London is a cold city if you’re in it alone. When I moved to Kensington four years ago I went at the whole ‘meeting people’ thing hard. I used my phone for Meetup and a variety of dating apps to just get a foot in the door meeting other humans that didn’t require them being drunk before talking to a stranger.
As my friend circle grew so did the number of ‘chats’ and ‘group chats’ on my phone, so did the events list on Facebook and my calendar. While I loved experiencing the best social life I’ve ever had, it was impossible to focus on anything when my phone kept buzzing every few minutes with notifications. Conversations were carried out over multiple apps, all my ideas and to do lists were sprinkled like confetti across even more apps, and I spent more time looking for things than getting them done.
Work was no better, with a daily onslaught of email, trello and slack notifications, and, despite my protests, my manager ‘strongly recommended’ that I should also receive work notifications on my personal phone so I could respond to emails out of hours (the actual f***k?).
My inbox was overflowing, my to-do list was overflowing, my calendar was overflowing and I was getting home most nights at 2AM and getting up again at 7 to go to work. I was running on fumes and when you start classing 7 hours of sleep as a lie-in it’s a pretty clear sign you need to slow down.
I turned to my phone to organise my life for me, hoping it would make things simpler, but even more apps nudging me constantly, trying their best to keep me organised made the problem worse. It got to the stage (from a combination of things) where I had information overload. It is an actual physical thing – at least it was for me (and you can find links to a bunch of articles at the bottom of this post that talk about it). My sight got blurry. I started getting migraines. I couldn’t concentrate on anything – any information was really difficult to process – people would talk to me and I’d stare at them blankly and I’d have to re-read things several times before they made sense. I genuinely thought I was starting to lose the plot. I felt utterly spaced out – even standing on the tube to work with my brain trying to process noise, smell, space, colour, movement, sound… it overwhelmed me so much that I started getting panic attacks, and my head was spinning so much I almost passed out on the tube several times.
Just writing this down makes me feel more than slightly embarrassed – I mean, how pathetically acopic can you get, right? This is basic every-day stuff, how was I so unable to cope?
The best way I saw this described (unfortunately I can’t remember by whom) is that our computers struggle when we are one or two updates behind, but we are not computers and we are trying to run the latest OS on a 40,000 year old brain. For all the intelligence we credit ourselves with, our brains are not all that different to those of our ancestors who considered an axe the height of sophistication. This culture where it is expected – no, demanded of you, that you are connected and accessible 24/7 and bombarded with constant distractions is just not something we are built to cope with, and in the long-term is really unhealthy.
I went through my phone and deleted all but one of my messaging apps. I actually had backlash from some people for doing this. A year later, one person is still pissed off with me because I don’t use Whatsapp. For me, this also begs the question: If someone holds a grudge for something so insignificant, are they really someone I want to have in my life? Decluttering doesn’t just apply to ‘stuff’.
I ignored my manager and disconnected everything work-related from my phone and left work at work. When I’m home, I’m home. Emergencies are rarely emergencies. If one of my parents is sick, that’s an emergency. Someone needing istock images is not my problem at 11:30pm on Saturday night. I kept my phone in my bag at work so my personal life couldn’t distract me. I turned off slack notifications, checked my emails 3x a day and listened to white noise to try and drown out the sound of office hubbub. I scaled down a hectic social life in favour more alone-time.
I eventually left London.
I regularly leave my phone behind and go for walks in green spaces because I now recognise how important it is to disconnect and take time to be slow.
The Chap and I went to Scotland a few weeks ago, and I had no phone signal the entire week so it lived in the glovebox for 90% of the time. It was blissful. I learned to read a map. Normally I would be taking photos of everything – as many as 200 a day— seeing the world through my iphone screen or camera viewfinder. I took 9 photos the entire holiday, and I came away feeling like I had actually been somewhere and not watched my life through a screen like it was a Netflix documentary.
When I came home and the notifications started up again I removed myself from or silenced all group chats, deleted more apps, disabled notifications, unsubscribed from marketing emails using unroll.me which I can’t praise enough, and I discovered a setting within my phone that would prevent me from getting calls from anyone not in my contacts, so I no longer receive telemarketing calls several times a day .
It’s an amazing and surprisingly challenging thing – to become (and remain) defiant in the face of work and peer pressure to be contactable at all times, and refusing to allow technology to hold you to ransom.