Each new year arrives accompanied by fireworks, resolutions and sore heads. For many of us, the turning of a year inspires a turning inward. We embrace the opportunity to renew, take stock and course correct amidst the promise of a blank slate and fresh start.
This usually doesn’t last long, as the existence of ‘Quitters Day’ attests (The first Friday in January, in case you were wondering). Now, I am not a fan of resolutions and promise never to be one, though this year, for the second time, I set a personal challenge to help me wind down and renew.
This challenge was a digital detox – foregoing the digital realm in all forms for 24 hours. No phone, no TV, no laptop or Ipad. No headphones. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
The end of 2021, just days into the summer break, found me struggling to switch off despite the abundance of time and opportunity. The usual ‘I should be doing something’ agitation lingered longer than ever once the academic year ended and the days emptied.
I felt exhausted, restless and cagey. Time was short and I could not get around and do everything I wanted, or thought I wanted, to do. Which is ridiculous, considering the good fortune of long breaks we teachers enjoy.
In response, principles of self care led me to a natural accounting for and reflection on habits and routines. This included exploring my digital life (not wishing to point fingers…ah, thank you…)
The pandemic has forced many of us into a huge shift in habits and routines.
The science of habit is fascinating. How we humans acquire, adapt and lose them, and how this shapes our lives is an area of great interest to many.
Not all habits were created equal. In particular, the speed of our adoption and reliance on phones and tablets is an important topic for me not just an educator, but also as a functioning, sentient human being.
The cognitive pressure that phones and social media place on us is also an increasing area of human concern.
Smartphones, true weapons of mass distraction, are central and ubiquitous for many in our hyper-connected modern life.
Worryingly, films like ‘The Social Dilemma’ have revealed the extent to which this distracting, addictive quality is intentionally built in by creators and designers.
Even if you do not subscribe to a cynical, black hat view that ‘we’re all being manipulated’ by technology, it is not a huge stretch to argue that the development of smartphone technology and the rise of social media draws obvious parallels with that story where Pandora opens a certain box…
There is genuine concern and deep inquiry into the cognitive pressure that smartphones, social media and what Cal Newport calls ‘network tools’ (email, instant messenger, online gaming, video calls etc.) brings to bear on individuals and society as a whole.
Scientists and psychologists are taking a keen interest in this phenomenon and its impact and consequences.
Beyond this, anyone who has or works with children and teenagers can attest to the growing suspicion that technology and social media, not to mention gaming, may not be beneficial or benign for their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Speculating further, the apparent crisis in mental health in society, manifested in increased rates of anxiety, social fear and depression, may have a strong correlation with this rapid and pervasive shift to habitual technology use and dependence.
There is no doubt that life is fundamentally different from not so long ago.
‘Okay, Boomer!’ I hear you say.
Well, it is worth reflecting on how despite the lengthy existence of technologies like television and telephones (all demonised and criticised at times for the damage they cause) with modern hyper-connectivity is not really a comparison of apples and apples.
Granted, in days of yore there was a lot of staring into the ‘idiot box’ or listening to ‘rowdy music’. Yet is hard to argue that we were then so consistently connected from the time we woke to the time we went to sleep, or so readily able to access perennial sources of stimulation outside our own minds and bodies.
Going further, if we apply principles of neuroplasticity and lessons from research in the fields of cognitive and neuroscience, it is reasonable to assert that our interaction with and usage of these devices is changing our brains.
Granted, the extent and impact of this might be overstated, but we can say that our habits and routines have fundamentally changed through the constant availability of electronic devices and tools over the last twenty years or so.
So what is the problem, then?
To my way of thinking, for thousands of years, human beings have understood that there is a lot to be said for the benefits of stillness, reflection and downtime in a life.
We know it, too, judging by the ever expanding mindfulness and meditation industry.
The numbers don’t lie. In the US alone it is believed to be worth 1 billion dollars a year. By 2023 it is projected to be worth 3.9 billion and a whopping 9 billion by 2027.
No doubt, the pandemic has pushed this along, but even considering this, the exponential jump in people searching for solace and calm in meditation and mindfulness is extraordinary.
Yet, the reality is that you never need to have downtime if you don’t want it. There is always a magic tool close to hand for finding out or engaging in anything.
Connected screens, whatever your preference, are a magic portal; a black hole of endless rabbit warrens to disappear into at will, as long as your phone is charged and you have Internet access.
Quiet, reflective moments at a bus stop or on the train are rare and perhaps, sadly, extinct. There are no more thoughtful or pensive pauses during long conversations, or quiet contemplation on first waking or when a dinner buddy heads off to the loo. Hell – there is no more quiet contemplation on the loo if you don’t wish it.
This year, after another year of building and reinforcing different habits during lockdown and isolation, I’d added more scrolling, refreshing and clickbait news to my mental diet.
These ‘digital snacks’ became even more disruptive and time consuming events in my day.
Part challenge, part experiment, part just something to do, after another annus interruptus, I was interested to see if my taking a break might settle an unquiet mind.
Another motivation was curiosity. I wanted to see how it felt to go back in time to visit an old self – one who reads a physical paper for news or goes outside for the weather report.
The concept of a digital detox is not new, but there is a growing global movement towards countering the negative aspects of technology use by taking regular breaks.
In Newport’s excellent book ‘Deep Work’, he recounts the story of journalist and early influencer, Baratunde Thurston, who wrote about his experience in giving up technology for an entire month back in 2013. It is a great read.
There are various methods and movements which involve taking regular breaks – from one day a week to one week a month to one month a year for the independently wealthy – from tech. Some are variously known as an Internet Sabbath, Technical Sabbath or Tech Shabat.
Like many diets and challenges, there are endless options, parameters and dosages to suit you. This continuum extends from minor to the extreme, escaping to an off-grid cabin in the woods model.
Regardless of the details, the common thread is the intentional disconnection or avoidance of technology and social media to benefit one’s mental and physical health or to improve productivity.
Not considering myself a phone or social media addict, last year I thought the challenge would be easy; just power down the phone and put it in a drawer for 24 hours. No worries. A day later I’d be back, ready to see what I’d missed.
While the experience was not traumatic or onerous, I was surprised by how many times I caught myself thinking ‘I just need to…’, before realising I needed my phone to do it.
There were periods of withdrawal, but I made do with analogue conversations, books and games.
The discomfort was akin to a nasty vice, like smoking, requiring determined effort to avoid slipping and stay the course.
In the end I did not miss anything vital and in fact, the experience brought a sense of being more ‘there’ and less hurried.
One some levels, the 2022 challenge was fairly low impact and interesting in the same way.
I sometimes caught myself wanting to get my phone and check a little thing, or make a note, set a reminder, check WhatsApp just to see what was going on.
When I realised I could not due to self-imposed limitations, or that I’d have to wait, I experienced everything on a continuum from ‘Oh, that’s right!’ to ‘of course’, to ‘dang’ to ‘FFS’.
There was mild discomfort, maybe moving in the direction of anxiety or longing.
The challenge began easily enough. I powered down my phone and left it on a shelf upstairs. I rang my Mum to tell her I would be off the air and to contact my partner if there was anything urgent. That was the easy part.
There was a sense of missing something as I walked the dog instead of trawl news apps and social media feeds to see what had happened while I was sleeping.
Which is the thing, isn’t it? The world is always on duty and always turning, offering endless trails of trivia to consume and explore.
In the quiet, deep down, I recalled the old script about a good citizen being an informed citizen. Growing up, there was an avowed value, expectation, obligation to being a person who ‘kept up with things’.
What to do! What to do! If I wanted to know what kind of food a rutabaga was, I couldn’t check the google machine and simply wait, just like the old days… (in fact, later that day I asked my partner to look it up for me. Some things simply cannot wait. They are turnips, or swedes, by the way).
As the dog led me around the park, amid shimmering sunlight from the lake and the sound of birdsong, I wondered about how these old scripts still served us.
One other minor issue I found was, in an age when you need to check in everywhere for contact tracing, being sans phone left me somewhat restricted in terms of where I could go and what I could do.
Yet the day passed easily. Between bouts of analogue journaling and reading, a sense of less hurry and burden emerged.
Time did a funny thing. It embraced a slower cadence rather than leaching away into a raging stream of steady, inattentive activity.
There was enough time.
There was too much time.
In the later morning, I went to the garden and got to long-avoided weeding and watering.
I was suddenly awash with time; an unhurried master of my day once more.
There was time to chat, take reading snacks and at one stage I found myself in the study, sprawled on the floor, sorting through things left for years on the shelves and dusty to-do lists.
That said, there were times when I crashed up against the absence of my phone and felt pangs of longing.
Around midday, I worried that I would forget all the things I could suddenly think about. Free from regular checking in and scrolling, a quiet stillness emerged. Ideas shot across my mind like meteors.
So I got a pen and some paper.
There was room for losing oneself in thought, contemplation and discussion.
Those brief pauses and transitions in a day, when we habitually lift the phone to our faces and peer in, blank eyed, were now free for something like the natural renewal I remembered.
As afternoon turned to evening, I found myself hungry to complete tasks delayed and avoided – all the life administration left to rot in the too hard or onerous pile. In doing them, their reign on the shelves or mental to-do lists ended. They mocked and guilted me no longer.
This whole time, the phone sat inert upstairs on the mantle, powered down and out of mind.
I got a little antsy in the evening, where television is an easy companion. So I read a bit, chatted some more, then conceded to fatigue and called it a day.
This was something of a return to natural rhythm. The absence of electronic options meant the evening shutdown was not artificially delayed by the ‘just one more episode’ trap or the ‘I wonder what…’ forays down a compelling rabbit hole, or the lure of constant ‘shocking’ news, commentary and clickbait.
Without these self-sustaining attention wormholes, the rhythms and signals of the body and brain were not muffled and drowned.
Which is hugely beneficial, if only for a day.
The absence of these distractions swiftly – more swiftly than expected, echoed a time not so distant when we knew less connection and hurry and more restful sleep and leisure time.
It was brilliant.
That night, after climbing into bed a couple of hours earlier than usual and reading a few analogue chapters of an analogue book, I went to sleep suitably fatigued from a most productive and enjoyable day.
The next morning, when it was time to power up and see what I had missed, a strange sense of reluctance appeared. Nevertheless, curiosity aroused, I turned the phone on.
Touring through WhatsApp, messages, voicemails, emails, Twitter and Apple News revealed I had missed, well, not much. There was some minor banter and episodic planning and discussion about an upcoming lunch.
Twitter was at its snarling, snarky and smarmy best. The trivia and ego had flowed steadily through the previous day and night and my world was not changed at all by not being there to witness it.
Yet by lunchtime, normal service was restored, albeit with moments of mindful attention just before I held my thumb to the screen to swipe and refresh.
The lessons of this challenge were clear. There are obvious benefits to disconnecting, even for a day.
To me, this experience underlines that social media and technology are just tools and not the necessities we’ve made them. They are just things to help enhance a life and help make our best contribution, whatever that may be, rather than devote ourselves to.
One cannot renew, refresh or find stillness if the use of these ‘weapons of mass distraction’ are so habitual to be rendered unconscious.
The collateral damage of our addiction and reliance on these things, when we account for lost moments, minutes and hours, aggregates into a vast portion of our lives.
If you are searching for the source of that minor discomfort or agitation, or feeling that low sense of rut, or worried about time, then perhaps a digital detox is something to consider.
Like any possession or tool, it is worth taking time out to check in with where the control lies.
Are you in charge, or is the device?