If I had a nickel for every Medium post I’ve read on the value of turning off notifications and unplugging… I’d probably own Medium.
I’m not the first to write an article about turning off notifcations, and dare I predict I won’t be the last. Still, I feel compelled to scribble my own addition to the genre and implore you to take this more seriously than I have in the past.
Here’s what happened to me last week.
Following a good but stressful week of business travel in California (I’m currently freelance consulting for three companies and editing on the side), I returned to New York feeling tired and burned out.
I had this nagging sense of being constantly besieged by requests for my attention. I was feeling spread too thin. Then I started lashing out at people in uncharacteristic ways (sorry everyone! drinks on the house!) and I had this really palpable, eerie feeling that I just wasn’t feeling like myself.
It got really bad. Finally, by midweek I just reached a point of total exhaustion and I decided to check out for a bit: I texted a few key people that I was putting my phone on Do Not Disturb and to call me twice in case of emergency.
Here’s what I did next.
I went to a restaurant and sat at the bar. I ordered some delicious pasta and a glass of wine. And I read a book.
That’s it. That’s all I did.
No text notifications. No one calling me. I refused to check my e-mail. I didn’t look at Twitter. I just sat there out in the real world and had uninterrupted thoughts for a few hours.
I was alarmed at how good I felt after just a few hours of peace and quiet.
What our phones are doing to us
I don’t approach this subject lightly. I have built my entire career and livelihood on online community building and social media. I even owe my writing career at least in part to social media.
I felt like I needed to keep notifications on and check in on my social media accounts every day so I could stay abreast with what’s going on, just from a career-building perspective.
But my disenchantment with these platforms has been growing. And it turns out I’m not alone.
There was a really good article published by The Guardian last week about how even some of the key creators of social media innovations, such as the like button and swipe-to-refresh, have grown alarmed at the addictiveness of phones and the effect they’re having on us.
People seem to be waking up to the immense power the tech giants wield, the murky ethics they operate by, and the lack of thought and foresight given to unintended consequences of our new social media-dominated existence.
As a writer, I worry that we’re eroding our collective ability to concentrate enough to read books. Let alone write them…
Practical tips for distraction-free living
After blissful my night unplugging, I’ve taken some seemingly drastic, but in fact totally manageable, steps to unplug. (I have an iPhone, so these suggestions are going to be tailored to the Apple platform, but I’m sure there are analogs for Android.)
- Turn off all but the most crucial notifications. No, Netflix, I don’t need to know some random show or movie has been released. No, Weather Channel, I don’t need to know about some storm affecting some other part of the country. In fact, no no no to pretty much everyone period. Here are the only notifications I allow on the lock screen:
- Text messages, Instagram/Snapchat messages, and phone calls: I still want people to be able to reach me, though not instantaneously (more on that in a sec).
- NY Times alerts: I thought long and hard about this one, but I still want to know about breaking news.
- ‘Hamilton’ lottery reminder: I WILL WIN THIS YET.
- Keep your phone (and laptops/iPads) on “Do Not Disturb.” This means that you will not be pinged or buzzed for alerts, text messages, or anything else. Your phone will be blissfully silent. You will not feel that nagging buzz in your pocket as you’re walking down the street, and, better yet, you’ll stop feeling a phantom buzzing in your pocket as you’re walking down the street too. All your messages will still be there when you choose to check your lock screen or open your phone.
- Add key phone numbers to your “Favorites” list and allow calls from them when you’re in “Do Not Disturb.” Like many people, I don’t have a landline, and I want to be reachable in case of emergency or if my niece and nephew want to FaceTime. I put my family and girlfriend on my Favorites list and set Do Not Disturb to let those calls through so they can still reach me if they need to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still on my phone for much of the day. I’m still very much in communication with people, texting, sending Snaps, checking Twitter, all the rest.
But here’s the major difference: now I choose when to engage. If I’m concentrating on something, I don’t have a buzz or ping or alert needlessly interrupting my thoughts. When I’m having drinks with a friend, I’m not getting distracted by the buzzing in my pocket and wondering who’s texting me.
Now: I finally have room to think. I broke the Pavlovian response of pings and distraction and curiosity. I can already feel my brain adapting to this new peacefulness.
You are what you concentrate on
I’m old enough to remember a world without the Internet, and I embarked on my adult life without social media and smartphones. I feel fortunate, in some ways, to remember what that felt like.
I wouldn’t go back to a pre-smartphone world for anything, but it’s worth applying the brakes from time to time and carving out some space for yourself.
Our brains are not cut out for the way our phones are demanding our attention. We’re giving up our ability to concentrate and succumbing to an endless string of hollow instant gratifications.
I shudder to think about the lost creative productivity I gave up by being instantly accessible and letting myself grow unable to concentrate.
It’s time to take our lives back. Start with your notifications.
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Art: Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) by Henri Rousseau