I got to know Anya Kamenetz through a writers’ group to which we both belong. Among other subjects, such as education and student debt, she writes about something that’s of deep interest to just about everyone in the world today — how to use technology to make our lives happier, healthier, more productive and more creative, and not to let it get in the way of those aims.
Technology is a good servant but a bad master — so how do we master it?
Her new book just hit the shelves: The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.
This is an issue many parents face — how to think about and manage children and screens. One of her great conclusions for how to think about screens: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”
I couldn’t wait to talk to Anya about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?
Anya: I think we’re going to look back on this first decade-plus of the smartphone era and it’s going to be like smoking, or riding in the car without a seatbelt, or drunk driving. Like, WHAT were people thinking? And there’s going to be a massive citizen movement, public health interventions, and maybe some litigation before things get better.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Anya: I don’t regularly meditate, but I stop and take deep belly breaths throughout the day, especially before I pick up the phone, go into a situation that makes me anxious, or go to bed at night.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness, health, creativity, or productivity that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Anya: You don’t have to be friends with people who don’t make you feel good. The world is full of plenty of wonderful people who will love you and want to spend time with you.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Anya: A habit I started after doing research for The Art of Screen Time was to keep my phone out of the bedroom. Sleep researchers believe that some of the worst problems we see in children and adults in connection with technology, from obesity to anxiety, stem from excess exposure to blue light interfering with melatonin production. I also watch less TV than I used to, limiting my screen time overall.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Anya: I’m a Questioner all the way.
Gretchen: Have you figured out any strategies to help harness the strengths of your Tendency – or to offset the weaknesses or limitations of your Tendency?
Anya: I have to do tons of research before I commit to a strategy for self-improvement, and it also helps if I have others with whom I can discuss ideas for positive change–not necessarily to hold each other accountable but to stay inspired.
Gretchen: What’s a complaint that others often make about you? What’s your response to that? (e.g., you’re too rigid, you ask too many questions, you never take time for yourself, you never listen.)
Anya: I can be critical, yet also defensive (I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.) What often seems to help is to shift the conversation into a problem-solving mode, so that it’s less about blame for what’s happened in the past and more about how we can both make it better in the future (whether that’s a hug or a new family or work habit to follow).
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Anya: Since 2016 the biggest interference has been an adorable baby girl who gave me insomnia as a fetus, didn’t sleep through the night as an infant and as a toddler likes to start her day at 4 or 5 in the morning.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Anya: I was a week overdue with the aforementioned baby, completely miserable, watching the runners of the New York City Marathon stream by in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I suddenly said to myself, “Next year, you’ll be running that course!” And, I did!
Gretchen: I would also, of course, shine a spotlight on anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention.
Anya: I want people to know that they don’t have to feel guilt or shame about their own or their kids’ tech habits, but it’s important to start talking about what is and isn’t working so we can make changes.