Of course, you know what you eat has a huge impact on health. But how about what you take into your mind every day?
Within the concept of Wellness – being aware of all the things that impact well-being, and consciously making choices to maximize it – “environment” is a big influence. Many environmental variables are ones humans have always faced: Safe/dangerous, bountiful/barren, comfortable/uncomfortable, crowded/empty, etc.
But in the modern world, we face a new, pervasive aspect of “environment” — images, sounds and words that reach us electronically.
Just as “you are what you eat,” as Modern Man your well-being is directly impacted by all this media you take in. And just as with physical nutrition, you can and should manage this, man.
Let’s discuss why and how (and the results-so-far of my own personal experiment on a “digital diet”).
“DIGITAL DIET” RISKS ARE A LOT LIKE PHYSICAL NUTRITION ONES
Social Media, online news, Netflix and other streaming media (plus “old-fashioned” TV) pose threats eerily similar to food-related ones.
1. Simply Too Much
Just as one driver of poor nutrition is eating too much, a core problem with the digital diet is quantity. A recent Nielsen study found average American adults have over 10 hours per day of screen time. “Gorging” is a word that crops up in experts’ quotes about this.
Why is this a problem? This may be (hopefully is) intuitive, but let’s go through it. Let’s say on a typical weekday you:
- Sleep seven hours (less is NOT healthy, and don’t let some business magazine’s glorification of a “driven” entrepreneur/exec convince you otherwise; for some of these guys, you may see an early obituary, too)
- Spend 10+ hours making a living (work + commute)
- Eat breakfast, dinner and have family time for three hours
- Are physically active for one hour (workout, walks, physical recreation)
That’s 21 hours, not even accounting for possible time with friends, volunteer/community activities or hobbies. Now add that average 10 hours of screen time (or let’s say it’s “only” five to seven total hours, because of some two-screens-at-once within research numbers).
Yes, the sum is 26-28+ hours ! So, what’s gonna give? Work usually demands its attention, so to get to 24 means two to four+ hours less of sleep, family/friends time, and exercise. There’s no good way to do this subtraction, dude.
OR…you can be a below-average person for this metric, and cut down your digital media time (just like many of us should take in fewer calories every day).
2. No Portion Control
This is one cause of “too much.” It’s worth looking at separately because of what you can do about it. Just as eating out of a bag, box or jar is bad (you wind up eating much more than if you put out a serving), a lot of media consumption happens without any planned time limit.
If you always eat by an open refrigerator, out of a pot, or in the pantry door, how do you know when you’re “done”? Bottomless social media feeds, Netflix’s binge-encouraging interface, and ubiquitous on-demand TV are like this for your eyes, ears and mind.
3. Empty “Calories”
This concept is more cut-and-dried with physical nutrition. A 20-oz Coke has 16 teaspoons of sugar and 240 calories, and contributes nothing your body needs. With digital stimuli it’s more subjective, but still: isn’t a lot of media consumption of little or no lasting value to us?
Example: over the last few weeks I’ve spent at least an hour looking at “mock drafts” before the NFL draft. Now the real thing’s in progress and I wonder: other than momentarily diverting me (like mental junk food), did that time give me anything of value?
4. Harmful Ingredients
Even worse than just too much, or empty calories, are foods that actively harm your health: sugar, white flour, saturated fats, preservatives and other additives. Some of what we take into our minds is that way, too. It creates stress, worry, possibly unhealthy envy—without enough justifying benefits.
Beyond some sensible threshold, things like this are bad for us:
- Watching or listening to talk shows to “wallow” in partisan politics
- Checking social media feeds repetitively and at-length, so our inner “comparing mind” can covet aspects of other people’s lives (or at least their supposed lives, as carefully depicted via their posts); or just because there’s always more of the feed to go through (worse even than that bag of Doritos you eat in the pantry…at least that comes to an end!)
- Reading multiple articles covering the same topic or event, with only minimal differences among them; the media business needs this to drive “eyeballs” and ad revenue, but it does little-to-nothing for us, the audience
5. Unhealthy Timing
Just as unplanned snacking and eating too close to bed time are unhealthy, so too is compulsive short “snacking” on digital stimuli. And consuming electronic media before bed is a double-whammy: it interferes with relaxation and “letting go” of the day’s stresses…and screens’ blue light interferes with production of sleep-signaling melatonin.
TOWARD A BETTER “MENTAL NUTRITION” PROGRAM
So just like with food, with digital media we’re at risk of over-consumption, no-value or harmful ingredients, and consuming too often or too late in the day. All things to avoid!
But also, as with food, there are key building blocks of health that we do need, and should make sure are in our “media diet.”
These include things like:
- Learning, for career purposes and for personal growth
- Escape, entertainment and relaxation
- Exposure to new or provocative topics and ideas
- Being an informed, contributing member of our various communities
These are vital. But just as with lean protein, healthy carbs, good fats, and vitamins & minerals…there’s a healthy range of intake, and too much is either overkill or actively harmful.
So what should be your “digital media time allowance” each day? That’s a personal thing based on a lot of variables. But outside of your actual work hours—on your own time—does more than two hours a day start to sound like a lot?
How about this simple formula to get started?
- Protect your your ability to be productive/creative in the morning, by not looking at non-essential media during the first few hours of the day
- Reduce digital “snacking” (on your computer and by keeping your phone in your pocket)
- Turn off electronic media for at least an hour before bedtime
- In general, have time limits (“portions”) in mind. As in “OK, I’ll look at Facebook or the NY Times for 10 minutes and then stop.”
- Within all this, spend a little time “rounding our your diet” with things you don’t always consume enough of (like learning and provocative ideas)
I’ve been experimenting this way for about six months, and have taken at least 90 minutes per day “back” for the rest of my life. I’m sleeping more, more easily making time for exercise, having more and better conversations, getting a little more work done, and just being alone with my thoughts a bit more (my thoughts; not someone else’s flowing into my head).
Now is a great time for you to start personal experimentation on this, man. Let me know how it’s going!
“You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today. And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” (Pink Floyd, Time–click to listen)
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