone on your desk at work, stick it in a drawer - lock it if you have to - remove the subconscious trigger. When you do check your phone, if you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through the same apps each time, switch things around. Move apps to a different page, stick them in a folder. A habit is subconscious, if things aren't where they are supposed to be, you interrupt the habit loop and enable conscious thinking, which you are, or at least should be, in control of.

If your employees are struggling with their digital/life balance, we run a digital addiction + detox workshop specifically aimed at helping people find the right balance for them. For more information please contact

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