Ashley Galliard

(This article by Ashley Galliard was published in SABPP Newsletter, July 2017

We live in exciting times! With exponential advances in technology we literally have the world at our fingertips at the touch of a button! Communications, global meetings and networking opportunities, VR gaming and conferencing technology, a device and app for everything from data analytics to calling a taxi to monitoring sleep patterns – we live in an age where, if you can think it, you can do it!

Human beings are hard wired to be most productive during cycles of full engagement with activities followed by deep and complete rest. In other words, we are at our best when we go from being switched on, to being switched off. These types of intermittent bouts of stress followed by relaxation have numerous health benefits and develop optimal brain function. The problem is, rather than encouraging engagement with a task, in which we are present and focused on what we’re doing, technology can easily overwhelm and distract us (as I write this I’m listening to my cell phone beeping in the background and wondering who is trying to get hold of me).

We find ourselves in an almost surreal state in which we are seldom, if ever fully engaged in our lives, as we haphazardly multitask, juggling ten balls in the air and putting out fires. Our head space lives somewhere between the past and an imagined future, we don’t engage with the present and so never really switch on. At the same time, because of all the distractions, we never fully switch off! So we’re in a sort of ‘standby mode’ wasting unnecessary energy on distractions, struggling to switch on or off and slowly wearing ourselves down to a frazzled standstill.

The detrimental effects of being in ‘standby mode’

Just as our bodies develop and change with exercise and applying a regular stimulus (muscles adapt, grow, use energy more efficiently, bones remodel and strengthen, neural pathways develop etc), so too, our brains develop and change according to the stimulus applied. When we are fully engaged and present (switched on), we develop neural pathways in higher brain centers responsible for complex processing (eg frontal cortex). When we are distracted, jumping from task to task, doing ‘half a job’ and putting out fires, our brain activity shifts towards the more primitive limbic system responsible for the fight or flight response. Over time, our brain becomes conditioned to be more anxious and distracted, as we lose our ability to concentrate and organize our seemingly chaotic life. This chronic state of anxiety results in an ongoing over supply of stress hormones that if not properly regulated cause a multitude of health problems, from anxiety to depression and mood disorders, obesity, heart disease, certain cancers, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and the list goes on.

In addition to the stress response and the effects on our brains, we see all sorts of health problems linked to too much time spent using smart phones and other devises; from postural problems and chronic headaches to carpel tunnel syndrome, to disturbed sleep patterns and sleep deprivation to burnout. Furthermore, sedentary lifestyle patterns that develop with too much screen time add to the toxic concoction resulting in chronic pain and the ever present threat of lifestyle related chronic illness.

On a social level, relationships can suffer as we are never really present in our interactions-always having one eye on your smart phone or lap top when your wife or child is trying to tell you about their day. It is not conducive to building strong relationships and bonds and is a bad example to our kids. The addictive nature of technology which from a brain chemistry perspective would involve the same mechanisms as any other addiction – needing to get your fix to stimulate the release of dopamine and other ”feel good” brain chemicals, puts anyone at risk and particularly people who may be prone to addiction.

Since people are any organizations biggest asset, if they are ill or in any way not performing optimally, the wellbeing, (including the financial wellbeing) of the organization is under threat. By some estimates absenteeism costs the South African economy over 15 billion Rand a year. It is estimated that presenteeism, a phenomenon in which employees are present at work but unable to perform optimally due to ill health, stress, burnout, distractions etc, by some estimates could cost our economy 4 times that of absenteeism! In addition, rising medical insurance costs add to the powerful argument for companies to do all they can to keep their human capital healthy and switched on! Here are some tips to practice yourself and promote in your company.

Five Daily habits to help you switch on and off

1. Read

It comes as no surprise that some of the world’s top CEO’s are avid readers, amongst them Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s estimated that the average CEO reads between 4 and 5 books per month! According to Tom Corley author of rich habits:- ‘The daily success habits of wealthy individuals,’ ‘rich people’ read for self-improvement, education and success. If you’re not an avid reader, start with a few pages a day of anything you enjoy, go to a quiet place, switch off your devices and free yourself from distractions. Reading will help you clear the white noise in your head, take you out of standby mode and switch you on as you engage with the task. It is only when you’re switched on that you know how to switch off as your body and mind readjust to the natural cycles of engagement and rest, and so reading plays an important role in switching off!

2. Exercise

We are never more present, in touch with the reality of the here and now, as when we’re exercising. It is also the most natural response to stress, (the primitive fight or flight response requires a physical action) and so is one of the most natural ways to regulate stress hormones, promote the release and uptake of feel good endorphins and clear toxins from the brain. Schedule time to do some exercise every day, anything you choose, even if it’s only 5 minutes! It can be a 5 minute walk in the fresh air reconnecting with nature, or 5 minutes of stretching or punching a bag, anything you choose, but schedule it in your diary everyday at least 2 weeks in advance, make it an appointment. Aim to increase your exercise over time, but for now, commit to what you’re comfortable with. You will be amazed at how much better you feel and how that 5 minutes can potentially catalyze great change.

3. Create a ‘Priorities List’

Often we’re “busy being busy.” We need to spend more time prioritizing our schedules and activities. Some things are genuinely urgent and require a meeting or a quick email response; other things we only perceive to be urgent and can actually wait until tomorrow. Without actively prioritizing your to do’s, often we can spend way too much time on relatively unimportant matters, neglecting the really important matters that then become matters of urgency and we end up pulling ‘all-nighters’ trying to get them finished, putting out fires, slowly becoming more and more backlogged and caught up in the chaos.
Whatever system you may use, categorize work and life tasks into levels of importance, from high to moderate and low and add your daily tasks into each category. Plan a time frame for each activity and tick them off as you do them. Attend to the important stuff first during work hours, so that after work, as often as possible, anything you have to do is not of imminent importance- stuff you can do tomorrow. Finally, schedule time to work quietly in solitude with minimum distractions.

4. Make time for social interaction

Make a conscious effort to switch off your devices whenever possible during family time:- this includes smart phones, pc’s, television and the like, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Eat dinner together, talk, have a laugh as a family or with friends, connect with each other, bond. This will not only nurture your most important relationships, it’s a stress release and it will take you out of standby mode, switch you on, and is likely also to foster healthier eating habits.

5. Develop a night-time routine

Try these five tips to help you fully switch off at night and start knowing what it is to get a good night sleep again!

Switch off technology 30 minutes before you go to bed. Artificial light affects melatonin production a chemical that assists with deep sleep.

Nutrition: Eat a smaller supper portions (eat until 80% full) comprising vegetables minimally processed lean protein carbohydrates and fats. Some slow digesting carbohydrates can help you to feel sleepy. Reduce or eliminate caffeine intake after lunch time and reduce fluid intake at night (which may keep you up all night going to the toilet)

Exercise: Practice slow, deep breathing, stretching or other gentle meditative exercise for a few minutes before bed time to release relaxation chemicals.

Blackout: Make the room as dark as possible and go to bed at the same time every night (aim for at least 7 hours of sleep).

Clear you mind: Right down everything that is on your mind before you go to bed to help you clear your mind and relax.

We can only truly switch off when we are switched on and vice versa. The ability to switch on and off is about returning to our natural cycles: being fully engaged with the here and now, working hard and effectively, playing hard, appreciating people and nature, and then deeply resting and recovering. Technology is a truly amazing servant but a cruel master keeping us in a suspended state of standby. Mastering technology and learning to control our on and off switch is key to success, health and fulfillment and could just be our next phase of evolution!