For longer than a decade I’ve worked in “knowledge work” positions where my work was done largely on a computer. In other words, for more than a decade I’ve been able to work from any internet-connected device.
Thankfully, I haven’t had a smartphone for a decade. I got my first smartphone in 2013 (I think).
That means that for the last ~7 years I’ve been reachable, 24-7, at least in theory.
The Need to Disconnect
My smartphone started as an exciting new way to stay connected, but quickly became a way I could always be disturbed.
For some time I considered it something of a badge of honor that I returned emails and texts nearly instantaneously. Eventually, like most of the rest of you, I realized that this constant connectivity was not good for my general wellbeing.
It didn’t happen immediately, but eventually I started looking for strategies to fight back.
Please, Do Not Disturb
The thing is, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to take care of myself.
It’s no one else’s responsibility to make sure that emails arrive when I want to receive them or that Slack DMs show up at a time when I don’t mind receiving them. The burden of configuring my digital live to serve my needs is on me.
Toward that end, I have taken several different steps to maintain a healthy(ish) relationship with my smartphone. Three of the most important steps I’ve taken are:
- Scheduled automatic use of Do Not Disturb mode.
- Complete short-term removal of the most disturbing apps several times per year.
- Blocking of most notifications.
Built-In Do-Not-Disturb Features
I have an Android phone and the OS has some built-in features designed to make disconnecting automatic. My phone automatically goes into Do Not Disturb mode at two different times:
- Mon-Fri, from 5-8 PM
- Mon-Sun, from 10 PM – 8 AM
The first break, from 5-8 every night of the week is my “Family Time” Do Not Disturb schedule. During this time, I keep my phone on me, but I don’t receive any notifications and I generally avoid checking email or Slack.
The second break, from 10 PM to 8 AM every day, helps ensure that notifications don’t wake me up.
Those who I work with closely know that if they need to reach me urgently they’ll have to actually text or call. Texts and calls do get past the Do Not Disturb settings, it’s just app notifications that are suppressed.
Completely Disconnect Several Times per Year
A couple of times a year I take a day or two or five off of work, and during that time I actually uninstall Slack and remove my work email from my phone. That might seem pretty drastic, but it has never yet produced a true problem. Turns out I’m less irreplaceable than I might think. 😉
If I’m on vacation you can be sure that Slack will be entirely uninstalled. And from time to time, when I can sense that my mind needs a break, I’ll take a long weekend and remove Slack and email even for just a day or two.
Again, the folks I work with closely know what’s up and know that in a true emergency I can always be reached with an actual call.
Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You
Android also has a built in system for blocking notifications right at the OS level, and I make healthy use of it. If I don’t actually need a given app to send me notifications you can be sure I’ve blocked it’s ability to send me notifications.
There’s a great book by Cal Newport that I read over a year ago called Digital Minimalism. If the ideas in this post are connecting with you, I recommend you give it a read.
The basic premise of the book is that the economics that have pushed smartphones into our hands are incentivized to keep us looking at those phones for as long as possible. And, quite frankly, our brains are no match for the scientists and engineers who have found ways to hijack our mental reward systems to keep us swiping and tapping much longer than we ever intended.
Newport’s suggestion is that we should look at our use of smartphones critically and intentionally limit their use. The book isn’t anti-technology, it’s actually pro-technology, but only when technology is used thoughtfully and carefully to make our lives better.
Where we get into trouble is when technology is used mindlessly or carelessly. When that happens all the wiring in our brains is hijacked by carefully-designed apps and interfaces that want to keep us glued to the pixels literally 24-7.
Taking Back Control
The way I manage notifications on my phone is just one of several strategies I use to try and limit the use of technology in my life.
I’m no technophobe. I make my living working for a web hosting company. However, I recognize that if I’m going to make the most of technology I have to be selective in how I use it. I have to use it in ways that make me smarter, more efficient, and more effective. And at the same time, I have to build-in times when my phone will go silent so that I can be present, irl.