Sunday, March 3, 2024

I Turned My Phone Off For Five Days and I Want You To Do The Same

Emma Clifton reclaims her terrible attention span due to her phone addiction and emerges (for now) a calmer and happier person.

I remember the first time I was given a work phone at a job and it slowly dawned on me that it was not a gift, but rather an expectation. “Now we never need to be apart again!” Insidiously, like the frog slowly boiling to death in the pot, we have become a society where the idea of not having a phone is a) inconceivable and b) irresponsible. Being addicted to your phone – and yes, you are – is still considered by some to be a first world problem but it’s not – it’s a global concern. On a work trip to India in 2019, we travelled through tiny villages and sparsely populated backstreets and everyone, still, was sitting there, their eyes glued to their phone. We are living in the spaceship from the movie Wall-E and no-one but ourselves can save us.

Things were already bad and then 2020 hit and suddenly our phones became attached to us even more, both as tiny harbingers of doom and also as remote working links to our job. I’m still to unpack the combination of horror/shock/despair that hit me every time we went into a lockdown and phones everywhere simultaneously let out that terrifying alarm sound, letting us know we weren’t to leave the house again.

Notifications are alerts – in that they literally are putting your body into alert mode.

Add to that the constant chorus of bleeps, bloops and zings that accompany all the notifications that come with having a smart phone and it’s a wonder our brains are never silent anymore. Notifications are alerts – in that they literally are putting your body into alert mode. It doesn’t matter if it’s a news alert telling you of another impending apocalypse or your podcast app alerting you the new Glennon Doyle has dropped – your body hears the noise and feels the panic (Glennon would not want this for you!).

If I can leave you with only one piece of advice from this entire meandering article, it is to TURN OFF YOUR NOTIFICATIONS. If there is a family-related one you need, of course leave that on. But please, god, leave your social media apps to be looked at when you have time, rather than letting them call the shots of where your attention goes. When there is an emergency, someone will call you. Nothing urgent has ever taken place over Messenger or WhatsApp.

We are all so trained – by our phones! – to be on alert, 24/7, that we have confused technology with being our saviour, rather than our captor.

When I announced that I was going on holiday and that I was determined to turn my phone off for five straight days, people were either in total disbelief or total wonder that such a thing was possible.


I would now like to point out that no-one I know is an on-call doctor or firefighter and that there is not one social media app that is the difference between life and death. We are all so trained – by our phones! – to be on alert, 24/7, that we have confused technology with being our saviour, rather than our captor. If you have watched the incredibly disturbing Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, you’ll know that that is by design – all of these apps have been created with the sole purpose of making us addicted and keeping us this way.

Before I turned my phone off, I would have considered myself to be low on the addicted scale. Well, let me laugh bitterly into my own face at that, because the number of times I went to use my phone on my five No Phone Days showed me immediately how much of a physical and mental habit it has become. And when your phone is off, and you are constantly reaching for a square bit of dead glass and plastic, to either ‘capture the moment’ or ‘see what’s happening in the world’, you start to realise the years of conditioning your brain has endured.

My attention span has basically gone – and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How hard is it these days to sit through a one-hour TV series without checking your phone? I mean, they’ve started to bring WiFi in on planes now, so that there is literally not a switched-on part of the world left. I was trying to think the other day about where I get most of my good ideas and the answer was ‘the shower’, and then I realised that the reason was it’s one of the few places where I don’t have my phone with me. Apple is probably working on technology to change that, as we speak.

To make my five days count, I set expectations correctly: A polite but firm out-of-office and understanding colleagues who got what I was trying to do. I set my ‘do not disturb’ to block everyone but my mum, and I made sure I had at least one book with me at all times, so that when the ‘I’ll just check my phone’ urge happened, I could instead pull out a book and read that instead.

After five days, I felt like I had been away from the world for two weeks, minimum. I read three books in that time. I didn’t look at the news. Entire social media shit-storms came and went and I didn’t know a thing about them. I was free*. I want to take you by the shoulders and lovingly tell you that turning your phone off, for an afternoon, for a day, for the weekend, might be the best thing you can do for your mental health and it doesn’t cost you a cent.

*yes, I posted a photo on Instagram of my trip when my five days was up but in my defence, I was having an UNBELIEVABLE hair day.

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