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With the height of the digital age, there is so much information at our fingertips. For entrepreneurs, it is so easy to get businesses started online, but that can also create this urgency always to be plugged in online. Always answer emails, show up on social media, create digital products, etc.; it can cause digital overload and overuse. If you want to make space for unplugging from the digital world and thinking more clearly, it is time to create healthy habits and shift your mindset to incorporating more things outside of technology that brings you joy.
Our guest on the podcast today is Author and Coach Daniel Sih. As a trainer, coach, and keynote speaker, Daniel has worked with CEOs, executives, and other senior professionals throughout Australia and beyond. His professional history includes leadership roles in physiotherapy, health management, project management, and Christian ministry.
He is the co-founder of Spacemakers®, a productivity consulting group for busy leaders. He is also the founder of several globally-accessible productivity courses, such as Email Ninja®, List Assassin®, and Priority Samurai™, with more than 20,000 students online and offline.
Also, his book “Spacemaker – How to Unplug, Unwind and Think Clearly in the Digital Age” won the Australian Business Book Awards in 2021.
Daniel lives at the bottom of the world on an island called Hobart, Tasmania. He used to be a physiotherapist and worked in that field for about a decade and then moved to different levels of management, working on projects. Through that process, he had a realization that he was no longer doing the fieldwork that he had been trained to do with all of the studies around anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics, assessing physical movement and how to treat patients. Most of his time as a manager was actually spent leading a physio service. He read and responded to emails, had back-to-back meetings, organized projects, and to-do lists, and managed a team and staff. None of that had anything to do with his training. He started getting excited about learning more about his new profession, learning to manage himself, others, and culture. However, he found that productivity became what Daniel was passionate about.
With his background in science, he began looking up articles about the research of email. He learned that there were ways to improve the use of email, specifically dealing with high volume, so he created a course called Email Ninja®. He went to a training provider and asked if they would take his system even though he had no qualifications and no skills in training. They challenged him that if he could get eight people to sign up for the course, then they would take it. So he registered eight people, and it officially became a course. He eventually had so much work that he had to decide between continuing physiotherapy or continuing with his new business. He now leads a company called Spacemakers® to help busy people make space in the clutter of life to help them shift the way they live and work and rethink what it means to be busy in this hyper-digital age.
If you look at email and how it allows people to communicate, you realize that nothing out there could take email’s place in the digital space. It’s been such a continuous thing for so long, and even though there are ways to make it easier, so many people still struggle with managing their inbox and the overwhelm by the volume of emails coming in.
Post-Covid, people are aware that the volume of digital communication has gone up because so many people are working at home. People no longer have ad-hoc decision-making conversations or office corridor conversations because of not being in an office. Hence, email volume is up along with Slack or instant messaging. You need skills to better manage and communicate through these tools to unplug and switch off to make sure you aren’t constantly responding to notifications day by day. No one should live their life shaped and determined by what happens to pop into your inbox or as a notification.
You can begin creating three folders in your email account; an action folder, a reading folder, and a waiting folder. If an email comes into your inbox and takes more than two minutes to complete, you can move it to your action folder, and the discipline is that you delay a response to actions that take more than two minutes. You can get your inbox to zero and choose whether or not you want to take action then or there. It may sound straightforward, but it helps you create and implement habits and systems that delay your temptation to answer that email right away and allow everything to change the trajectory of your day.
Daniel utilizes many other tips through his courses and training, but he recommends turning off all notifications for email and not having a second screen for Outlook. He says that you shouldn’t look at emails in real-time unless your job description is to read, respond, and react to every email coming into your inbox. Most people need the ability to think, plan, and do things that matter outside of email, so being disciplined in creating those spaces, disconnecting, and not seeing all those channels of communication until you are ready to look and respond is very important.
In Daniel’s book, he has several different patterns for making space in the digital world. It isn’t focused on email but discusses digital overload at a broader level. Email is a tiny part of that, and there is a daily pause habit, or spacemaker habit, as he calls them, where you start and end the day without being on your phone. The practice is to charge your phone outside of the bedroom.
When you are finishing your day, you are typically in bed, scrolling through emails or looking at social media, and what you are doing is blocking out your spouse and the relationship you have with them. There is no wonder that people don’t have pillow talk anymore. It wires you up and allows the worries of the world to shape the way you sleep. When you wake up and your alarm goes off on your phone, you instantly reach for whatever app connects most with your identity.
For some, that may be email, or for others, it may be social media, but you start your day immediately with busyness and work. It can cause you to stress out or become anxious about the world’s ways. Instead, if you end your day by reading a physical book, writing in your gratitude journal, or thinking back over your day in a way that creates space for you, especially as an introvert, it allows you to unwind and reflect on your thoughts. It is an effortless and healthy habit to form, but it is hard to kick an old habit that is addictive, like the relationship you have with technology.
Have you felt like you have taken on too much information online lately? This is considered digital overuse. Daniel wrote his Spacemakers book because he coaches many leaders and executives, and he also realized that his habits and struggles with making space come from taking on too much. No one needs more information. This is primarily an information-saturated society where you get things like podcasts and audiobooks at the touch of a button. You can hear from people all over the world. There isn’t a lack of money or opportunity, but instead, a lack of space to think clearly and deeply. People lack space to think strategically about where they’re heading and even the space to sit, do nothing in silence, and just be or watch the waves in the ocean. That space is mainly being taken away from you not just because of the busyness of work but because of your digital habits. You habitually reach for your phone whenever you have that space and fill your mind with more good information.
There’s a big difference between a knowledgeable person and a wise person. There is a loss of wisdom because the difference is that knowledge is about input, but understanding is about the information that becomes contextualized into someone’s life. You start to work out how it relates emotionally, strategically, and spiritually, and how its information relates to your life. None of this happens if you don’t make space for deep thought and quiet time for reflection. It will only happen if you reframe your relationship with the online world away from technology so that you can relearn what it looks like to rest fully, think deeply, or reconnect with people without the screen. That is the basis of Daniel’s book, but it isn’t an anti-tech book. You can build those patterns of unplugging from the digital world over your life and still enjoy the best of the online world as an introvert, but it changes you.
Neuroplasticity is the term that scientists use to describe how the brain grows, changes, and molds based on your habitual experiences and actions. For example, if you use a specific program at a job but then forget it after you quit that job, your brain has been wired together to become capable and could use it without much effort or thought. However, those neural pathways recede when you stop using that program and stop giving it any attention. It’s like you had a well-worn walking path, and then it became overgrown with trees and weeds, and it was a bit hard to walk. There is still a path, but it’s not easy to see. Then when you start to go back and use it regularly, that path was there. It’s easier to carve out than had you not been there in the first place.
That’s important for digital overload and digital addiction because one of Daniel’s passions is to help people realize that they need to broaden the neurological experiences of their lives and train their brains to experience non-digital things so that they create those pathways. The point of the neuroplasticity pieces is to look at the challenges and benefits of what you habitually do and shape your mind to lead to healthy behavior. The average American practices the internet 12 hours a day, the average Australian 9.4, unless you’re an office worker, and it’s more like 12 hours. That practice is changing our brain and wiring it in powerful ways. It’s changing the way you see the world. You’re trading so much of the rest of your life, the experiences that bring joy related to making space and balancing the scorecard from a brain perspective.
This problem is getting worse as the digital age continues. Generations researcher, Jean Twenge, did a fantastic overview of young people’s mental health and behavior over a long period. She found that something happened around 2009 to 2012 that completely changed the mental health landscape. But unfortunately, she couldn’t figure out what it was. She looked at all these variables like the global financial crisis, war, and migration, but none of them matched up regarding why young people were just off the dial anxious, have mood disorders, depression, massively increased suicide risk factors, and in a brief time. It’s never happened in history looking at data from the 1930s when you look at generational change. She then realized that population health and mental health in young people transformed almost overnight when iPhones hit 50% saturation in the US market, which was 2011.
The jury’s still out whether or not digital overuse directly causes mental health problems. Still, by trading so much of life for digital technology, they are massively undercooking what makes you mentally healthy: face-to-face relationships without a screen. In real-bodied relationships, that is a game-changer for health. You’re exercising, reading print media, doing religious activities, just walking and experiencing life, and having adventures that are non-digital. All these are linked to making you healthier and happier mentally and helping you live longer, and young people have traded them all off.
Where do you go if you’ve never had that reference point to life offline? You don’t have those neural pathways to recreate, and I think that’s the concern, and that’s where parents should start slowly and give kids lots of non-digital experiences so they have a reference point for when they’re older. It’s not to say young people are worse or anything like that, and there are some fantastic things to them being online all the time. It’s just that from a mental health perspective, their stats are terrible, and that is different than those who have a reference point to refer back to.
It is beneficial to have a mindset change around the use of technology. Over half of Daniel’s book discusses the relationship between us and technology. Unless we change our beliefs around technology, they won’t stick because it comes down to your heart and story. It’s so helpful as an entrepreneur to recognize the context that you’re in. You only have so much time in your life, and Oliver Berkman says you have 4,000 weeks. If that’s your capacity, then the overflowing information overload and overuse is the new normal in the digital age. There is no going back, and there will be more than you can do, more than you can put into your mind, and more opportunities than you can take up.
If this is the environment you’re in, you don’t get the choice to cover everything, even if you work longer hours and don’t sleep. It doesn’t work. As an entrepreneur, as someone busy and always frantic, the key is to recognize you will never get it all done. You need to figure out what your non-negotiables are and don’t compromise on them. Put those things first, which don’t take that much time if you look at the fullness of your life, then you’ve got to work out the rest. You have a choice. You will never catch up and will never be ahead, and that’s a hard reality to live in, but when you have acceptance of that reality, you can start to make the choices about what you put in first and then trust that if the rest falls out, it’s just life.
[1:47] How Daniel went from physiotherapist to passionate productivity coach and speaker
[4:43] The use of email in the current digital world and the struggle to manage your inbox
[11:00] Breaking the habit of checking your email first thing in the morning or at the end of the day
[14:05] Information overload or digital overuse and unplugging from the digital space
[20:51] How your brain grows and adapts to habitual experiences or actions
[25:28] Future generational impacts on the use of technology in the digital age
[31:42] Creating mindset shifts around the use of technology for a more balanced life
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