Have you ever found yourself with your phone in your hand without remembering how it got there?
Have you ever stopped what you were doing and picked up your phone because your lizard brain craved Instagram so suddenly the decision wasn’t even conscious? One minute you’re writing an email, and the next your fingers are tapping the access code into your phone while on your computer screen the cursor blinks on a half-finished sentence.
It’s not easy to admit all of this, but I suspect I’m not the only one with that kind of experience. I think most of us know on some level that our phones have more power over us than we’d like them to have; for me it’s those moments when I suddenly find myself scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, like I’ve blacked out for a second. And that happens several times a day!
I don’t want to live my life this way, and in early March, I bought How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price.
The book is split into two parts: part 1, the ‘wake-up’, is an info-dump designed to put the fear of technology in you. It explains what phones do to our brains, especially our attention spans, ability to multitask, and our mental health, including stress levels and sleep hygiene. Spoiler alert: it’s not good news.
Part 2, the ‘break-up’, is a 30-day programme designed to slowly wean you off your phone and, in week 4, reintroduce healthier habits. It encourages you to take a look at your phone use, introduces mindfulness habits, and, yes, asks you to delete your social media apps.
Tracking your phone use via an app (in my case, Moment) was an interesting experiment. According to Catherine Price, who quotes Moment itself, the average user spends about 4 hours a day on their phone. Think about that: FOUR of your waking hours. Of course not all of this is wasted (think maps, calculator, meditation apps, calendar apps, writing notes, chatting to lovely people), but let’s be honest: it’s so easy to get sucked into spending twenty minutes on Twitter when all you wanted to do is turn off your alarm.
My favourite part of the programme, however, has got to be the 24hr blackout, or ‘trial separation’. Yes, it’s what it sounds like: 24 hours without your phone. Without screens in general. No internet. No chatting. No Google Maps. Live like it’s 1991.
I did my 24hrs on Saturday last Easter weekend, which I’d decided to spend alone. I had a headache and no real capacity for being productive, so I just wandered the streets in an area that I know relatively well, given I hadn’t prepared for this at all and not looked up any maps. I’m not going to say this day changed my life (I actually found it quite concerning how much I twitched for my phone every time I waited for the bus or train. Habits, man), but somewhere in the early afternoon, a kind of calm settled on me. I got lost on my way to the bookshop, which hasn’t happened in forever. In the queue to the loos at the British Museum (it’s a very long queue) I suddenly got assaulted by very random unpleasant memories that seemed to have sensed I was without the protection of Instagram. But I dealt with them.
In the later afternoon, I settled in a café to read and write, and watch. Everybody was on their phone, hunched over their coffee, scrolling. Some people sat close enough that they could have belonged to each other, but it was hard to tell given that they didn’t interact with one another. The only ones in my immediate vicinity not on their phones were a group of well-off middle-aged women, who’d bought several slices of cake and cut them into four pieces each to share. They were having a blast. The whole picture reminded me how, as someone who likes writing, it’s so easy to get sucked into platforms like Instagram and Pinterest for ‘inspiration’, when the real inspiration (i.e. life) is often in front of us.
I’m done with my 30 days now. I don’t think my life has changed, really. Not dramatically. But I remember that day offline and how much time there was in it, how much capacity for attention I had. In the chapter on social media, Price talks about attention. ‘[O]ur attention is the most valuable thing we have,’ she says. ‘We only experience what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to.’
That quote has stuck with me. My phone background now says, ‘What do you want to pay attention to?’ (a tip from the book) Never stop asking this question. If your attention is the most important thing you have, do you want to spend it on your phone right now? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes, the question makes me put my phone back in my pocket, so I can focus my attention where I want it to be.
We’ve come to accept that there’s an app for everything, including our mental and physical wellbeing. It feels disorienting to put away all our apps in search for a solution when we’ve learned to see them as a lifeline, something to hold on to. It wouldn’t say this book has taught me anything I didn’t know already, but in the absence of picking up my phone, it was something else to hold on to. I enjoyed my morning ritual of reading the day’s challenge and have since replaced it with meditation. I still have a long way to go in how I use my phone, but this book has been a nudge in the right direction.