the big breakup – my misadventures with smartphone slavery

Recently, I’ve felt really run down, disengaged, burnt out.

I misdiagnosed it a couple of times before realizing what was the biggest cause of my issues.

First, I thought it was the weather. I always take winter pretty hard, and it’s not generally until mid-April (right around now) that I start to feel like a human being again. Someone who looks forward to…anything.

Then, I thought it was a creativity thing – I finished the second draft of my novel a few weeks ago and sent it out to early readers for feedback. I often get the sense of “well what the hell do I do with my life now after finishing a creative project, much like I get after reading a book that changed me. (Especially the first time I read Tigana or The Fionavar Tapestry – I took weeks to recover from those books and emotionally feel like I could move on to anything else.) It would make sense – writing a book was the longest project I’ve ever undertaken at 18 months of constant working on it or thinking about it.

But I realized it couldn’t be a creativity burnout issue, because while I was in the editing process, I had a character start screaming in my head about all the things she wants me to write about her, and I got a couple of ideas for short stories as well. They say you need to do something every day over a good chunk of time to form a habit. I hadn’t really thought this far, but by the time I was deep into draft edits, I’d formed a habit of writing, and of thinking like a writer. It stopped being something I wanted to do and it has become, through the slow magic of repetition and the subconscious, just something I do.

So I fell back on the old standby – work. It must be work that’s causing this horrible, hopeless, hollowed-out feeling. It’s true – to an extent. Work is a balancing act, just like it is for anyone. For me, I balance the fact that I hate my commute and don’t really enjoy the actual job I’m doing against the fact that I like the company I work for and the people I work with, and I know it’s a place that has room for me to grow and wants me to find my way into a job I enjoy doing. The thing I hate most is the time it takes out of nearly every single day of my life. I realize that everyone who works full time and doesn’t live for their job faces this. So I’ll admit it’s definitely a part of the burnout I’m feeling.

But what it turned out to be, in the end, is my phone.

My phone has a blinky light. I can set the color for specific app notifications. It tells me that someone wants my attention, or has validated something I’ve said with their agreement or a “like.” Recently, I’ve found myself checking my phone constantly, even when the light isn’t blinking, just in case. (I removed the facebook app because it sucks, so I use the mobile website, which doesn’t give notifications, so it’s on me to go check.)

I get a lot of email. Most of it I don’t read, but the light blinks on, and while I’m in there I may as well check every other app – twitter, instagram, the facebook mobile site, tumblr – to see if anything is new, if anything has happened. It got to the point where I’d check facebook at 7:30 in the morning and get annoyed – actually annoyed – at my friends for not posting enough to entertain me, even though most of them are probably just waking up around then.

So I decided to break up with my notifications. On Wednesday of this past week, I shut off notifications for all apps except twitter and instagram, since I rarely get notifications on those so it’s not as bad. But I turned off the blinking light for every single email that comes in – around 15 a day – and I also took the time to go into my email filtering settings and impose tighter strictures on what could stay in my inbox, so I don’t see twelve emails a day from people trying to sell me shit.

It’s funny – I’ve never been a highly social person. I’ve always been the one to say no when people want to hang out, because I’m much happier entertaining myself in my own bubble of personal space than I’d ever be faced with the prospect of having to worry about others having a good time. I like my shell – I’m not afraid of the outside world, I just generally don’t want to be bothered with it, and I can get very prickly and short-tempered when I lose my me-time for long periods. (Badger is one of my totem animal guides, for obvious reasons.) So I don’t really know why this would happen, but right after I shut off the email notifications – and this is how I know I was on the right track to stop them – I saw the light not blinking and freaked. out. I thought – oh my god, no one is emailing me. I’m not liked, I’m not popular, no one wants to talk to me, I’ll be alone forever, I’m not interesting, oh god I suck at life, why do I even bother.

Yes. This happened.

I stopped, I observed myself having those thoughts, feeling those feelings, and realized “holy shit, girl. you are a slave to that thing.” Especially since in every 7 emails that makes it to my inbox, only one is from someone I actually know, so I was basing my feeling of personal self-worth on whether or not ten companies wanted to sell me something.

That realization, plus the cessation of the constantly-blinking notification light, have driven me away from the phone in a very healthy way. Now, unless someone is actually calling me, I check the phone maybe three times a day instead of my previous ten – twelve – probably more.

I remembered not to give a shit what the internet thinks of me, because I have a wonderful family and a small-but-solid group of real friends who love me, and I don’t need the entire internet to be my friend. I’ve felt so much more relaxed over the past few days, making a conscious effort to not take the phone with me whenever I change rooms in the house, to not feel like I need to be on call at all times for whoever might need a tiny bit of my attention. Those tiny bits add up, and they’re sort of like a fragmented hard drive. Remember back in like Windows 95 when you had to run a defrag every so often and you’d look at the fragmentation color bar and be like, jesus, what a confused mess! That’s what your brain starts to look like when you’re a slave to phone notifications. I want none of that.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I’d highly recommend shutting off your notifications. Even if it’s just temporary – even if you just try it as an experiment. It’s nice to unplug, to decide to live life on your own terms, to be available when you make yourself available and not to be on call for a world in which you’re generally just a name on a mailing list.

It’s done a lot of good for me.

One response to “the big breakup – my misadventures with smartphone slavery”

  1. Drew Avatar

    I have strong immunity to tech obsession – except in one area: my poetry blog.
    I recognize in myself many symptoms of what you describe here…oh, the shame.

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