Our Thinking

Is it time to take your life back from tech?

Michael Liersch, PhD, Global Head of Wealth Planning & Advice, J.P. Morgan

Our global research says you’re likely ready, so here are five tips on how your device might better enhance your life, and disrupt it less.

On a beautiful spring day seven years ago, I was walking in the park with my wife and 3-year-old daughter. The birds were chirping, the flowers swaying in the breeze (you get the picture), and I...was on my phone. Then I heard a small voice. “Dad, can I have your phone?” Perplexed, I locked the phone and handed it to my daughter. What would she do? I wondered. Pretend to text? “Mom, can you put this in your purse?” That was all she said, but it was enough. I realized that I had walked for at least a mile while staring at my phone. At that moment I began to reassess how I interact with technology.

Of course, I’m not alone. In discussions with clients—and at school events, friends’ barbecues and office meetings—the question is the same: Is technology enhancing my life, or disrupting it? We are all struggling to reap the considerable benefits and avoid the most damaging costs of technology in our lives. That’s no easy task, especially in light of evidence that, by one measure, people touch their smartphones an average of 2,617 times a day.1

When we talk to people about how they can (re)organize their money to address their financial needs, concerns and goals—to align their money with their intentions—technology is a central subject. We depend on technology to facilitate our financial interactions—for many people these days, money itself is primarily a digital concept. So questions about how best to use technology in our financial lives implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) acknowledge that technology can be overused, leading to unintended consequences. It can distract us from why we’re focused on money in the first place—which is often to help ourselves, our family and our community.


Research was conducted in collaboration with iResearch.

We surveyed 1,500 people, across 11 areas in North America, South America, Europe and Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States). The population was 45% female, spread across a wide range of age groups 21–35 (34%), 36–50 (34%) and 51+ (32%). Net worth of participants (excluding their personal residences) ranged from USD$250,000 to USD$100 million, with 36% between USD$250,000 and USD$1 million, 34% between USD$1 million and USD$5 million, and 30% USD$5 million+.

We’re big believers in data (no surprise there), and in that spirit we commissioned global research with 1,500 high-net-worth (HNW) and ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) participants to explore people’s perspectives on technology. The data clearly shows that people find extraordinary value in technology on a deeply personal level.

When asked if they agreed that technology enhances the quality of their overall life, there was an average agreement of 7.8 (on an agreement scale of 1 to 10, where 1 was completely disagree, and 10 was completely agree; see Figure 1).

Figure 1: I feel technology enhances the quality of my overall life

graph showing how people feel that technology enhances the quality of their overall live; 63% agree, 3% disagree, 34% neutral

Note: Participants were asked to rate the statement on a scale from 1 to 10 (ratings 1–3 disagree; 4–7 neutral; 8–10 agree).
Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019. Total n = 1,500.

Across all 11 geographic locations, all age groups and gender, there was no average that fell below 7.4. But what’s interesting is that participants expressed real conflict regarding the amount of time they spend on their devices. In particular, the average person spends far more than four hours on a computer or device on a typical weekday (86%) or weekend day (69%), but many indicated they would rather spend far less time (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: How much time do you spend on a computer or digital device, including work and personal time?

chart demonstrating how a $4MM portfolio aligns capital to bucket of liquid dollars

Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019. Total n = 1,500.

So how should we balance the pros and cons of technology in our financial lives? On the following pages, we tackle that important question (for which there is no right answer), drawing on the results of our survey as we examine the way humans approach and use technology. We conclude by offering five tips for making technology a positive force in our lives.

Cognitive off-loading
When we think about our devices—when we think about technology itself, one key reason we like to use it so much, especially when it comes to money matters, is that it takes things off our minds. We don’t need to keep track of every check, every transaction, every payment (which can be time-consuming and anxiety-inducing). Technology can act as a kind of second brain. Scientists refer to this process as “cognitive off-loading.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Even if you haven’t, I hope you can see that you’ve done it. The basic premise of cognitive off- loading is that humans often take physical actions to reduce the effort of information processing on our brains. An action could be as simple as writing a list of “to dos” so that we don’t have to remember them, or using a calculator to multiply numbers. Think of all the ways you help your mind process information. Twenty years ago, you might have thought of paper-based lists, calendars, calculators and maybe, just maybe, computers. Today much of your cognitive off-loading probably goes beyond computers—to mobile devices and other technology, broadly defined (for example, Alexa and Google).

Technology provides us with the unique ability to off-load cognitive tasks far beyond banking apps. We use it to seek or validate information (Google, newsfeeds, Twitter), maintain personal and professional relationships (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn), manage our work lives (MS Outlook) and so much more. The benefits of these systems are very clear—technology literally augments our brain power. Even one seemingly “simple” search on Google can reportedly take the entire computational power of the Apollo space mission.2 Relieved that technology is working on our behalf, we presumably have more time and energy to do other things—whether that’s more work, play, life experiences or family moments.

What would it take to give up that feeling of relief? When asked how much they would have to be compensated to give up their personal devices for one month, most of our survey participants said that very high dollar amounts would be required. In Figure 3, you’ll see that the most common choice was $100,000 (35%), and the second most common was $1 million (28%). Interestingly, those were the most common choices regardless of age, gender, geographic location—and level of net worth. Clearly the idea of giving up one’s “second brain” is not a very viable option even for a relatively short period of time.

Figure 3: How much would someone have to pay you to give up your personal device for a month?

graph detailing how much someone would have to pay you to give up your personal device for a month; the majority said over $100,000

Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019. Total n = 1,500.

Too much tech?
But when does our reliance on technology go too far? Even Bill Gates, who built his fortune on technological innovation via Microsoft, took a measured approach to technology in his own family life—he famously did not let his children have a smartphone until they were 14, even though they complained.3 It’s not clear when the benefits from technology are eclipsed by the costs. However, research is helping us understand more— especially when it comes to devices and their impact on our capacity to think.

Shlomo Benartzi, behavioral scientist, professor at UCLA and author of the book The Smarter Screen, has shown that people taking financial literacy tests online performed worse versus those tested on paper.4 His hypothesis is that the way we process information on mobile/digital devices causes us to make quicker, less deliberative decisions. Researchers Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos found that simply having a device present in a room deteriorated people’s ability to think5 —presumably because we’re (consciously or not) focusing on the phone: Is it going to interrupt me? What if there’s an emergency at home? What am I missing on social media? Has someone at work sent me an important email? Has my financial transaction gone through? Notably, reported dependence on the phone was correlated with how much further people’s cognitive abilities went south: The more dependent, the worse they scored.

But we live in a world in which technology is a part of life, and the vast majority of people in our study do appear to be struggling with the fact that we are so reliant on technology across the globe: As shown in Figure 4, about half of participants were in the middle or top of the scale when asked if they agreed with the idea that modern computer and mobile technology has hurt the world more than it has helped (where 1 was completely disagree and 10 was completely agree).

Figure 4: Modern computer and mobile technology has hurt the world more than it has helped it

graph detailing how much someone would have to pay you to give up your personal device for a month; the majority said over $100,000


Note: Participants were asked to rate the statement on a scale from 1 to 10 (ratings 1–3 disagree; 4–7 neutral; 8–10 agree).
Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019. Total n = 1,500. Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, 2019. Total n = 1,500.

So let’s start a conversation about using the best (and avoiding the worst) of technology’s power. We do so below with tips that have worked for some of our clients—and we combine that with the research insights that we gained from our study. There are no right or wrong answers. Each individual and family can find their way based on their values, preferences and desired outcomes.

Getting in sync: 5 tips on improving your relationship with tech



TIP 1: Embrace the benefits of technology—from relationships to how you financially transact

Human beings across the globe agree that technology enhances the overall quality of their lives. You’ll see in Figure 5 that people told us that technology enhances personal connections in our participants’ lives—and that’s encouraging to see. While an overuse of technology may occasionally have negative effects on our interpersonal relationships, by and large people feel that technology is enhancing rather than diminishing their connections. And yes, this does contradict much of the global narrative that technology is disconnecting us. (If you don’t believe me, just Google “is technology disconnecting us?” Hopefully, that’s not too ironic.)

So the key tip here is, don’t shun technology, or frame it in a negative way. Instead, be thoughtful about how, when and why you use the technology in your life. As you go through the other tips, the key theme you’ll see is intentionality (starting with Tip 2!). Make sure that you are deliberately doing what you can to use technology in an empowering, rather than a disempowering, way.

Figure 5: I feel technology enhances the quality of...

graph detailing how much someone would have to pay you to give up your personal device for a month; the majority said over $100,000


Note: Chart shows average rating from 1,500 total respondents.
Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019.


TIP 2: Spend your time intentionally—on and off your device

When we asked how much time people spend on their devices every day, the most common response was four to seven hours (with little variety on a weekday versus weekend day). However, when we asked how much time they would prefer to spend, the typical person said one to three hours. Assuming someone is spending four additional hours per day on a device than they would like, that is an opportunity to spend 1,460 hours per year more intentionally (that’s about 61 full days). Ask yourself: What if I had a few months back in my life per year? What would I do with that? If the answers to those questions inspire you to govern your device time more deliberately, you can actively monitor your usage—and even engage a digital coach to reduce time spent on your device—using various apps such as Moment or Social Fever.

And even when your usage is intentional, is it truly the best use of that time? One example: In our study, when asked how much time people spend on their devices being entertained versus how much time they spend talking to their families about important financial decisions in the past week, the typical person reported spending far more time watching TV, movies and the like (see Figure 6). If that’s an intentional trade-off, that’s fantastic. However, given that the level of confidence in financial matters is relatively low, for many there might be an opportunity to revisit these choices.6 Ask yourself: What are the top three opportunities to use your time and energy differently outside of the digital world? Share your answers with family, friends and coworkers.

Figure 6: How much time in the past week have you...

graph detailing how much someone would have to pay you to give up your personal device for a month; the majority said over $100,000


Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019. Total n = 1,500.


TIP 3: Know the risks of using your device—and share that information with the people you care about

When we asked people what from a digital standpoint they couldn’t live without and what technology they wished never existed—the only major standout was social media (okay, and maybe online shopping...see Figure 7). It would appear that our research participants across the globe were on the fence about whether the benefits of social media outweigh the costs. Families that we work with at J.P. Morgan express similar ambivalence. In fact, there is a trend we’ve seen with our clients toward creating social media policies to explicitly govern family behaviors online. Such policies are often sparked by a negative experience such as cyberbullying, the spread of false rumors—or even the seemingly innocuous pic or post that led to unintended consequences. For example, some families do not allow postings of family vacations because it can highlight that they are not at home, opening the door to criminal activity while they are away.

Figure 7: How you really feel about technology

graph detailing how the majority of people spend more time watching TV than speaking with family about important money decisionsNotes: Average rating from 1,500 total respondents.
Participants were asked to rate the statement on a scale from 1 to 10 (ratings 1–3 disagree; 4–7 neutral; 8–10 agree).
Source: J.P. Morgan Private Bank research, April 2019.

Social media is just one of a variety of risks posed online. It’s critical to educate yourself and your family about those risks. Some risks are as simple as keeping passwords private, limiting the release of private financial information or avoiding the use of public WiFi (yes, people can then gain access to information on your phone). Others may be more nuanced: educating family, friends and colleagues about how a quick text might be misunderstood, or taking a pause when executing financial transactions on a mobile device so that overly hasty decisions can be avoided.


TIP 4: Beware of cognitive off-loading—in other words, use your gray matter!

Our participants wouldn’t want to give up their phones for a month for $100,000, and in many cases $1 million. However, that reliance on phones isn’t always a good thing. Some research suggests that people who rely on their devices find it harder to think on a variety of dimensions...and may continue to do so, perhaps permanently.7 While the jury is still out on that research, why not make it a point to challenge your brain! Set aside your device and think. You can even make it a game—at the dinner table, with friends, at work. When you’re tempted to find the answer online, resist. In other words, don’t cognitively off-load just because you can.

And remember, you may not even realize how much you do off-load. Research shows that self-awareness of (over)usage of technology is not high: Even drivers tend to be unaware of how much they’re using their smartphones, suggesting that cognitive off-loading is now so normal that we don’t even notice when we’re doing it.8


TIP 5: Relocate your phone—depending on your situation or circumstance

Although people reported that a smartphone enhanced their lives overall, it’s not clear that it always enhances their decision-making ability. Of course, access to information is a key benefit of technology, but do we really need that access at all times? As discussed, evidence shows the mere presence of your phone can degrade your thinking. Does your phone really need to be on the table? Next to your bed? In the cupholder in your car? If not, consider relocating it. Try leaving your phone in the kitchen before you retire to your bedroom (make it a family thing!), place your phone in a purse or pocket when you’re sitting at a table or walking around, or make sure your phone is out of reach in your car.

And since our study suggests many of us are spending upward of four to seven hours a day on a device of some sort, it is important to recognize the best and worst times to make a decision while using a device. Is it ideal to be making financial decisions on your phone while multitasking with your family in the morning? Is it a great idea to send that work email late at night when you’re exhausted and just about to go to sleep? Can you really stay safe while checking your phone at a traffic light? Acknowledge the near-constant temptation to pick up your device—it can help motivate you to handle technology in ways that facilitate better behaviors and choices.


So when you pick up your phone for the twentieth time that day (and you’ve only been up for an hour), ask yourself the question we posed to our survey participants: Is technology enhancing my life, or disrupting it? We all hope to harness the positive power of technology in our lives, while avoiding its less-attractive side effects. By definition, the choice is personal—there is no “correct” answer. And as technology evolves, so too will our own personal calculus about what it is we want from our ever-present smartphones and devices.Make Editable     

The information expressed is being provided for informational and educational purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are those of the author and may differ from those of other J.P. Morgan employees and affiliates. It is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. You should carefully consider your needs and objectives before making any decisions.

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