A couple weeks ago I was trying to find a way to be more in the moment. My brain was always in another place. It was wondering if someone tagged me in an instagram post, or sent me a facebook message, or if a work email had come through that needs a response. But this constant distraction meant I wasn’t giving my full attention to my wife, my son, or my own thoughts. I wasn’t really listening to that fascinating podcast, or full immersing myself in conversation, or following the plot of a great movie because I always had a piece of my mind attached to my phone. There had to be a way to break the guilty feeling of not paying attention to that little device by my side.
It started with turning off notifications on almost every app on my phone. This felt like a crazy leap. I couldn’t believe that I was going to rid myself of knowing all the things immediately, but I was committed to giving this a try. Because we live in a world where communication matters, I kept text messaging and phone call notifications, for those times where you just need to be gotten a hold of in life.
It took a bit of time to lose the FOMO feeling and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was tough. There is a real feeling of loss when you stop getting notifications all day long. And the first time you check your email after an hour instead of getting pinged right when a message comes through, only to find that you missed something you normally would have responded to, you are immediately guilt-ridden. After a few anxiety provoking moments however, you start to realize the truth, there is nothing so important, requiring your immediate attention, that is sent by email or social media only. If someone really needs to get a hold of you, they’ll text or call. Even if the email says URGENT in the subject line, I guarantee you that people who truly believe it is urgent will try and reach you in another way.
With notifications turned off and feeling pretty good about regaining my focus, I found myself sitting on the train heading into the office, listening to a podcast and mindlessly scrolling through reddit. It took me almost five minutes to realize that the podcast had ended when it hit me. I have no idea what I just heard and I have no idea what I’ve been looking at for the last 20 minutes. It felt like I had been paying attention, but because multitasking is a myth, I was not really aware of either thing. The worst part, this split focus lead to getting almost zero enjoyment from the simultaneous activities. I realized that not getting notifications was great, but why do I even need to check all these things that I no longer get notifications about?
Smartphones provide an amazing benefit to our everyday lives. We have access to the knowledge of the world, our calendars, and all of our friends, family, and peers, but they are incredibly distracting. Our minds are always with them and our desire to check for a new notification, whether due to an actual vibration or a phantom one, keeps us out of the present moment. Instead of using them wisely for a single, focused task, we open multiple apps, switch back and forth, accomplishing what feels like a lot, but is really superficial.
I realized that the need to be doing something on my phone went beyond the notifications. My phone was a replacement for boredom and the results were disastrous. I’d open it up just because there was a constant feeling like I needed to be doing something. This urge had been going on for so long that I forgot how useful a little bit of singular focus was to my attitude. But, how do you stop yourself from opening all those apps that are just calling for your attention? Well for me, most of these apps need an internet connection to be useful. So data got turned off and eventually so did the need to open the app. Now, I still have data on my phone plan, if I need to call an Uber or send an important email while out and about I can. But it requires a few extra steps now and no amount of instagramming ever seems worth those extra few button clicks.
The hardest part of taking my self-enforced data hiatus is applying it at home where wifi abounds. I’m not trying to be an off the grid nomad so I do like being connected at times. Luckily, there are few tricks that help. By combining the simple step of putting my phone somewhere a little out of reach and keeping notifications turned off there is a little more balance in the household.
When the time comes where wifi is everywhere, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make the leap to keeping my wifi turned off as well, but for now, having no data or notifications while out in the world and no notifications at home has given back a sense of awareness of the world around me. I pay more attention to things I’m listening to or reading because I’m not also trying to pay attention to things popping up on my phone or endless memes. While surrounded by people I care about, I find myself listening more intently and getting wrapped up in the discussions, not feeling an urge to go and check my phone. There are still days where a few mindless hours is called for, but it’s now a conscious decision instead of a reaction to a few minutes of boredom.
And the feeling is wonderful!