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How to quit your tech: a beginner's guide to divorcing your phone

Broadcaster Gemma Cairney
Gemma Cairney: ‘What if someone needs to speak to me?’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Read the news? Check your emails? Scroll through social media? Now, imagine your phone’s not in the room. If that makes you feel aimless or uncomfortable, it may be time for a digital detox.

This doesn’t have to be about giving up the digital world altogether, says Tanya Goodin, founder of digital detox specialists Time To Log Off and author of Off. “It’s about becoming aware of your own personal challenges around screens, gaining an understanding of what will help you overcome them, and learning to live with technology in a way that’s healthy. People are always amazed by how different they feel after not being on their phones and that motivates them to want to keep going.”

Goodin has devised a seven-day detox, to fit in with a typical week of work while still enabling improved sleep, productivity and mood. She recommends downloading a tracking app such as Moment (free on the Apple store) which measures how much time you spend looking at your screen and how many times a day you pick up your phone.

“Some of the challenges make use of the functionality of the device itself, others are about physically removing yourself from it. They build up over the week from those that involve still keeping your phone on you, to those that involve separating yourself from it. Going cold turkey is daunting, so the week eases you in gently – from cutting down on particular aspects of your phone use to getting used to leaving it behind from time to time.”

We asked six busy people to do just that, and follow this week-long plan:

The digital detox rules

• Delete all social media apps from your phone; check these only from a desktop computer.

• Turn all banner-style/pop-up/sound notifications off all other apps (keep the badge-type notifications where you have to visually check the app).

• Leave your phone in your pocket or keep it out of sight for meetings/get-togethers/conversations/meals involving other people.

• Keep your phone out of sight during your commute.

• Don’t take your phone with you into the bathroom or toilet.

Day 1 Leave your phone outside your bedroom overnight; get an alarm clock or turn up the volume on your phone so you can hear its alarm easily from your bed through the door. Continue this all week.

Day 2 Put your phone in a central place when you return home and go to the location of the phone (rather than carrying it around with you) if you need to check it.

Day 3 Take work email off your phone (notify everyone in advance that you’re doing this).

Day 4 Go out to dinner, lunch or to an evening event/gym session and leave your phone behind.

Day 5 Keep your phone on airplane mode as default all day; take it off this mode only when you need to use it.

Days 6 and 7 Your complete digital detox: keep your phone switched off and put away from 7pm Friday to 8am Monday.


The broadcaster

Gemma Cairney
Gemma Cairney: ‘I felt pretty good deleting my social media apps.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Gemma Cairney, 32, is a broadcaster and author who presents the Leisure Society, BBC Radio 6 Music’s podcast series. She lives in Margate.

Daily phone screen time before: 4 hours 6 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 57

My relationship with tech is a tug-of-war. Having a public profile can lead to paranoia. I constantly ask myself: “What should I be putting out there?” – in terms of responsibility, what other people care about and how much love I have for my real life. I fantasise about not having a smartphone; just getting a landline and a lovely little chair to sit on. But could I do it? Would people feel let down if I was harder to get hold of?

Writing my first book, Open, in the summer of 2016 was a life-changing experience because I shut myself away from everyone. I went to a remote part of Greece, wrote every day and had dinner on my own each night. I’m a hippy, and enjoy putting myself in certain situations where I won’t want to use my phone. I definitely use my phone less in Margate than I did when I lived in London.

I felt pretty good deleting my social media apps, but miss Instagram because it’s like having my own TV channel. I’m not interested in how many likes I get; I don’t let that drive me. I’m single for the first time in ages but won’t use dating apps where I live or be Facebook friends with someone I date. There’s something toxic about deciding what you think about someone when it’s not based on their soul.

Not reaching for my phone means I wake up more naturally and think, “What do I want from today?” I relish leaving my phone in a central place on day two; I think it’s scary we have our phones permanently attached to our bodies. I’m touring universities for Book Week Scotland and having a brilliant time, but by day three I’m dying to post online. I decide to write in my notepad every time I get the urge. I feel more present and it feels less rude to be using pen and paper in front of other people than having my head stuck in a phone.

I come to the conclusion that phone screens are a serious stimulant, because every time I travel in the back of a car without my phone, I feel sleepy when I’d usually be chatty. I decide to call my mum instead of messaging her on WhatsApp. By day five, I’m feeling nomophobia – what if someone needs to speak to me?

I realise I haven’t worn makeup all week, which I can only put down to not posting selfies. At the weekend I go out for a friend’s birthday to see a Bob Marley tribute act and have more fun because I’m in the moment and not taking pictures. I feel calmer and more at ease; not posting online feels good when there are real conversations to be had. And, yes, I’m still fantasising about getting a brick.

I couldn’t cope with… travelling without a phone. I was bored and sleepy.

I can now do without… waking up to my phone. I felt calm and more like my true self rather than giving in to addictive behaviour.

Daily phone screen time after: 3 hours
Number of pick-ups a day: 17

The journalist

Journalist Clive Myrie
Clive Myrie: ‘I’m more of a social media fiend than I thought.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Clive Myrie, 53, has worked for the BBC as a news presenter and foreign correspondent for more than 30 years. He lives with his wife in London.

Daily phone screen time before: 45 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 11

It’s very difficult when you’re a journalist to turn your phone off. My job can be unpredictable – for example, being sent to Las Vegas to cover the worst shooting in American history. I get a phone call and I’m on the next flight out.

I’m not a tech fiend, I only really use WhatsApp and Twitter. There’s a whole world of apps out there, but I don’t feel as if I’m missing out. I don’t sit on the tube frantically playing games on my phone. I have an iPad for reporting abroad, which I use like a typewriter, and my iPhone is mainly for reading newspapers and getting information for stories. It’s a 15-minute journey to my office and I’ll have already read the newspapers – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – online at home, so I’ll just flick through the Metro.

I remember when there were no mobile phones. Pagers in the early 90s freed you up as a journalist because people could message you; you weren’t tied to a landline. Then I got a Nokia brick, which I used for work. They weren’t the kind of things you took to restaurants, they were simply for communicating. I always compartmentalised my life, so I didn’t have a personal phone until I got an iPhone. I was very luddite in that regard. A scene in the first Sex And The City film springs to mind, when Samantha hands Carrie her iPhone to call Big and Carrie says: “I don’t know how to use this.” I remember when the BBC got rid of their cuttings [research] department; that was when I realised I could do all that on my phone.

Putting my phone to one side in the evening feels absolutely fine. If you asked my bosses they would say I’m lousy at answering it anyway. Reading reports on Manchester City is probably my guilty pleasure, but the bottom line is, if I wasn’t at work, I could live without my phone.

When I go out for dinner with my wife and leave my phone behind, it makes no difference because it would absolutely not be on the table – ever. I get a little irritated if I’m in a group and someone is scrolling through a phone. I don’t say anything; I just quietly get wound up.

At the weekend I’m working from 1pm until after the News At Ten and without a phone it’s tricky to get a heads-up on the stories before work. I feel like a spaceman untethered from the mother ship. I consider going out and buying the papers but part of the attraction of the phone is you don’t have to go out in the cold, so I turn my phone on and go through the papers. I panic that if the Queen drops down dead they won’t be able to get hold of me, and I’d quite like to keep my job, so I resolve to keep my phone on, I just won’t look at it.

I’ve come to realise I use my phone more than I thought. By the end of the week, I’m using it more than when I started. I’m the first person at a dinner party to say: “Social media is just for kids and idiots stuck in their bedrooms”, but it’s a bit like people who don’t like paying the licence fee not realising how much they use the BBC. I still like to think I prefer talking face-to-face, but I have missed not being able to pick up the phone when I want to use it. And I’m more of a social media fiend than I thought.

I couldn’t cope with… not being kept in the loop with friends on WhatsApp. There were group messages I couldn’t read or respond to.

I can now do without… being such a luddite. I have my reservations about social media but you have to play along with it to a point because this is how the world works.

Daily phone screen time after: 50 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 16

The personal trainer

Personal trainer Roger Frampton
Roger Frampton: ‘I use my phone for everything.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Roger Frampton, 33, is a personal trainer and Instagram influencer who specialises in bodyweight exercises. He lives in Hertfordshire with his girlfriend.

Daily phone screen time before: 8 hours 5 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 95

I update my iPhone each year because I feel they slow down when a new one comes out. It’s a big work tool because I don’t have an office, so I carry a battery pack to keep charging it. From waking up scrolling through social media and checking train times to reading my book and ordering coffee on the Starbucks app, I use my phone for everything. I don’t need to speak to another human on my entire commute into London.

I coach three or four 90-minute sessions a day, and I’m back on my phone during breaks and mealtimes. I’m not just scrolling for the sake of it, there’s always an element of research – I’ll be watching YouTube or looking up other influencers to collaborate with. I want to utilise my time, I can’t just sit there and be bored.

On day one, my phone alarm goes off at 5.15am and I jump out of bed because it’s on charge in the hallway. I usually check Twitter, Instagram or my two Facebook pages under my duvet but instead I jump straight in the shower.

The next evening, I enjoy putting my phone in a drawer because my girlfriend and I spend much more time together. Stupid things make me want to pick up my phone, like when we decide we need a bread bin. I reach into my pocket, before telling myself I can do that another time.

On day four, I go to a fashion party and leave my phone in the cloakroom when I’d usually post what I’m wearing on Instagram. I have the best night ever; I actually feel great without my phone. It makes me feel a bit torn. Social media is important for my work because it makes it possible to interact with people, but sometimes I hate it. Instagram can put me in a crap mood. I try to use it in a positive way, but it depends on your mindset. Looking at an image can make you feel either inspired, or not good enough, so I try to be aware of when that switch in my mind happens.

On day five I keep thinking, “I need to use my phone.” I find having it with me and not being able to use it is harder than not having it with me at all.

I hate being without my phone all weekend because I’m working and feel as if there’s so much I could be doing. If I’m in a conversation, or have a book to read, it doesn’t bother me so much, but sitting on my own, cradling a coffee between clients, I feel awkward. I realise I don’t know how to do nothing.

I couldn’t cope with… alone time. It gave me a newfound appreciation for being able to contact someone at the touch of a button.

I can now do without… reactively replying to messages. Turning off notifications gave me a completely different mindset. Now I get back to people at a time that suits me.

Daily phone screen time after: 5 hours 42 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 69

The record company boss

Decca Records president Rebecca Allen
Rebecca Allen: ‘Without my phone, I feel out of control.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Rebecca Allen, 44, is president of Decca Records. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters, aged five and nine.

Daily phone screen time before: 4 hours 13 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 32

I love gadgets that make my life easier; I don’t want to get left behind. The way we consume music now is so different from 10 years ago and I need to understand each person’s experience – and the device they’re using – in order to market it to them. Some people view being on email constantly as a negative thing, but my life depends on flexibility. I’m out and about all the time, meeting managers or artists, I travel two hours a day, and I pick up my kids when I need to. From food shopping to organising the family calendar, I do everything on my phone. Without it, I feel out of control.

Deleting my social media apps feels liberating, like squeezing back into pre-pregnancy jeans, but I am concerned how I’ll keep on top of work. I am used to using my phone every spare minute of my life, on my commute and even on the loo.

On the train on day one I diagnose myself with “twitchy hand syndrome” because of the natural reflex to pick up my phone. I’m wondering what to do with myself when it dawns on me that when I’m not working, I’m being a mother, and when I’m not with my children, I’m working. I decide I’m not going to think about anything, I’m just going to look out the window and it’s really nice.

After 24 hours without Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, I worry what I’m missing, and my hand is still twitchy. I’m horrified to discover (via the Moment app) that I typically rack up between four and five hours a day on my phone. The next day, I’m not so smug, just grumpy, like the only person doing dry January in December. No one wants to hear about my digital detox, but I’m like a reformed addict and can’t stop talking about it.

On day four, I have a night in on my own. I drink a large glass of red wine in front of Stranger Things, then start to feel anxious that something important has happened at work, or my husband is trying to reach me. After three glasses, I decide I’m allowed to check my emails. The following day I have a wobble thanks to Black Friday and use my phone to bag some bargains before work, and at the weekend, when I take my girls to see Little Mix, I couldn’t not take pictures on my phone.

By the end I’m feeling reflective, about social media in particular. On Instagram or Facebook I blankly peer into the lives of people I don’t even know, but in the last week I’ve dedicated that time to me instead. Ultimately I’ve learned that it’s OK, when you’ve got a free minute, to be still; to not feel like you’ve got to be doing something.

I couldn’t cope with… not being able to shop online. I love Amazon. Every year I build a wishlist of things I want to get people and buy it all on Black Friday.

I can now do without… social media apps. Not worrying about what’s going on in other people’s lives is really nice. It makes me realise I should keep in touch the old-fashioned way.

Daily phone screen time after: 2 hours 33 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 28

The entrepreneur

Entrepreneur Anisah Osman Britton
Anisah Osman Britton: ‘I missed taking photos so much.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Anisah Osman Britton, 24, is the founder of 23 Code Street, a coding school for women. She has lived on a boat for the last five years with her dog.

Daily phone screen time before: 3 hours 50 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 88

I was eight when I got my first phone, to keep in touch with my parents when I was at school, and by 14 I had a smartphone. I use a Google Pixel now and rely on it for everything; I leave my laptop at work as there is no wifi on the boat, which can be moored in Haggerston one week and Watford the next. I rely on Citymapper to plan my daily route to my office in Shoreditch from wherever I am.

I started 23 Code Street in 2016 because, working in the tech industry, I could see the lack of women was a problem. They weren’t part of the decision-making. I’d see stuff being built and think, “A woman’s never going to use that.” For every paying student here, we teach a woman digital skills in Mumbai.

My top four apps are WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram and Twitter, and when it comes to deleting them, I think, “I can do this!” I substitute Instagram with reading books and finish two by the end of the week, which makes me cringe at how much time I must waste on my phone.

I struggle with insomnia and often wake up at 4am and scroll through my phone. I’m amazed that without it to hand, I simply go back to sleep. I set the alarm on my old-school Casio watch now and stay asleep a lot longer.

By day three, I’m feeling left out of my family’s WhatsApp group, but I welcome taking work emails off my phone. I’m good at batch emailing: I set aside a couple of hours in the morning, plus half an hour each afternoon and evening.

Things take a turn for the worse on day four when I’m sick and have to stay home. I decide there is no way I’m doing without my phone, I need it in bed with me to check work emails. I spend the rest of the time WhatsApp-ing my family and watching dog videos on YouTube.

I’m not worried about switching my phone off at the weekend. I tell my family and my business partner, Tom, that I’ll speak to them on Monday. I’m about to move home, so I figure I’ll use the time to pack my life away. But I haven’t thought it through. By Saturday lunchtime I have a meltdown. It’s so dead and quiet; I can’t even listen to music as my only source is my phone. I don’t see a single person until my neighbour knocks on my door on Sunday morning with some chocolate. I almost cry. Later I walk to the Co-op just so I can speak to someone. This is the worst weekend of my life.

Without a phone, I notice how much everyone else is on theirs. We have a rule in my family, and at work, of no phones when eating, and that’s never felt so important. I find it fascinating that when I’m not using my phone, the people around me don’t check theirs. It alerts them to how much they rely on their phones and makes them self-conscious.

I couldn’t cope with… not being able to take photos. I missed that so much.

I can now do without… flicking through social media in bed before getting up. I’ve given myself an extra hour in the morning.

Daily phone screen time after: 3 hours
Number of pick-ups a day: 70

The scientist

Scientist Kate Devlin
Kate Devlin: ‘I’m a big social media fan.’ Photograph: David Vintiner for the Guardian

Dr Kate Devlin, 41, is a scientist specialising in AI and human-computer interaction. She lives in London with her daughter, aged seven.

Daily phone screen time before: 6 hours 23 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 57

I’m not into tech just for the sake of it. I use good, solid gadgets – an iPhone and a MacBook. In my work, I look at how society’s reactions to tech influence the development of it. I have a terrible work/life balance, which is typical of academics, but I do enjoy time out – running, walking or reading; I’m a stickler for proper books.

My radio alarm wakes me up with BBC Radio 4’s Today. Not being able to look at my phone, I discover a new routine: watching the sun come up. It’s lovely. I miss my phone more when I go to bed. Reading a hardback of The Outrun by Amy Liptrot [a true story about alcohol addiction] leaves me on the verge of tears; I wish I was flicking through something more superficial on my phone.

I feel a bit lost on my 12-minute overground journey to work the next morning. It’s too short an amount of time to read a newspaper, so I’m itching to get my phone out. I normally check my emails and set myself up for the day, so I arrive at the office feeling as if I’m on the back foot.

I’m a big social media fan. I use Twitter a lot, as well as WhatsApp and Telegram to stay in touch with people. In the evening I put my phone next to the landline in the hall and I feel a sense of panic – like losing your child in a supermarket – every time I realise my phone’s not on me.

On day four, I take my daughter for pizza without my phone. We have a rule of no reading when we’re eating, so instead we argue about who would win a fight between a badger and a giant chihuahua. I get annoyed because there is no such thing as a giant chihuahua, and I can’t Google it to show her.

I’m wary about the weekend because I’m coordinating a hackathon and need to drop in on my students. It’s an event sponsored by various sex-toy companies and I’d normally be taking photos and tweeting. I find myself walking around carrying my open laptop as if it’s a giant phone, using WhatsApp and Messenger. My friend messages me to say: “For someone on a digital detox you sure do text a lot.” I don’t think I’m entering into the spirit of it as much as I could and soon discover my laptop can pretty much do everything – bar calling my mum – my phone does.

Technology isn’t a bad thing if we’re using it effectively and efficiently. I’ve learned that not having my phone on me isn’t going to kill me, I’ve reclaimed my mornings and feel a sense of relief in responding to things on my terms, not because I feel compelled to. The hardest thing is the fear of missing out on messages, but if something is urgent people will get hold of me. I have a landline. Though I’m not sure anyone has the number.

I couldn’t cope with… not using WhatsApp. I’m part of a community of single academic mothers and we are there for each other round the clock.

I can now do without… notifications. Without them, I’m less of a slave to my phone.

Daily phone screen time after: 2 hours 24 minutes
Number of pick-ups a day: 40

• Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

This article titled "How to quit your tech: a beginner's guide to divorcing your phone" was written by Martha Hayes, for The Guardian on Saturday 13 January 2018 08.00am

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