We human beings are profoundly shaped by, and drawn out from ourselves, by the things that are around us. And the smartphones that most of us carry are purposefully designed with this in mind.
It’s no accident that we find ourselves checking and re-checking email, messages and social media, before we even know quite why. We’re drawn in by the promise of a brief, welcome surge of expectation and hope. This is going to be the moment when we’ll find out that everything is OK, or that we’re wanted, or that we’re loved. This is the moment that we’ll be saved from our anxiety.
But shortly afterwards, we feel a familiar hollowness and emptiness. The hit was but for a moment. Our devices call to us, wink at us, and buzz us with the promise. And we willingly succumb, knowing it will not satisfy us but feeling unsure about whether we can do anything about it.
We have, as Seth Godin writes, a Pavlov in our pocket. An ‘optimised, tested and polished call-and-response machine’, that works every time. And, because we’re so bewitched by its presence, will-power alone is unlikely to help us.
If we want to live lives that aren’t so directed by the insistent call and the instant dopamine hit, we have to find ways that our devices can serve us rather than having us, unwittingly, serve them. Specifically, we have to take steps to have our devices support us in what’s life-giving and in what actually matters to us rather than in what distracts us and numbs us.
To help us do this, we could consider putting the features that draw us in to the cycle far out of reach.
After finding myself increasingly unwilling to tolerate the effects of all this, I am experimenting with the steps listed below. I have found each of them to be liberating, not least in supporting me in exercising much more conscious choice about how this powerful technology affects me. I’m less distracted. I feel less needy.
And – I’m still reachable. I still respond to emails. I am still asked to do work for people. And I still have friends.
On my phone
- Turning off all phone notifications (buzzes, beeps, lock-screen messages) apart from those that come from real human beings who are trying to contact me directly. WhatsApp, messenger, phone and text notifications are on. Newsfeed updates, tweets, and anything generated by a machine are off.
- Removing all unnecessary social media apps. If I really want to check something, I’ll wait until I’m in front of my laptop.
- Disabling my phone’s email applications, and asking people who need to contact me urgently to use WhatsApp or a text message.
- Creating a tools-only homescreen, which has the eight apps I use for quick and important tasks, and launching all other apps by typing their names from the phone’s search function. This adds an extra layer of conscious choice making before I get access to an app.
- Disabling fingerprint access to my phone and using a long password so that access to my phone as a whole is a more deliberate act than before.
- Charging my phone outside of my bedroom, so that I am not drawn to check it when it’s time to sleep, or to assuage my anxiety if I wake in the middle of the night.
On my laptop
- Checking my email and social media accounts only on my laptop, which means making deliberate decisions about when and where rather than reacting in the moment.
- Using an inbox batching system (BatchedInbox) which delivers email to me only at three specific times of day rather than the moment it is sent, and which completely takes away any potential hit from repeatedly checking for new mail.
- Disabling my Facebook news feed using the Chrome browser extension News Feed Eradicator, which allows me to check messages and post updates without getting drawn in. I can still check for updates from specific people and pages when I choose, by searching for them by name or by allowing notifications from their updates.
- Limiting access to the sites that hypnotise me, using the StayFocusd Chrome extension. This allows me to restrict access to websites (such as news and social media specifically) to certain times of day only, to constrain my total time on them to 10 minutes each day, and to completely block others that don’t add richness and depth to my life.
I know that not all of these will suit everyone’s life, responsibilities and commitments. But I encourage you to try some of them out, particularly those that seem most doable for you, and let me know how you get on.