Embrace the infinite inbox, avoid video chats, and other advice to help you in the new year
Like clockwork, at the end of every year, people around the world sit down and make resolutions for the new one: lose weight, meditate, save money.
Maybe this year it’s time to take stock of your tech life. Perhaps you’ve been getting a persistent note that your storage is full, or you simply want to feel less stressed by the onslaught of breaking news.
Here are some digital resolutions that you might want to consider adopting in 2022. With any luck, they’ll make your life a little happier, safer, and, dare we say, better.
Get multifactor authentication already. Two-step verification can be annoying. Sometimes you just want to type your password and be done with it, without having to then input some gibberish or a random set of numbers sent by email or text. But our senior editor for cybersecurity, Patrick Howell O’Neill, says switching on multifactor authentication is his top advice for people interested in guarding their online accounts. “It’s the easiest way to make the biggest leap in online security for all your important accounts,” he says. And after a year that’s seen unprecedented ransomware attacks and hacking, what do you have to lose?
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Fortunately, adding multifactor authentication is more painless than it has ever been. “This will vary from platform to platform, but speaking generally, go into the account settings of your most important accounts (e.g., email, social media, finance) and follow instructions to add authentication,” he says. That’s it. Email and text authentication options are great first steps. You can also explore using authentication apps like Google Authenticator or hardware solutions like YubiKeys for added security.
You’ll be much better off for it. “For a couple of minutes of work, studies show, you’ll effectively fend off upwards of 90% of attacks,” Patrick says.
Rethink two-day shipping. When I sent a call on Twitter for tech resolutions in early December, many people wrote that they intended to get rid of Amazon Prime. Some said they wanted to improve their environmental footprint, others said they’d rather not finance founder Jeff Bezos’s space conquests, and still others wanted to support small businesses.
Writer Em Cassel took the plunge and quit Amazon at the beginning of 2021. In an article about the decision for Vice, she said it had “made things a little less convenient.” But it opened her eyes to a multitude of businesses that she had never thought to reach out to before. She’s found Etsy invaluable for housewares and office supplies. For books and media, she turned to Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores, and also purchased directly from publishing houses. And she was able to home in on businesses and sites that align with her ethics, like Blk + Grn, a marketplace supporting independent Black businesses, as well as Depop for secondhand goods.
Quitting Amazon isn’t something everyone can afford to do, Cassel acknowledges. But she suggests taking a few seconds before adding to your cart and asking yourself if you really need that product delivered to you in two days. “It’s a muscle you have to work at,” she says. “But there was a time before Amazon, and we survived.”
Take that next meeting over the phone. The pandemic offered us the flexibility to meet anywhere at any time, but not every meeting has to be one in which we see one another’s faces.
As hybrid and remote work become the norm, meetings are including video game and virtual reality elements to increase engagement.
At the beginning of the year, I resolved to pare down the video chats, opting instead to do phone calls as much as possible. If I can’t get out of a Zoom and both parties are okay with it, we’ll turn off the self-view video. I find that I can focus more on a conversation when I’m not distracted by my own face staring back at me (Is that a new zit I’m sprouting? Hmm, I should really water this plant!) and be more present. And isn’t that the way a good conversation should be?
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the intermittent baby or puppy appearance as much as the next person. But video chats can be draining. As Stanford University professor and VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson told me earlier this year, videoconferencing tools often present faces that the brain interprets to be within two feet of your own, sparking the fight-or-flight response. Too much of that is exhausting. Add to that social pressures to maintain a clean, Instagram-y background, along with the need to pipe up with ideas even if you lean introverted, and videoconferencing can turn into a real drag.
Embrace the infinite inbox. I have an email problem. A big one. I’m the type of person who is horrified by an inbox with thousands of unread emails. But that means I’m wasting my life clicking through the latest ads for jeans on sale to make sure every message gets read and processed.
In the before times of 2019, journalist Taylor Lorenz, then a reporter at the Atlantic, went on the record to advocate for “inbox infinity.” She scans her email to see if anything sticks out or feels important. If a cursory glance doesn’t flag her spidey sense, she ignores it.
My personal email resolution: Unsubscribe from those I don’t need and mass-delete as much as possible every morning using Lorenz’s scanning technique. My inbox won’t turn into an endless sea of unreads, and I might just save myself from impulsively buying a pair of jeans on sale.
Be critical about the news. It is, once again, an election year in the US, in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval. And that means our social media, airwaves, and group chats will be crammed with information that may or may not be true. Check out our guides and think about what you’re reading before spreading it.
Experts and r/ChangeMyView subreddit moderators offer 10 tips to debunk conspiracy theories convincingly.
While you’re at it, get any kids in your life involved too. “One of our research reports from 2019 revealed that more than a third of middle school students in the US say that they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ learn how to judge the reliability of sources,” says Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of the Reboot Foundation, an organization promoting critical thinking skills in young people and parents. “Generally, young people are not equipped with the skills necessary to recognize propaganda or disinformation when they see it online.”
Bouygues encourages parents to keep a line of communication open about trends and news kids are seeing on apps like TikTok, where covid misinformation has run rampant.
She also says that one thing we can all do, kids and adults alike, is learn to check our emotions when reading the news. “When reading an article or learning new information, ask yourself: Where is this information coming from? Is it reliable? Why or why not? How does the source’s framing influence the reader or viewer?”
Mute notifications. If you do nothing else on this list, mute some (or all) of the app notifications on your phone. It’ll help you pare down your news consumption, focus, and reduce anxiety, all at the same time.
Notifications excel at distracting us because they seem like emergencies we have to pay attention to, explains John McAlaney, a professor at Bournemouth University in the UK, who published a study earlier this year on how we procrastinate online. “In the past there were relatively limited opportunities for us to receive social information—we could speak to our neighbors, telephone our friends and family, and watch the news, but we would also have gaps in our day when there was little new information available,” McAlaney says. Now, he says, notifications bring information to our attention whether we seek it out or not.
Muting notifications might feel a bit uncomfortable: What if you miss something important? But most everyone I spoke to said something similar about this worry: The people who need to get to you will know how, whether it be via text or phone call. Your mental health and attention will thank you.
Celebrate Digital Cleanup January. If you’re feeling ambitious, take a page from my colleague Tate Ryan-Mosley, a reporter on digital rights and democracy. She will be celebrating her fourth annual Digital Cleanup January, where she devotes four weeks to cleaning up each part of her digital life: emails, files, security, and phone.
Here’s how it works:
In Week 1, Tate does a “massive purge” of her email, unsubscribing from newsletters and other lists that don’t serve her and mass-deleting emails she won’t ever read. She also spends a day reaching out to people who might have emailed her and who she has yet to respond to. The new year is a nice time to revive those connections and lets Tate start fresh conversations with people she cares about.
Week 2 is devoted to file organization: cleaning up files in the cloud, on the desktop, and in any drives and putting them where they belong. “It’s my least favorite week,” Tate says. “But at the end of it, you feel like you really accomplished something.” Tate’s advice? Don’t organize files by date, but rather by general category. And treat file organization as real work, because it is. “I’ll do it in breaks at work if I’m waiting for a meeting, or set aside an hour and listen to music and really do it,” she says.
Week 3 of Tate’s digital cleanup is devoted to security. She goes through each sensitive personal account and creates new unique passwords with the help of the password manager LastPass. Tate also uses this week to Google herself to get rid of sensitive information, like her personal phone number and address, that might be floating around the internet. Tate swears by the New York Times guide to doxxing yourself, available here, which offers clear instructions on how to keep your private information safe online.
Week 4 is the most fun, according to Tate. She takes this week to clean up her phone’s backlog of photos, delete apps that don’t serve her, and reorganize the home screen. “The nice thing is that I don’t have to be at my desk to do this,” she says. “I might be waiting in line or watching TV.” Tate also takes the time this week to turn off her notifications (see above).
For Tate, Digital Cleanup January isn’t necessarily fun. How many resolutions are? But when the calendar turns to February, she’s achieved a ton. “I feel so good for the rest of the year,” she says. “And by December, I can’t wait to take care of all of this again. I love how I feel afterwards.”
Lastly, remember there’s a whole world outside of tech. Once upon a time, people didn’t crane their necks over their phones, practicing that particular thumb flick of endlessly scrolling social media. Some read books. Others chatted with those around them—or simply zoned out for a bit.
Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, advocates heavily for reforming your relationship with technology, particularly when it’s really not necessary. “When you deploy tech toward things that are important, it’s helpful,” he says. “When you use it as a default distraction from unpleasant thoughts or experiences, it can become a problem.” So put the phone down and feel those emotions, even if they’re boredom, sadness, or anxiety. It might make you feel a bit more human again.
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