With the world turned upside down in 2020, many of us have become reliant on technology more than ever.
PCs and laptops were already a crucial tool in everyday life, but in the last few months their value has been emphasised even further. You may be one of the millions who's been working from home, while for most people it's been the main way to stay in touch with friends and family.
That's not forgetting online retail, which has seen significant growth as many non-essential shops were forced to close. Technology was already one of the main ways people spent their downtime, and more than 25% of participants in a recent Microsoft Windows study saying they found it more difficult to destress and unwind.
With all that in mind, here are some tips to help you get your PC or laptop usage under control and avoid it having a negative effect on your wellbeing. Elsewhere, we investigate how much screentime is healthy for children.
This article will focus primarily on Windows devices, but many of the tips can also be applied to macOS.
Reduce distractions to maximise productivity
There's evidence that working for shorter periods and taking breaks can boost productivity. An experiment reported by Fast Company suggested 52 minutes of work and then a 17-minute break was optimal for productivity, although the Pomodoro Technique is a more popular alternative.
This breaks the working day up into 25 minute chunks, after which you can take a short break (usually five minutes). After four 'Pomodoros', you then take a longer break. There are plenty of great apps for this on the Microsoft Store, although PomoDoneApp's integration with many other productivity services makes it our top pick.
It's also important to reduce distractions, so for that we'd recommend using Focus Assist, available via Windows 10's quick settings menu. This can be customised in Settings, but the basic premise is to turn off notifications during a specified time period when you're trying to focus. Instead of remembering to turn it on for each Pomodoro, it's best to set it to be on for the whole work day, although you may need to set exceptions for apps like Slack.
Check and monitor your screen time
In order to reduce your screen time out of work, it's important to be aware of how much time you're actually spending on your devices. Microsoft Family Groups is designed to be used to monitor and limit children's screen time, but it can be an equally effective tool to manage your own. Just make sure it's linked to the same account as you use to sign into your PC, and you'll have access to weekly reports of how much time you're spending on the device.
macOS has a similar feature, known as Screen Time, which can accrue data across all your Apple devices.
Schedule time away from screens
If the statistics you found in the previous section were alarming, it's especially important to build in time when you're not glued to the screen. A computer might be a requirement to work from home or catch up with friends virtually, but it doesn't have to be the main use of your free time.
However, that's easier said than done. Humans are habitual creatures, so will naturally gravitate towards the option that involves less effort. And let's face it, who doesn't enjoy relaxing in front of a great film or TV show?
The best way to avoid this is to schedule specific times of the day when you'll take a break from screens. Microsoft's free to-do app comes pre-installed on many Windows 10 PCs, and allows you to be notified when it's time to turn your laptop off. For alternatives, check out our guide to the best task management apps.
There are plenty of great things you can do that don't involve screens, but it might require you to be creative. Consider getting back into a hobby you haven't practiced in a while, or take up a new one. Board games and quizzes are also popular choices, while cooking is always a valuable skill. If you're on your own, try reading a book or taking a walk. The benefits of being around nature in particular are well-documented.
Limit exposure to blue light
If you do have to spend long hours in front of a screen, be it for work or another purpose, you can be exposed to harmful levels of blue light. Harvard Health Publishing suggests this can seriously affect your circadian rhythms and so quality of sleep, as well as potentially contributing to your risk of cancers and other diseases.
However, there are some ways you can reduce your exposure. Under Display Settings in Windows 10, there's a 'Night Light' option, which moves your screen to warmer tones that are easier on the eyes. You can also customise the colour temperature and set a schedule for when you want it to come on, but it might be worth turning on for the whole work day.
We'd also recommend picking up some blue light blocking glasses, with many inexpensive options available on Amazon.
Sort out your home office
Even if you don't have a dedicated room to work in, there are still some things you can do to ensure working from home is as comfortable as it can be.
Arguably the most important is a chair. If you're going to be sitting on it for 40 hours a week for the foreseeable future, make sure it's comfortable and supports your body in the right places. Again, there are loads of great options on Amazon.
You may also want to consider a standing desk, particularly one that is easily adjustable to suit your height and workflow. Our top pick is the Flexispot ED2, but there are plenty more affordable options out there.
Check out more tips in our guide on how to set up a home office.
You may also be interested in how to separate work and play on Windows 10.