When was the last time you concentrated on something – really, deeply, fully concentrated, without feeling the magnetic pull of your phone to check anything from your Instagram likes to the weather for your walk home? Hmmm. Thought so. We live in an age of scattered attention, when it sometimes feels like we’ve lost the ability to focus on anything for more than five minutes at a time.
Certainly, that’s how I was feeling towards the end of last year. Despite my best intentions at the start of that year, by the time the darker months rolled around, I found myself once again rolling over each morning, turning off the alarm on my phone – and heading straight to Instagram, before even putting on my specs (kinda necessary for reading the screen, ironically), or the kettle.
Now, as I’ve said before, I happen to love Instagram. It lets me check in with family and friends who I don’t often see in person – and has even found me new, real-world friends through shared interests, aesthetics and an online conversation that became a real, face-to-face relationship.
I knew I wasn’t properly ‘addicted’ because whenever I go on holiday, I make a pledge (and stick to it) that I won’t look at any social media whatsoever. And I find that relatively easy (having moved the apps off the home screen of my phone, first). But I didn’t need the sight of the growing pile of interesting books and magazines by my bed – the legacy of how I used enjoyably to spend my downtime – to remind me that there’s more to life than pretty pictures, heart symbols and hashtags. After a few mornings of waking up at 6.10, then realising before I knew it that it was 8.10 and I’d done NOTHING but scroll and comment and scroll again, it became clear that something had to be done.
And the solution has been so, so simple.
I decided to try an app I’d heard about called Offtime*. Basically, it’s like a digital ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your phone. You set your desired ‘off-time’ – anything from a minute to a full 24-hour stretch. If you pick up your phone, it gives you a warning: ‘Do not give up!’ Then a more urgent one: ‘You have five seconds to go back to your Offtime, and disconnect. You can do it!’ You can also go one stage further and set the app to block calls and notifications till you’ve finished, if you choose – and if you upgrade to the not-incredibly-expensive Pro version, as I did, you can create different ‘blocking’ profiles to control the calls from your phonebook that you might want or need to take, while you’re in Offtime. So: husband gets this Above Top Secret access, able to contact me at all times – and ditto sort-of-adopted daughter, who may sometimes need an urgent helping hand with something. Everyone else? Sorry, guys…
From the first time I used this app, what I found completely flipping miraculous – even though I don’t really think of ‘obedient’ as one of my natural characteristics – was the fact that I didn’t even THINK about picking up my phone while (Offtime) was on. Psychologically, it was as if I’d put some kind of force-field round it. And another miracle happened: by carving out an hour in bed in the morning free from my screen, and a similar amount of time at night, that guilt-inducing pile of out-of-date magazines (who needs a vichysoisse recipe or a feature on arranging tulips in December?) dwindled to nothing but the latest, freshly-minted-and-printed, right-up-to-the-minute editions. And once that pile had shrunk to insignificance, I began once again to power through novels and biographies. Not just on holiday (as has been my wont for the past few years), but on a hugely pleasurable nightly basis.
I realised quite early on, though, how often (particularly in the morning) I reach for my phone to add things to my To Do list (Wunderlist, enduringly, which you can read about here.) So rather than rely on my memory, instead I now keep a small notebook and a pen by the bed. (Oh, how very analogue! But also, how very satisfying it is to write on actual paper! And I haven’t gone completely retro; it’s a Uniball, not a QUILL.)
Actually, the jury’s out, among psychologists, as to whether phones really are destroying our attention span. But there’s no question that whenever a phone’s on, it’s effectively silently calling our name. Neuropsychologist and professor of clinical neuropsychology Margriet Sitskoorn, author of Train Your CEO Brain: And Become Your Best Self, notes: ‘Most of us don’t even realise we are constantly responding to stimuli. We think we’re making our own decisions, like deciding to look at our phones 200 times a day. But the moment the device beeps, lights up or vibrates, your attention is on it even before you have made the decision to focus your attention on it… We also know from research that a lot of people are already so triggered by that phone that they even look at it when it’s not doing anything. Only when you realise that and admit it to yourself, can you do something about it.’
Since I got into the habit of using (Offtime) morning and evening, I’ve begun to use it whenever I need to focus on a project, too. Half an hour here, an hour there – and again, the minute my phone’s in that mode, I seem to be able to ignore it. I can concentrate – truly, deeply concentrate – on the task in hand, sailing through my To Do list and hitting deadlines almost effortlessly.
You’re probably thinking, at this point: ‘WHY DOESN’T SHE JUST SWITCH HER PHONE OFF?’ But there are several responses to that – the first of which being that it’s a faff to turn it back on again and wait for everything to load. The second is: if my phone was completely switched off, I wouldn’t be able to take potentially urgent calls from those two most important people in my life. Thirdly, and I know this might sound a bit tragic, but I really, honestly, truly like the feeling of achievement of this particular app telling me – with a smiley face – that I managed not to look at my phone for an hour, or 25 minutes, or however long I set (Offtime) for. And it sure beats the sad-face icon if for whatever reason I fail to reach my disconnect target.
So my advice, if you’re finding it hard to stay focused, is to (Offtime) off your phone – and turn on life…
* No, I haven’t been paid to write this! And never will do that, either. Unlike some…!