How to tackle DFRAG and digital pollution in your everyday life


The issues you tend to run into with digital pollution can be grouped into a number of categories:

  • Conditioning. Situations where repeated triggering has conditioned you to exhibit a specific behavior in a given situation.
  • Triggering. Situations where you are responding to specific triggers as they occur and let them lead you astray.
  • Escapism. Situations where you use your smartphone or social media to withdraw from what is around you because you feel bored or uncomfortable in the “real world.”
  • Drag-along. Situations where you start out with a specific goal in mind but allow yourself to become sidetracked and end up spending a lot of time on zonking out.
  • Meandering. Situations where engaging with your smartphone and social networks fills out a period of time when you are waiting for something or overseeing something (e.g. at the playground).
  • Task or pattern based.When you use your smartphone for a specific purpose—e.g. playing games or solving sudoku puzzles before going to sleep.

There are probably many more categories—this list is by no means exhaustive and depending on circumstances and lifestyle your own list could look quite different. On top of that you can easily have day-to-day variations that affect your self-control. Ordinary things like lack of sleep, low blood sugar—even being on a diet or watching sad movies can deplete your mental resistance. To many of us these habits are deeply ingrained and often cause us to act without much conscious reflection—in part, because many of the triggers that set off a behavior have become subconscious and are running on “autopilot.” So what can you do to break, change or even just become conscious of these habits and their consequences? Success requires a multi-pronged approach and a particular set of tools that, as it turns out, translates easily into other avenues of life.

Changing a habit requires the following:

  1. Understanding the habit—what it is, what triggers it, and what need it covers.
  2. Setting a goal for what you want to replace it with.
  3. Being able to identify and counter the habit when it takes place with a relevant and well-defined countermeasure.
  4. Endless repetition—exchanging old habits with new habits takes a lot of time and energy because you are in essence reprogramming your brain.

Having done so, you then need to develop a sort of constant vigilance.This allows you to maintain your new and more healthy digital habits. You’ll still be living in a digitally polluted world where your time and attention will continue to be a target for billion-dollar companies that will always be looking for ways to get inside your head. But now you’ll be better equipped to protect yourself! Sounds difficult? It is. Replacing bad habits with good ones takes work. But as it turns out (oh, the irony), the exact same circuit box of micro-rewards, dopamine-fueled expectations, behavioral science and trigger points that smartphones and social media hack for their own purposes can be reverse engineered and used to help protect you against further invasion.

Step 1: Life Stories

Psychologists often use a term called “narrative identity,” which is the idea that we humans form our identity by integrating our life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of our self that provides us with a sense of unity and purpose in life. Typically this life narrative or life story has everything you normally associate with a literary bestseller: characters, episodes, imagery, a setting, plots, themes, as well as a beginning, middle (where you are right now) and an end you are moving towards. Most people are not acutely aware of this tendency to frame identity in narrative structures or “life stories” but you can actually use your life stories to help you set goals for yourself, if you want to manage the habits in your life. We suggest you aim to produce four different life stories that identify what matters most to you and how you want things to be in terms of family life, leisure time, own time and work (FLOW).

Your four life stories can as be long or as short as you please. What is important is that they clearly state what matters to you when you are with your family, at work, with your friends or when spending time on your hobbies or interests. Remember that these stories are not set in stone. You can start out with what you feel now, then revisit and revise later. Your circumstances will also change over time. What is important is that you build a starting point for yourself—something by which you can judge your future performance.

Step 2: Mapping out Your Habits and How You Spend Your Time

If you decide to use the life story approach to help you set goals in terms of family life, leisure time, own time and work you might also want to start thinking about how much of your overall time your digital habits are stealing from each area. It’s simple really: just keep a record or diary of your digital habits. Whether surfing, browsing, checking mail or notifications, just make a quick record of how much time you spent and what “zone” you were in (family, leisure, own, work). Do this for a few weeks or even days and you will become more conscious of your weaknesses and triggers. You may also want to think a little about how much time you ideally want to be in each of the four zones—to deliver on the goals you have
set out with your life stories.

By comparing your notes on habits with your goals you will get a pretty clear picture of where you need to improve. Being able to see the problem is an important first step in being
able to solve it.

Step 3: Identify Triggers & Cues

This tactic is a little more complicated. It has to do with mapping the relationship between your current subconscious digital habits (which, more likely than not are more a product of “doing” than of “choosing”) and how they are triggered. In this step we’re trying to answer two main questions. First, what are the triggers and cues that compel you to respond to notifications, log onto social media feeds, and other distracting activities? And second, is there a difference between how you get triggered in the different zones? For example, perhaps you’re more likely to engage with your phone when
you are with your kids rather than on the job.

It’s important to make notes of your experiences. Understanding and seeing these patterns are what will eventually allow you to change them. There are no right or wrong answers here.The point of the exercise is simply for you to develop a budding awareness of how you respond to different triggers and cues in your environment—triggers that you may not actually be consciously aware of in your day-to-day life. These kind of questions and answers can also be applied to your social media usage, email handling, gaming and other digital habits you might find problematic. Remember, it’s not the deliberate usage that is the problem, it’s the impulsive one that you are not fully aware of. Learning to be conscious of these triggers is really important. You can be absolutely certain that unless you have a conscious plan to counter the pull of the next trigger it will pull you right back into subconscious reactivity to the delight of your more primitive brain parts, which have no larger agenda than simply wanting to get a little high on dopamine and digital flotsam.

Step 4: Plan Your Countermove and Start Acting

At this point you should have a pretty good idea about how your digital habits work. You understand what triggers them and when they occur, and you have a good idea of what you
want to replace them with. A few examples:

At the playground. With the kids in a safe area, you can finally let go of the reins and let them run free a bit, right? But does relaxation turn into disconnection because you get carried away with your device? (It’s really easy to let it happen when your kids want you to pay close attention as they repeat the same action endlessly!) Solution: Leave your phone in the bag and put up with the boredom. Pretty soon it will become less boring as you start getting more tuned in to your kids again.

In the car. Getting impatient in slow traffic. Tempted to pick up the phone to just quickly check notifications. Dangerous and all—but you’ll be quick. Solution: Turn your phone off when you are driving. Even handsfree connections tend to slow down your reaction time.

There are certainly many more scenarios like these—the point is that you need to identify as many of these scenarios as you can and to choose a specific countermeasure in advance. And when the situation occurs—the escapism, the quick check of mail, the boredom in meetings, the sudoku in bed—you are well-equipped with the appropriate counteraction.

Troubleshoot Failure

Tough as it is, we might as well accept that with something as pervasive as digital addiction, failure is inevitable. “What’s wrong with this method? It doesn’t work!” is probably the first thought that could come to your mind when you fail. And you will fail. Because this is not a battle against an external enemy but a battle against your own brain’s default setting.

  • Motivation: You didn’t believe it was important enough.
  • Ability: It was too hard to do or there was an easier alternative.
  • Trigger: Your countermeasure wasn’t well-rehearsed enough, or you simply forgot to fire it.

You may find it helpful to think like a software developer and retrace your steps backwards from the point of failure. Calculate backwards from these different reasons of failure, so you keep on exploring in order to understand why you fail, to figure out what to do in order to avoid failing next time. Remember, sometimes the thing you want to accomplish depends on a series of events that has to happen first. So how do you get past these obstacles? Please note, that this is not a do-or-don’t approach, because with such a fragile and inconsistent thing as the human brain in control, the only thing you can do is use a trial-and-error approach, where failure is simply a way of learning how to respond intelligently the next time with carefully planned adjustment to your experienced behavioral shortcomings.

In Summary: It’s Not Rocket Science

Getting rid of unwanted digital habits is simple but not easy:

  1. Decide what your goal is and how you want to see yourself in terms of family life, leisure time, own time and work.
  2. Map out what your habits look like now and understand how they act on you and when they occur. Put them down in writing. Being able to document it is important.
  3. Identify a specific countermeasure to throw at each of these unwanted habits. Have it at the forefront of your consciousness when you’re going into a slippery situation. Put this down in writing as well.
  4. When you fail (and you will) regroup, analyze why and rework your goal, motivation or countermeasure to better respond to the habit you failed at cracking.

It’s not rocket science but as you will soon discover it is also harder than it looks because changing ingrained habits means fighting against parts of your psyche that are used to “owning” that particular habit.When your brain starts connecting the dots, and starts forming new associative patterns, where the subconscious thought processes learn that the (new) behavior B is better than the (old) behavior A for clear and measurable reasons—this is when things really start to change. An important thing is also to make a small symbolic ritual like a high-five, a “yes, I did it,” which tells your brain that you succeeded, a bit like ticking off a box. Remember, appraisal is more effective than criticism in motivational psychology. Finally, it makes sense to actively try and develop good habits and routines that allow you to better control the tendency to freeze or choke in challenging situations, especially when jumping into more shallow waters than you’re used to.

Teaching Your Children Sensible and Healthy Digital Habits

It’s easy for children and adolescents to go completely overboard online—there is an abundance of possibilities; everything from games to movies, YouTube, puzzles, Snapchat, Instagram, and much, much more. Kids like the instant gratification provided by the online environment—skills that would take days, weeks or months to develop in the real world are magically bestowed on the user in minutes or hours of gaming. Where adults have a reasonable chance of changing their habits through understanding of their patterns, children do not. What can you do as a parent?

  • You can remember that kids don’t do what you tell them but what they see you do. If you become a more disciplined and controlled user of your smartphone or tablet so
    will they. Leading by example actually works.
  • You can restrict your children’s online access—for example, by scheduling it.Many families find that providing somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes of online time at the end of the day after homework is done seems to work well.
  • You can do things together with them that are fun—for instance (banal as it sounds) instead of letting them play online games all the time, try playing a board game together. You will quickly come to see that everyone can have good fun and togetherness out of this.
  • You can talk with them about how, in order to become really, really good at something, you need to be able to defer gratification and put in a consistent effort now that will eventually pay off—but part of developing that discipline also entails not letting yourself continuously get absorbed in being online.
  • You can make sure their smartphone or tablet is set up to offer the least possible amount of distraction. Make sure all notifications are turned off for all apps and that the phone doesn’t blink, vibrate, or in any other way try to call their attention.
  • You can restrict the number and kind of apps on their phone or tablet—look through what your kids have on their phone and discuss with them what should be there or what shouldn’t be there. Less choice means easier management.
  • You can lead them through more useful online pursuits than just zonking out on Snapchat. Many parents have had success with getting their kids interested in offerings such as Khan Academy (free online courses for kids) or BBC Quiz or BBC bitesize (also free learning).

Get them engaged in sports or social activities with other kids—football, chess club, role playing, drama, fly fishing, drawing, fencing, hiking, gardening—any and all activities that your children share with others provide a good counter to spending too much time online. 

Remember, your kids are looking for your encouragement and support, and not least, looking for you to show the way and lead by example.

Good luck!

Dr Imran Rashid & Soren Kenner