Cutting back on digital – the gains, and the withdrawal symptoms

I’m trying to wean myself off ubiquitous digital connectivity.

Over the last few weeks my trusty iPhone 6 has been running more and more slowly. I took the plunge, backed it up and wiped it over the weekend which cured its sluggish symptoms. But it also allowed me to deal with something I’ve been aware of for a while – an unhealthy relationship with my phone.

I’m sure you know the symptoms. You have a little selection of apps which you check whenever the phone comes out of your pocket – email, BBC News, Guardian, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Queuing at the supermarket? Check your phone. Kids started their swimming lesson? Check your phone. Settling down at home to watch a movie? Check your phone. Top of the Empire State Building? Check your phone.

This has become worse and worse over the years. I’ve been using mobile handheld computers since the late 90s – a Palm Pilot III was followed by a Sharp Zaurus SL-5500, limping online via a 2G connection, way before wifi was ubiquitous. Initially, being able to get to email from anywhere was amazingly useful. But as the technology matured, and particularly after getting an iPhone 3GS in 2008, slowly but surely the tail started wagging the dog.

A decade later, I’m very connected. I can do anything from anywhere. But the truth is, I don’t. I don’t get round to it. I read less. I think less. I sleep less. I’m at the mercy of a thousand application developers and UX designers who are all trying to get me to use their software more and frequently, for longer and longer periods of time.

So, it’s all staying off the phone. The social media apps, the email, the news apps, the games. Anything designed to give me a quick adrenaline hit, a dopamine rush. I’ve kept the purely transactional apps – banking, mapping, music, fitness and mindfulness, image capture and editing – and ditched anything with a social or news feed element – including not hooking my phone up to my email accounts.

Of course, there’s a web browser on the phone so I can probably access most of the other things that way. But I use strong passwords for all of my accounts, together with Lastpass. And frankly, it’s a royal pain in the ass to have to copy and paste passwords on the phone. I’m hoping that this will present an additional barrier to use.

I have allowed myself two exceptions. The Kindle app remains, as does Zynga’s Word Streak game. The first encourages a behaviour I’d like to persist: reading more books. The second: a cop-out? Maybe. We’ll see.

The withdrawal symptoms are there. My phone is still coming out of my pocket just as frequently. But it’s going back straight away – because there’s nothing to do. Instead, I’ve had to do something else – like reading a book – or interacting with those around me. And it feels better already.

Daniel Clough inspired me to do this – it’s taken nearly two years of contemplation to get round to it. Next question I need to answer: the iPhone 8 will be out later in the year. It will have an amazing camera. But I already have an amazing camera – the Olympus PEN E-5. Maybe it’s time to upgrade to the Nokia 3310 instead…

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