In the fall of 2017, I started college as an Energy Engineering student at UC Berkeley. Although I came in full of confidence, I was unprepared for the transition that awaited me.
High school had been a breeze: I was able to maintain good grades without excessive work, the rigid structure of school days left little need to manage my time, and I lived in a small town with few distractions. It was a different story at Berkeley. For the first time in my life, I was truly challenged academically, my schedule was far less defined, and the amount of social events made it difficult to carve out enough time to study. It didn't take long for me to fall behind. I flunked the first midterm in my calculus course, and suddenly my identity as a star student was being tested.
Being challenged in college is a good thing. Learning to deal with stress and overcome adversity is a key to learning and growing, but doing so requires a level of resilience that I couldn't muster due to an addiction I developed to social media. During that first year at Berkeley, I almost unconsciously fell into a habit that derailed my first few years of college: uncomfortable emotions (namely boredom, stress, and anxiety) became a trigger for me to pull out my phone and start mindlessly scrolling.
Throughout my freshman year, I averaged over 4 hours per day on Instagram and Youtube. My smartphone, once a tool that enhanced my life, became a digital pacifier I used to numb discomfort. In addition to consuming so much of my time, my phone addiction damaged my academic performance, cut into my sleep schedule, and diminished my attention span. The most dramatic consequence, however, was on my identity and self-esteem.
Your actions are the evidence upon which your identity is built. During high school, I had been an outgoing, overachieving student who spent a lot of time outside. Accordingly, I had a strong sense of identity and a positive self-image. In college, my actions started to tell a different story. After a few months of literally spending more time scrolling than studying, I was objectively no longer any of the things I was proud to be in high school. The corresponding damage to my self-image took a toll on my mental health which made my first few years of college the most difficult of my life.
Hitting the Reset Button
These struggles continued until January 2020, when I was given an opportunity to take a semester off of school to intern at a startup in New York. After countless failed attempts to cut down on my screen time, I recognized that I needed to hit the reset button. In New York, I deleted social media apps from my phone and spent my newfound free time exercising, reading, and meditating. Slowly but surely, changes started to occur. I got back in shape, was able to focus for longer periods of time, did work that I was proud of, and my mental health improved dramatically.
Throughout my 16 months at the startup, I was surrounded by a number of highly intelligent, ambitious peers. Over time, I began to notice a pattern amongst the employees that really stood out: they knew how to leverage technology to work more effectively. By leveraging tools like Notion, Google Calendar, and Things, they learned, planned, and prioritized more efficiently than others. This realization that the same devices that held me back in college could help me advance my career was profound to me, and I started to research how to change my relationship with my phone and laptop so that they would serve me, not the other way around.
Over the course of the next few months, I read books like Digital Minimalism, Atomic Habits, Deep Work, and The Shallows, and experimented with systems for time management, journaling, habit tracking, and personal knowledge management. My devices transformed from toys that distracted me to tools that enhanced my life, and the benefits were tangible. Armed with an extra 3 hours per day to use productively, I earned a promotion to a full-time position at work, got into great shape, and got straight A's for the first time when I returned to Berkeley.
Running my first marathon in September 2021
Although the changes above are great, the most impactful changes I've experienced can't be measured:
Mental Health - The brain fog and the low-grade hum of anxiety that had become my normal state are gone
Attention - I regained my ability to focus and my love of reading
Autonomy - I have a renewed sense of agency and feel that if I make a promise to myself, I can keep it
Identity - I'm happy with who I am again, and I feel comfortable spending time alone with my thoughts
Insights from developing & overcoming a tech addiction
When I reflect on the journey my relationship with technology has taken, two things stand out:
First, there is a gap in the education system with regard to teaching my generation how to use technology. No one warned me about the effects of excessive tech use on memory and attention, and I was unaware of many of the things my devices could do to make life easier. Mass adoption of smartphones happened rapidly. The education system has failed to keep up.
Second, conversations around tech addiction are not happening at the rate they should be. I was so ashamed of my excessive use of Instagram and YouTube that I feared bringing up the issue with even my closest friends. Now I realize that many of them were facing the same issues to varying extents. My parents have been overwhelmingly supportive throughout my life, but I could never muster up the courage to tell them how big this issue was for me. Admitting "I spend more time scrolling than studying" to the people who were helping finance my degree was too scary of a conversation to have, but keeping this issue inside only added more stress and anxiety, making the problem worse.
Helping Others Reset Their Tech Habits
In an effort to solve both of these problems, I created INFO 98: Becoming Tech Intentional, a semester-length course that I taught three times to a total of 110 UC Berkeley students upon returning for my senior year.
The goal of INFO 98 was to help students set and adhere to informed intentions for their tech use. In many ways, the course is a condensed version of the transformation that I went through during my time away from school. Over 12 weeks, students analyzed their screen time, learned about the attention economy, reconfigured their devices to minimize distraction, and implemented systems for time management. I also made sure to facilitate in-class discussions about tech addiction to give students the space to talk openly, which I never felt I had.
Students from the Spring 2022 iteration of INFO 98
Teaching INFO 98 opened my eyes to two main things:
First, tech addiction is ubiquitous. Even amongst highly ambitious Berkeley students, nearly everyone is spending far more time on social media and entertainment apps than they want to.
Second, people can change how they interact with their devices dramatically with proper guidelines. Most people fall into their digital habits with very little intention. If they take a step back, analyze where their time is going, rethink how they want to use social media, and adjust how their devices are configured accordingly, change is inevitable. My average student decreased their non-productive screen time by over 3 hours per day and reported significantly healthier relationships with their devices by the end of the course.
My experience facilitating INFO 98 has clarified my mission in life: I want to help others build healthy tech habits. Project Reboot is my effort to spread the content of the course to a broader audience through school engagements, consulting, and boot camps. Although I am focusing on middle school, high school, and college students at first, I believe that everyone can benefit from improving their relationship with their devices and hope to scale the program to help people of all ages in the coming years.
Speaking at the TEDxLagunaBlancaSchool conference in February 2023
If you can take away one thing from reading my story, let it be this: your devices can be weight vests or jetpacks. If used properly, they can help you learn, manage your time, and advance your career. If used improperly, they will waste your time, undermine your autonomy, and prevent you from reaching your potential. If you find your relationship with tech is working against you, reboot.