5 steps to escape digital slavery

May 3, 2011: 12:22 PM ET

Can't put the smartphone down at dinner? Prefer to email coworkers who sit right next to you? A few tips on breaking bad tech habits.

By Daniel Sieberg, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- The hyper-business of keeping up with technology is overwhelming. Many of us can't tell when our personal time ends and the workday begins (or vice versa). We blast off emails like our hair is on fire; we quickly skim the surface of information online just to ingest something, anything; and we even obsess over colleagues on social networks (not to mention battle feelings of professional jealousy). It's no wonder, then, that the tag line for Microsoft's (MSFT) new Windows 7 mobile devices is, "a phone to save us from our phones."

I know how it feels to be slogging through digital quicksand, because I've been there. Some days I am there. But over the past year, I've tried to streamline my high-tech intake and develop a plan that works for others.

While much of the motivation was driven by problems with technology related to my personal life, I also came to realize it was negatively affecting my work life, too. But I love technology and I want to embrace it for the right reasons and the right occasions. Indeed, I have to -- it's also part of my job as a science and technology reporter.

I hope these tips prove helpful in managing your own situation:

1. Go with face-to-face contact

Limit the number of emails or instant messages you send to the people in your immediate vicinity at the office. Demonstrate your personality, your charm, and your ability to communicate by speaking face-to-face. It doesn't have to take much time, just make it valuable.

The person who sends 100 well-crafted emails will still probably be less likely to get that promotion than the person who takes a little time to chat with the boss, have coffee with them, or shake their hand on a regular basis. That's just the way it is. In nerd parlance, don't be the office warrior who always uses ranged weapons; endure some hand-to-hand combat on occasion.

2. Use tech to break your bad tech habits

Seek out time-management programs. Sometimes, we simply need to outsource our self-control to be productive. The good news is that there are many programs to help. One of the best is called RescueTime, which gives you a visual breakdown of where all your computers minutes go. It'll also limit your online time and even help with time-based billing for certain projects.

3. Put the smartphone down

During social outings with co-workers, don't leave tech turds. By that, I mean don't just dump your smartphone on the table and wait for a flashing light or vibration. That says the co-worker or business contact you're with is potentially less interesting than anything at all that you receive on your device. If you absolutely must have your smartphone handy then tell people why, and explain that unless that particular message or call comes through, they have your complete attention. Or just leave it in your pocket or purse.

4. Create boundaries for your tech/real self.

Establish an e-day, which means when you start and stop your immersion in the digital realm (I know it's hard, thanks to the cloud). But aim to start with that cup of coffee sans gadgets and end it by not plugging your devices in next to your bed. And definitely don't reply to emails or texts at 2 a.m. (your co-workers will question your sanity). No one else will establish these barriers, and I truly believe they will actually make you stronger in the workplace. Obviously, there are times when it's necessary to be available, but otherwise, live your life.

5. Take it one task at a time

When possible, seek to knock out one task before moving on to the next. An increasing number of studies question our ability to be effective multitaskers, and in fact, many times we also make irrational decisions when we're so distracted. For example, I find that having a maximum of five tabs open in your web browser is more than enough to get the job done but not feel bombarded.

The bottom line is that going on a digital diet is about creating awareness and control. It's not a one-size-fits-all and there will be days when it falls apart. But the cumulative effects are meant to be beneficial -- and productive. Oh, excuse me. Just got a text message. Be right back.

Daniel Sieberg is a TV correspondent, host, and author of The Digital Diet: A four-step plan to break your tech addiction and regain balance in your life.

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