I’m a content manager. Whenever people ask me what I do for work, I usually start with that (obviously) then, anticipating some blank stares, I generally launch straight into an explanation of what that is. Following that and depending on the audience, or perhaps mostly driven by my need to lighten situations with a sarcastic quip, I usually just smile and say ‘I work on the internet for a living’.
The thing is, this is actually fairly true. I pretty much do work on the internet for a living. A lot of my days are spent editing articles and overseeing the production of online videos, researching on media sites, reviewing data and analytics, creating strategies, reading about what other people have to say about publishing online, going to IRL conferences about the internet and digital technologies, and sometimes I even deliver workshops where I talk to people about talking to people on the internet (it’s all very meta). Essentially, I spend a lot of my time figuring out the best way to communicate things digitally. And that means a lot of screen time.
At the end of most days I find myself very over staring at a screen and mildly concerned about my posture. Yet it comes as a surprise to many people that I try quite hard to not spend much time online in my actual life, and by online I mostly mean my phone. This is not a new thing for me, but my current job has definitely prompted me to investigate how I can stay away from the digital realm in my non-work time and to be very intentional about the way I engage with the digital world in my work time (although, realistically digital world and non-digital world aren’t really two discrete worlds, but you get the idea).
In this quest to make the most of my on and offline time, I’ve tried a lot of different things — some super successful and some not so much. If you too are interested in being more intentional with your digital time, I’ve pulled together a list of the methods I can remember that I’ve tried and their varying levels of success.
I should also mention, the purpose of this piece is not to convince anyone of whether phone and computer time is good or bad or on a spectrum in between. That’s totally subjective and unique to everyone’s circumstances. If that is something you’re interested in exploring, I’ve quite enjoyed reading this piece from The Guardian on phone addiction from some of the people that made it that way. Plus this piece from Buzzfeed News on different ideas about what actually constitutes ‘time well spent’ on the internet, and whether a digital hiatus actually proves anything more than a personal PR stunt. Okay, now onto the list.
What: Deleting the Facebook app from my phone
When: some time in 2015
Still in place: yes
This was probably the gateway change I made which led to more attempts to address how I engage with the digital world, or more realistically, my phone. I realised I was mindlessly opening Facebook every time I had to wait for anything — an elevator, a bus to arrive, my takeaway food to be ready (pre-UberEATS days, people). As a result, I felt like I was neither paying attention to my surroundings or what was happening on my feed. So I decided to delete the app to make it more of a deliberate decision to engage with Facebook each time I used it — whether that meant logging in on a desktop or opening the browser on my phone and logging in if I really wanted to check something. This one really lasted and I’ve only ever installed it again when travelling overseas on holidays, along with the Messenger app.
What: signing out of Instagram every time I finish using it
When: slightly later in 2015
Still in place: sometimes
Not long after my Facebook app deletion I thought about what other social mediums (I don’t think this is plural for social media platforms but I’m going for it)I could be more intentional about engaging with. As Instagram is an app-based platform (or at least was only an app at the time) I decided to sign in and out after each use to limit mindless opening and scrolling. After a few frustrating days of not remembering my password, resetting it, then going through a similar loop, this one worked well. I found myself only checking it once or twice a day and really enjoying those times, some days I didn’t sign in at all. I still do it from time to time.
What: Setting an automatic switch to the Do Not Disturb function every night
Still in place: yes
After many years of not being great at getting to sleep, I tried a number of ways to change this. One of them was automatically switching to Do Not Disturb on my phone every day — for those of you playing at home, the Do Not Disturb function is controlled by the little moon button in the control centre on an iPhone. Android phones have this function too. Your phone still functions as usual, and will receive calls and messages but it won’t light up or make any noises. If someone calls twice within 5 minutes the phone will ring, plus alarms still go off as usual, but aside from that, it’s a silent blissful black screen until you pick it up. I set this to turn on automatically at 10pm and turn off at 9am each day. It’s helped make getting to sleep less disrupted. And it has reduced my bad habit of getting a notification at night, checking it, then still scrolling through Instagram 30 minutes later. I haven’t turned this setting off, so I’d say I’m still into it. Sometimes I also manually turn it on, or airplane mode, when I need to concentrate on a big piece of work or not think about my phone for a while.
What: deactivating my Facebook account
Still in place: yes
This one was probably became the biggest stunt if we’re talking about all of these in terms of PR and my personal brand (aren’t we always?). It was around the time I finished watching season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale and found myself with the general feeling that we were on the precipice of entering a dystopian future. I may have been acting, um, slightly dramatic, but I felt like what I wanted out of Facebook I was getting from other platforms or in other ways. And to be honest, Facebook just wasn’t really bringing me a lot of joy. I may have misinterpreted the KonMari method but I decided to go for it anyway.
The only two things that had really stopped me before were firstly that my Spotify account was linked to my Facebook account and, secondly, I felt like I needed to be on Facebook to be good at using it for my job. I jumped the first hurdle in about half an hour with the help of a Spotify live chat assistance window — my entire account was migrated and I got to keep all of my playlists. And I solved the second by creating a work-only Facebook account that has no friends, is a member of a few groups, follows publications only relevant to work so I don’t miss industry happenings, and moderates work-related pages. I thought I would test out whether taking a step back from the platform might actually make me better at using it for work. I’m not totally sure on the answer to the second one, but the Facebook hiatus has stuck and I still have a job. Plus this overall choice has definitely led to less mindless online time.
What: Changing my phone screen to black and white
When: about a month ago
Still in place: nope!
So I read about this a little while ago and decided to see if changing my screen to black and white would make my phone less appealing. This is actually an accessibility setting created to make phones more usable for people who are colour blind or who have low vision. I wasn’t the user it was intended to benefit, but I decided to try it anyway. I did it for about 24 hours and realised it worked almost too well. Taking out the colour in things that I had been able to see just the day before made me less compelled to look at my phone. But I quickly realised that wasn’t the result I really wanted. What colour was that dress Charlotte wore to her sister’s wedding? How can I tell if we are the blue or grey bubbles in a text exchange Samantha just screenshotted and sent me? Was Miranda’s new cat the colour of Garfield or Lil Bub?
I wanted to know. As a person with essentially no vision impairment, this was not a setting I wanted to use. I had been making changes to be more intentional about my use of digital things, and making changes that impacted the way I engaged with digital content didn’t seem to fit the bill. I turned it off and haven’t really felt compelled to use it again. One upside, however, this did make me think about my access to so many things people with low vision don’t have and empathise with that, so that’s a plus I think.
Overall, I didn’t really set out with a long-term mission to reduce my digital time, but it’s kind of ended up that way. And it’s been quite effective, I am less mindless about it and feel like I’m aware of what I do get out of it. I’ve learnt that I’m pretty into digital technology, as well as varying tools and social media platforms. There are so many things that are more efficient in a digital format and I get access to so much more information — whether it’s about the people I know or about people and things I don’t know. Overall, this whole experiment has left me feeling more in control of the way I use these things and that’s a plus.