If you’re like many people around the world, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months staring at a screen. With the COVID-19 pandemic severely restricting social interactions in both our work and personal lives, we’ve increasingly turned to digital and online tools, particularly video chat platforms, to bridge the gap.
Today, just about every activity we might once have done in person— from meetings with colleagues and pitches to clients to lunch dates and board game nights with friends—now happens on a screen. But while these constant virtual interactions have certainly helped us keep up professional and personal connections, reduce feelings of isolation, and maintain some sense of normalcy, many people are now dealing with an unexpected side effect: screen fatigue.
While things like eyestrain and headaches have always been fairly common in our screen-intensive daily lives, many people are now finding that the increased reliance on video chatting is adding an extra layer of fatigue. However, it’s not surprising that this should be the case. According to experts, video calls simply require a higher degree of mental processing than in-person interactions. In other words, when we talk to friends or colleagues via video, our brains have to work harder than they would if we were all in the same room. When you add in the need to hold your body still enough to stay inside your webcam frame, plus the self-consciousness that comes from feeling like you’re on display to everyone, it’s no wonder that so many of us are more exhausted than ever by the end of the day.
Fortunately, there are plenty of simple tricks that can help you reduce the effects of screen fatigue in these challenging times without having to give up the valuable sense of connection that screens and video chatting can offer. Top tips to try include the following:
1. Adjust your lighting.
Evidence suggests that staring at a computer or phone screen in a dark room can tire your eyes out more quickly and lead to short-term eyestrain. The solution is to make sure you’re working or virtually socializing in a well-lit room so that there’s as little difference as possible between the brightness of your screen and the brightness of your surroundings. Opening curtains and blinds to let in natural light, turning on overhead lights when you’re on screen, and investing in a good desk lamp are all smart moves to make. In addition, consider installing a blue light filter on your devices—this helps warm the tone of your display and reduces the strain on your eyes.
2. Follow the 20-20-20 rule.
The 20-20-20 rule recommended by optometrists is an essential step in beating screen fatigue, as it gives you a break from close-up focusing and allows different muscles in your eyes to get a short workout. To follow the rule, look up from your screen and focus on something about 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. Do this every 20 minutes throughout your day. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to blink! Blinking is critical to eye health as it keeps our eyes moisturized, but when we’re staring at screens, our blink rate is roughly half what it usually is.
3. Stay hydrated.
Speaking of dry eyes, if you’re finding that your eyes are dry and itchy after the first couple of video meetings in your working day, try reaching for a big glass of water instead of another cup of coffee. Staying properly hydrated helps maintain good levels of ocular fluid, thus protecting you from red, dry eyes. (Note: While eye drops can help provide some short-term relief, it’s better to hydrate from within by drinking plenty of water, as overuse of eye drops can actually contribute to dry eyes over the long term.)
4. Increase your break time.
If you’ve been working from home during the pandemic, repurposing your former commuting time as break time can be a very helpful way to reduce screen fatigue. Try taking small, frequent breaks throughout the day. Many experts advocate the Pomodoro technique, which involves 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of break time, as even a short time away from your screen can greatly reduce the cumulative effects of too much screen time.
5. Go low(er) tech when possible.
To balance out the increased screen time coming from online meetings and e-socializing, it helps to think about lower-tech ways to accomplish some of your other tasks. For example, if you have a report to read for work, trying printing it off and reading a hard copy rather than looking at a PDF file on your screen. Similarly, if you need to have a short conversation with just one or two other people, a phone call might be more effective than a video chat. Spending time off your screen for activities like this means that when it comes time to have a virtual happy hour with your friends in the evening, you and your eyes will be better rested.