Article Insects, us & the future

Digital detox

“You may now switch on your electronic devices. We have found a mobile phone, so check if you have lost yours and collect it from the cabin crew before you disembark from the aircraft.” Everyone around me frantically starts searching their bags and pockets. I lean back and smile in the knowledge that all my gadgets are safely on my desk, switched off and 2,000 kilometres away.

The idea for my digital detox was born in April this year. I had had a particularly hectic couple of months both professionally and privately, and switching off was becoming harder each time I tried. Eventually, I realised that my business and the rest of my life had become completely intertwined. Work came in via Facebook messages, clients responded via Whatsapp and editors tweeted and tagged away on my various online profiles. The good old trick of having a separate phone number and email address for work no longer worked. More rigorous measures were required.

Once I had decided to take a break, the rest was pretty straightforward. I just had to do the work for a month in half the time, inform clients, block dates in the calendar and schedule appointments around them. Next, I picked a sunny destination, booked a flight and car and rented a house in the middle of nowhere. I switched on my out-of-office and put a last-minute announcement on my blog:

As you read this, I have gone into hiding

“As you read this, I have gone into hiding” I wrote. “Really. Try to ring me: you won’t get an answer. Try to email me: you’ll get an out-of-office without a promise that I’ll check for urgent messages once a day. Try to reach me on social media: you won’t get a tweet out of me and there’s nothing to like. Try to app me: those two delivery ticks you’re waiting on won’t appear. Not for two weeks. Not until I’m digitally detoxed.”

The no-work part was easy. I was so tired that my brain and body easily gave in to a break from deadlines stress and other joys of freelance life. I had finished enough work to carry me through financially and I knew that everything else could wait. I did not miss email in the slightest. In fact, the hundreds of messages that I could simply delete as soon as I came back only strengthened my belief that we are all causing each other massive distraction by emailing for everything and nothing, and at all hours.

Sometime halfway through the first week of my detox I realised that our relationship with smartphones has slowly but surely been luring most of us into addiction. The more ‘all-in-one’ the phone becomes, the less we can do without it. Only by not having my phone on me did I realise what I use it all for, beyond calls, texts and email on-the-go. I was lost without Google Maps and sat nav for a while, until I was convinced that a good old road map and asking the locals indeed still worked perfectly fine. I missed out on an alarm clock because I have not had one of those battery-charged ones since I got my first mobile phone some sixteen years ago.

I forgot to wear a watch because I always look at my phone for the time: a habit that had crept in without me even realising it. I remembered how I used to go on holiday without wearing my watch, but the phone, iPad, laptop and Kindle had taken away that great feeling of not knowing and caring about what time it is when off duty. After a few days, using the sun as the only indicator of time became pure bliss.

Blessing or burden?

When I told people about my zero-tech plans, many looked at me in disbelief. They simply could not imagine how I would cope. Maybe that is unsurprising given how much we use our gadgets. In the UK, independent regulator Ofcom says that the average mobile phone subscriber sends 200 text messages per month, but that figure is heavily distorted since the introduction of Whatsapp. And we somehow still find time to watch 241 minutes of TV per day, too.

The average person checks their phone every six-and-a-half minutes

Last year, a mobile technology consultant made headlines when he revealed that the average person checks their phone every six-and-a-half minutes. Three quarters of people say they absolutely could not spend a day without their smartphone or computer. The study was commissioned by Nokia, so it would not harm to take the results with a pinch of salt, but it highlights a trend that we are all affected by.

I would be the first to point out the great progress digitalisation has allowed us to make. Creative freelancers in particular have had a lot to thank the digital revolution for when it comes to the running of their business. If it wasn’t for a bunch of Silicon Valley whiz kids and start up techies, I certainly would not have been able to build and sustain my business as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as I have. The things I have been able to teach myself by simply watching YouTube tutorials, attending webinars and browsing user forums are pretty amazing. And all of it at a fraction of the cost of a college degree.

My office is anywhere, as long as there is wifi or 3G-signal for my laptop or phone. I plan everything on the go and all my admin is stored ‘in the cloud’. No bus, tube and train journey is left unused to reply to emails, update to-do-lists, research stories, engage on social media, check newsletter reports and website stats, schedule appointments and plan interviews. And it is not just travel that has been transformed since I have a mini computer connected to the internet in my pocket at all times. Breakfast, supermarket queues, a friend who turns up late in the pub, ad breaks on TV and even episodes of writer’s block have all been given a new use.

Heavy-duty multitasking

But people who understand our brains better than we do ourselves say that it is not all that helpful. Even before our lives were interrupted by tweets, status updates and app notifications every few minutes, researchers found that doing more than one task at a time takes a toll on productivity. Psychologists studying cognition say that “mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.”

Despite everything we have gained, we are losing our ability to concentrate. To focus on one task. To switch off and make room for new thoughts that we can actually think through. We are more switched-on than ever, but we have lost the ‘off’ button.

There is a counter-movement appearing, ironically spreading through the web. There are ‘disconnect to connect’ advertisements, screenless weeks, digital detox camps and even a National Day of Unplugging on March 6 next year. But after two weeks of simply unplugging by myself, I found that it really is not all that hard to do, particularly if you just go ‘cold turkey’ and leave without bringing anything that has a screen or a charger.

My concentration span went from about five minutes on screen to several hours solid reading a paper novel

Looking at my paper diary kept during my two weeks in detox, it is obvious that I started to miss my digital life less and less. On the first few pages, words like ‘calendar’, ‘calculator’, ‘Spotify’, ‘writing on keyboard’, ‘news’, ‘football scores’, Google, ‘camera’ and ‘weather app’ indicate the things I unsuccessfully tried to reach for. But by the sixth day, I had stopped writing down keywords. I read paper books, asked people for weather, directions and everything else, did the maths in my head and sent family and friends handwritten postcards. I played no music and I had no idea what was happening in the world.

I picked the term ‘digital detox’ as a joke, but it turned out to have an effect on both body and mind. My headaches and neck and wrist pains eased off and my eyes no longer burned. Most importantly, my mind stopped racing. My concentration span went from about five minutes on screen to several hours solid reading a paper novel. I finished eight books in ten days. I concentrated on each meal and tasted wonderful food. I had great, uninterrupted conversations. I took in my surroundings and appreciated silence.

There were no frantic searches for adapters, cables and plugs. There was nothing to recharge, apart from myself. Tens of thousands of headlines, messages, images, tweets, updates and notifications would have crossed my phone, iPad, laptop, PC and TV screens if they had been on. Many were insignificant, some were world news and some were work. I missed all of them but I missed nothing at all.

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