I’ve always rather prided myself that I wasn’t one of those people who habitually – or even occasionally – lose their phone. (If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, chances are you know one of those.) But a few days ago, distracted after a work event, I left my phone in an office that was then locked up for the night. Unfortunately, this was in Manchester – and I was flying to Dublin next morning. There was nothing for it: my phone and I had to be parted, at least temporarily.
It took a lot of deep, rhythmic breathing to accept that this wasn’t, actually, the end of the world as I know it – because like most of us, I have become wedded to my phone. (I blame Steve Jobs, but there you go.) But over the coming hours, I realised: I’m an addict. Utterly dependent. And it ain’t healthy.
‘Oh, I’ll just call Craig [husband] and explain why he can’t get hold of me.’ Only of course, I couldn’t. (Though I could at least remember his phone number, unlike 99.9% of those in my address book.) Beyond that, I couldn’t Instagram, or Facebook, or even take a photo. I couldn’t add to my Ocado order. I had to meditate – WITHOUT ANDY PUDDICOMBE’S SOOTHING TONES COMING FROM MY HEADSPACE APP. And most guttingly of all, I wasn’t notching up any steps, because my Health App was sitting sedentarily in someone’s office drawer, on my iPhone. Aaaargh, aaaargh, double-aaargh!
And then I realised: something’s got to be done about this. When my beloved stepgranddaughter Saba went off to Manchester University a few years back, she wrote a poem called ‘Look Up’, which was all about living life rather than always looking at a screen. And that, folks, is what we all have to start doing. Remember how people used to say: ‘Nobody ever went to their grave wishing they’d spent more time in the office.’ Well, trust me: nobody’s going to go to their grave wishing they’d spent more time looking at fluffy cat pictures on Instagram, or morphing into a lion on Snapchat, or having a poke at Katie Holmes on Twitter. Well, maybe they’ll wish they’d spent more time having a poke at Katie Holmes on Twitter, but aside from that I’m convinced that before long, we’re all going to realise how we’re frittering our lives away in 140 characters or less. Social media (never mind e-mail) is a rabbit hole. You check in with Instagram – and 45 minutes and one pair of Mahabis slippers later, you’re still down there…
So when I got my phone back a couple of days later, the first thing I did was download an app which tells me when I’ve reached a self-imposed limit of time each day on my phone. Only the problem with this app, Offtime, is that having told it I only wanted to spend an hour a day on the phone, it kept beeping really annoyingly and telling me I’d gone over that limit (because I was on the road and using my phone to check e-mails). So I deleted THAT, PDQ. Much better than that, I found, was an app called Moment, another ‘screen time tracker’ which analyses your phone use habits (and can track the family’s phone habits in a somewhat Big Brother – or more likely, Big Mother – sort of way.)
But I decided: an App is part of the problem. It magnetises me back to the very gadget I’m trying to cut down on using! So here’s what I’ve found has worked.
Switching my phone off at 8 p.m. I know I could always switch it on again – but it gives me pause. If it’s an emergency, friends and family still have a landline number (at least when I’m at home). The best advice is to leave a phone outside the bedroom altogether and get a good old-fashioned alarm clock. I’m not quite there yet, but I can see its appeal.
Setting a timer when I open any social media app. I just go to the clock on my phone and decide how long I’ll allow myself before going into an app. That timer goes after, say, five minutes: it doesn’t actively stop me from continuing, but again, it makes me think: ‘Is this the best use of my time?’ Nine times out of ten, I’m outta there. (And I just finished The Essex Serpent, as a result.)
I’m learning: just because a phone isn’t tracking it, that doesn’t mean that walk I just took isn’t helping me become healthier. When I found myself tempted to take a taxi rather than walk while parted from my phone in Dublin – because it wasn’t going to count towards my step tally, was it? – then clearly, something was wrong with the picture. So: I know it’s 7,000 steps to the end of the pier and back, from my house, because I’ve already measured it – and it’s 7,000 steps whether or not I have my phone in my pocket. So: yes, I’m still aiming for 10,000 steps a day – but it’s myself I’m doing this for, not my iPhone.
I’ve turned off notifications. (Except the ones from my bank!) Anything that draws attention to your phone is likely to entice you back into the rabbit hole.
I’m spending more time in nature. Just walking on the beach, or in the woods, or – this upcoming weekend – with a visit to a beautiful National Trust deer park, which has me excited. There is something about a big sky, a horizon or a crashing wave that reconnects us with the earth – and makes us realise there is much, much more to life than the small, insistent, albeit pretty wondrous gadget in our pockets.
And just to reinforce it all, as I walk around not staring at my screen, I’ve taken to counting how many people I pass, in a row, who are staring at theirs. On London’s Strand, the other day, I was pretty horrified to realised I’d passed 23 screen addicts before I got to someone who was – as Saba might put it – looking up at the blue, blue sky.
Which are you…?