What Happened When I Turned Off The Notifications On My Phone...
The Debrief: It wasn't at all what I was expecting...
For this piece, I agreed to turn the notifications on my phone off for three days. Immediately, I made all sorts of plans to be more productive, convinced that the moment I turned my notifications off my brain would immediately become clearer, a sense of calm would descend over me and I’d basically be a new woman. ‘Plus’, I thought to myself, ‘maybe I’ll actually be able to write an entire sentence without drifting off to…’
Then a message from my best friend popped up on my phone and I promptly forgot what I was daydreaming about.
My second thought (after replying to aforementioned message…and scanning Instagram) was: ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’
It turns out I’m not alone in this panic. Spanish researchers tried to recruit 30 people for an experiment where they would all turn off their phone notifications for a week. The slight snag? They literally couldn’t find 30 people willing to do take part.
When I spoke to integrative psychotherapist and life coach, Hilda Burke, about the incessant notifications on our phones and what it’s doing to us, she explained: ‘By being “always on”, it means we’re switching off from real intimacy with our loved ones’. Which, I’ll be honest, doesn’t sound ideal. So, with that in mind, first thing on Thursday morning I turned off all my notifications and with it, silenced the beeping and vibrating and flashing that has come to be the background soundtrack to my life.
Over the first few hours, I kept glancing at my phone out of habit, swearing I saw it light up out of the corner of my eye. I thought back to Hilda’s words: ‘how can we really relax and unwind if we’re constantly receiving alerts? It’s almost impossible to stay grounded if we're paying heed to all the notifications that are streaming in.’
I turned my phone over so I couldn't see the screen and persevered.
Part way through the afternoon, I forgot I’d turned off my notifications and when I pressed the home button to see an empty screen I felt a surge of loneliness. Where were my friends, my boyfriend, my family? Hell, I’d even have taken one of the annoying emails I get from Freecycle over this looming silence.
When I turned my notifications off I was prepared for the breaking news and WhatsApp banners to disappear. What I was wholly unprepared for was that the little red bubbles that hovered in the corner of almost every app on my home screen would disappear along with them.
Initially, I loved how clean my home screen looked. For the first time in my life, I could fool myself into thinking that there were no unread emails, no insanely off topic group chats or Twitter notifications waiting for me. I felt like I’d Marie Kondoed my phone and I was, quite frankly, smug as hell.
But it didn’t take that long for my smugness to disappear. When I opened my phone to see if I had missed anything, I had to open each individual app to check if something was there. My phone was suddenly a chamber of secrets and, it turns out, I do not have Harry Potter’s commitment to a task.
Two days into the experiment I was nearing my breaking point. Where was the epiphany I was waiting for? Where was the moment where I realised none of the things my phone beeped about where really that urgent?
On day three, I gave up and turned on my notifications back on.
I knew what was meant to happen – I was meant to feel more calm, more present, more relaxed. But here’s the thing: I didn’t. If anything, I was more stressed. Instead of being able to ignore inconsequential messages or emails when they popped up on my screen, I had to go hunting for them, only to ultimately ignore them anyway. And messages I actually I wanted to read, I ended up missing altogether.
During the three (fine, two and a half days) I had my notifications turned off, I arrived home to be greeted only by an empty fridge and a message from three hours earlier inviting me out to dinner. I was the last person to read Taylor Swift’s brilliantly sassy responses during her sexual assault trial and I missed a friend’s WhatsApp telling me to pick up a bottle of wine when I was on the way to her house because she’d run out. Obviously, none of these things is a disaster, but they were all completely avoidable aggravations that just made my life a little bit more...frustrating.
However, I did learn something valuable from this experiment, it just wasn’t at all what I was expecting to take away from it. It turns out I like notifications. I like the buzzing and the beeping. I like being almost perennially contactable. Maybe that makes me a narcissistic or insecure, or maybe it just makes me a regular millennial. Either way, feel free to get in touch about it – I’m guaranteed to appreciate the notifications.
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