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Break-ups are painful, unsettling, confusing – but often also necessary. Have you ever reached that stage where things are no longer quite right; when you know the longer you delay the end, the worse the recovery will be? Well, that’s how I feel about my phone. My metal companion is no doubt useful, but something about my relationship with it is starting to feel a bit… off.
I’m not alone. Adults in the UK check their phone an average of 33 times a day, racking up the equivalent of one month’s screen time every year. Personally, I feel that I’ve reached a tipping point. Any time I’m having difficulty at work I pick up my phone for distraction, then surface some 40 minutes later, no closer to finishing the task at hand. Though I could probably commute in my sleep, I obsessively check and refresh Citymapper every morning. I reply to WhatsApps within minutes of waking up, I think in Instagram captions before I’ve even taken a photograph, and can easily sit through dinner with my family while simultaneously scrolling eBay for vintage chairs.
So I’ve decided to take action. The American science journalist Catherine Price recently released a book entitled How To Break Up With Your Phone, which I’m trying out after seeing it splashed across social media (don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me). The first half of the handbook is intended to scare readers into action – with facts on how our devices have been engineered to addict us – before the second half lays out a 30-day plan for setting yourself free.
To begin, I’m trying to tune into my motivations for using a smartphone throughout the day. Am I picking it up out of boredom, anxiety, loneliness? Price reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with engaging in mindless distraction when you want to zone out. But for me, that state has become something of a default.
The next step is to install an app to monitor the time I’m spending connected (Moment is good for iPhone, Offtime for Android). On average I spend two hours a day on my phone, which I find horrifying (if I did anything for two hours a day – started to play guitar, learned French, took up karate – I’d surely become really, really good?). But according to Offtime’s data, this figure technically puts me behind 75% of other smartphone users. What’s more concerning is my number of sessions – 122 per day, more than 80% of people around the world. Essentially, I’m constantly checking in and out of my phone like a toddler with the attention span of a goldfish. Towards the end of the week I delete all social media apps. I hold the ‘x’ down on Instagram as it jiggles and asks if I’m sure I want this. I am.
It’s hard to quit social media cold turkey, though. I may have removed the mobile apps, but end up logging onto the desktop versions, which is permissible according to Price’s guide as long as I ask myself why. This process of questioning is useful for someone like me, who engages with social for work (then often ends up getting sucked in beyond the call of duty). Has anyone actually been on the desktop version of Instagram? It’s clunky, a bit like operating Windows 98 and dial-up internet. Scrolling on my laptop makes the whole app feel even more voyeuristic than it usually does. I sign out.
This part of the break-up, according to Price, is about creating speed bumps that break down learned behaviour. It involves deleting push notifications, downloading an app-blocker for working hours and establishing ‘no-phone zones’ at home. The change that I find most useful is leaving my phone outside of my bedroom at night, which has an almost instant effect on the quality of my sleep. Rather than rousing to a shrill squeak, I wake up to Radio 4 and start the day calmer.
This week is all about ‘reclaiming your brain’, undoing some of the negative effects that smartphones have on our attention span, memory and creativity. It’s to do with practising attention-building activities – like reading or meditation – and taking moments to pause when you’d usually reach for distraction instead. I find the urge to reach for my phone is strongest when I’m on public transport. But by opening a book to read for the entirety of my journey instead, I feel cleared of the usual fog that clouds me when I get off at the other side.
This pursuit of a zen state of mind is meant to prepare me for a 24-hour separation this weekend. My break coincides with a hangover, which makes things tricky as my inclination is to reach for WhatsApp and debrief the night before (one of my friends messages my boyfriend to ask if my phone has been stolen). I push through: I cook breakfast, pick up the papers, and go for a walk without stressing about getting a little lost. I also just allow myself to get bored, to let my mind wander. Throughout the day I’m actively more engaged in conversation than I usually would be. When I turn my phone back on, I find I haven’t missed anything anyway.
An unwanted side-effect of my break-up is that I am becoming incredibly irritating. Like a former smoker who now can’t so much as look at a cigarette, I freely offer advice to friends on ways they can cut down their screen time, regardless of whether they want it or not. Because karma’s a bitch, in the twilight hour of my break-up I slip up. What I should be doing in Price’s final stage is making temporary changes more permanent by cleaning up other elements of digital life (like email) and re-engaging with social media in a more mindful way. But on day three I clock up a full FOUR HOURS on my phone – a bit like going back to sleep with an ex when you’re on your way to getting over them.
What is interesting, though, is that I’m conscious of the destructive nature of what I’m doing, and a weird part of me is almost relishing it, as though I’m testing the boundaries of my newfound independence. Before this process I could have clocked up two hours without thinking, but I’m now fully aware (and fully guilty about) this chunk of time that I’ve lost.
Which means I bounce back. By the end of Price’s plan, while I still have the tendency to fall down the rabbit hole, I am thinking more carefully about my phone, having transitioned from viewing it as a slavish keeper to a useful tool. I’m down to using it for around one hour per day, a lot of which is time that’s either useful or genuinely enjoyable – and when it’s mindless, I know it. I can’t say that I’m free of the traps of my smartphone, but after 30 days I do feel clearer, more focused – and even a little more free.