Mental Health

6 steps to switch off and boost your social health this summer

Pedestrians look at their phones near Brick Lane in London.

Always on: Pedestrians look at their phones near Brick Lane in London Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Julia Hobsbawm
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Downtime is harder than you think for some people. We are so used to being fully connected to our devices, offices and the “scrolling news” era that it takes an effort to achieve social health – a balanced approach to what we know, who we know and how much time we spend being disconnected.

I have previously covered some ideas around a systemic organisational approach to our health in the fully connected age. For individuals starting to focus on different aspects of connectedness, improving your social health is pretty similar to our approach to diet and fitness.

Social health hinges on managing three crucial areas consistently: your knowledge flows (the information you absorb or share), your networks and relationships, and the time you have at your disposal.

To give shape to social-health strategies, I looked to nature and found the humble hexagon. The six-sided polygon appears in everything from the honeybee’s hive (and they are the most productive species on the planet) to the snowflake.

Coincidentally, there are six regions of the brain. We’ve known for over 50 years that six falls within the cognitive limit of what we can genuinely remember. For this reason, I call the practical application of ideas and behaviors around social health hexagon thinking.

Here, then, are six steps to social health:

1. Inboxes and outboxes

The overwhelming clutter of an overflowing inbox is the enemy of productive, clear thought. Whatever you do, clear down your inbox on a weekly basis. That won’t/can’t mean getting everything done, but you can “own” what needs to be done, and decide when to either do it, delegate it or delete it. Design sub-folders such as “read ASAP”, “keep on file” and “reply urgently”, and be surprised at how the rising tide starts to ebb into something manageable.

2. Techno shabbat

Having social health means saying “no” or saying “not now”. I have found keeping a rotating “out of office” to manage other people’s expectations about when I will reply useful because it signifies an end to the era of constant connectivity for its own sake. Why reply in 24 seconds or minutes to everything? Try replying in 24 hours instead. Whatever your faith, have a weekly “techno shabbat”, a holiday from constant connectivity every seven days that will restore your sense of your surroundings. Have a second “unsmart” phone for weekends, which only allows calls and texts to and from family. The rest? That can wait.

3. Hierarchy of communication

A strange thing has happened to communication in the last decade. We do it constantly on email and of course on social networks: 1.8 billion people are on Facebook, 1 billion on WhatsApp. Reaching many people fast is actually at the bottom of what I call the hierarchy of communication. Social health means rebalancing your connections to focus more on smaller, slower, face-to-face connections in a Facebook age, to give a higher quality of trust, information-sharing and intimacy than social media alone can give. By all means broadcast but remember that the anthropological maximum number of relationships we can hold in our lives and communities in total doesn’t have that many zeros: It is around 150.

4. Knowledge dashboard

Be honest: Is your “diet” of information balanced or biased? We should all aspire to a diverse blend of “nutritious” information. Think about not just the blend of “news & views”, “culture & zeitgeist” and “specialist topics” you ingest, but the format and platform. So read long as well as read short, and get a blend spreading across both TV and audio (podcasts, audiobooks). Design your own “knowledge dashboard” – just like you do the contents of your fridge. Have a variety of opinions that don’t just reinforce groupthink.

5. Mindlessness is the new mindfulness

It takes time to unwind from a frenetic pace, yet creativity, clarity and calm do bubble up in that space, if you let it. I’m less of a fan of mindfulness than I am the practice of regular mindlessness: Just feel whatever you feel, comfort or discomfort, and notice your surroundings as if you were a tourist in a new land. Start with a low base: five minutes. Build up to whatever feels bearable. Give yourself permission to do absolutely nothing and be surprised at what that makes you feel.

6. Hexagon thinking

Hexagon thinking for social health is more lifestyle than diet, so you can of course develop your own customized set of six. What matters is that you develop a shape, pattern and style to managing your knowledge, networks and health and keep the overload at bay. When you do feel rested, more in control, maybe even relaxed, plan the next six days, or six weeks or six projects. And keep tying and untying your knot of Knowledge, Networks and Time to suit one person at a time, starting with yourself.

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