Jan. 16, 2024
I recently spent a week offline. The occasion was a retreat of sorts, wherein overscheduled, overwhelmed people repaired to comfortable accommodations in the woods to reset.
I expected to be anxious, to be thinking constantly about the unreceived, unacted-upon information still flowing into my dark devices. Instead, the disconnection was surprisingly easy. I was a dog walker with an empty leash, braced for the yank of an insistent beast and surprised, over and over, to look down and find there was nothing there.
Unlike the self-directed daylong digital detoxes I’d white-knuckled through in the past, lonely experiments throughout which I’d felt like I was missing crucial communications, this time I was in the company of 30 other people who’d also gone cold turkey.
Absent smartphones and laptops, we became reacquainted with vanishing skills such as eye contact and small talk. We were forced to remain present during conversational lulls, which created a kind of intimacy. The real world, in all its vividness, provided more than enough entertainment. I was grounded in the unfolding narrative of day-to-day living, one moment following the next. When I did think of my phone — unpredictable, chaotic with asynchronous communication — I thought of it with disdain, like a messy, energy-sapping friend I needed to cut out of my life.
How, I wondered, could I release the stranglehold tech seemed to have on me outside of the cultivated greenhouse of a retreat? It’s not realistic for most of us to fully disconnect for long stretches, never mind enlist our families, friends and colleagues to do so as well. (My colleague Kashmir Hill even tried switching to a flip phone, but it wasn’t sustainable.) We know the usual tips and tricks: no phones in the bedroom, delete social media apps, switch your phone screen to grayscale. Why doesn’t any of it seem to stick?
I asked writer Oliver Burkeman, the author of the time-management book “Four Thousand Weeks,” if he’d encountered any new strategies for rehabbing our relationship with tech. The title of his book refers to the average human life span, which invites the question: “How many of those weeks have I already wasted doomscrolling?”
Burkeman agreed that there was probably no new tactic that, taken in isolation, was going to free us from phone addiction. But if we make a philosophical change, the practical changes become more achievable.
Shift your perspective.
The key, Burkeman said, is to adjust the way we think about our own agency. His work challenges what he sees as the prevailing narrative about distraction and social media — the one that sees us “sitting there, rapturously concentrating” when, against our will, our attention is snatched away by the evil talons of an Instagram feed.
But that’s not what most people experience. In reality, he said, whatever you’re working on triggers an unpleasant emotion in you — perhaps boredom, or fear of not being able to complete the task at hand, or concern about not having enough time. You take refuge in your phone in order to escape those uncomfortable feelings.
Once there, it’s designed to keep your attention and suck up your day. But the thing to keep in mind, he said, is “the idea of distraction as starting inside us, and not simply being a case of evil Silicon Valley companies stealing away our focus.” That way, we’re in charge. When the uncomfortable emotions arise, we can recognize them, and we’re better equipped to resist.
Change your address.
The thing I miss the most about my week without tech is the feeling I had that real life is all there was. There wasn’t a parallel universe online where I had duties and chores and a persona to maintain. I only had to exist in one realm. Burkeman suggests, instead of attempting to eradicate social media, that we work on “switching our default setting” to real life. “Remind yourself that your real life is here in your physical surroundings and talking to people and doing things,” he said. “Make social media somewhere you go instead of the place you live.”
To reinforce the concept, put distance between yourself and the dings and pings: Keep your phone at least 10 feet from your workstation during the day, off your night stand at night, and turn off alerts and push notifications all the time, advised Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, an internal medicine physician at Harvard Medical School and the author of “The 5 Resets,” a new book on stress and resilience.
Celeste Headlee, a journalist and the author of the book “Do Nothing,” recently invested in a cuckoo clock. “Apps have been designed to steal our attention by encouraging us to lose track of the minutes that pass,” she said. The hourly cuckooing of her clock causes her to look up and become cognizant of how long she’s been lost in her devices. Similarly, when she needs to focus, she turns over a 30- or 60-minute hourglass. When she’s tempted to reach for her phone, the glass serves as a reminder that just a few minutes have passed since she began a task.
Burkeman cautions that when making any behavioral change, it’s likely to be uncomfortable at first, like building new muscles. But during our conversation we concluded that, for some people, what’s needed in order to really make a change is not to institute a rigid regimen, but to go a little easier on ourselves. If we lose an hour on social media, we can acknowledge it and move on. I’m drawn to this gentle means of attention management — I am, after all, the type to go on a woodland self-discovery retreat. Burkeman is drawn to a more disciplinarian approach, but admits that there’s something to a softer route. “I have such a sort of cringe reaction to people talking about self-compassion,” he said. “But you know what? That’s because it’s necessary and I need it. That’s what cringe reactions are, usually.”
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