Picture the scene: it’s Friday evening, and you’ve just finished an exhausting work week.
You flop down onto the couch and cue up your favorite TV show. Then, a notification pops up on your phone – so you swipe and take a look. Then there’s another ping… followed by another.
Before you know it, you’re so distracted by your phone that you’ve completely forgotten the TV is playing in the background.
Does that sound familiar?
Statistically, it should: 77% of television viewers admit to having another device in their hand while they’re watching a show. “Multi screening” is a phenomenon almost all of us have been guilty of.
But has our screen obsession gotten out of control? Will screen-free time ever be a possibility again? What are the ramifications for our everyday lives? And is there anything we can do to recapture the good old days when we all hunted woolly mammoths, foraged for berries, and had face-to-face conversations?
Let’s pull this apart in more detail.
Screens are now so important, they have to be consciously avoided
How many things in your life have gone digital in the last decade?
Sure, you could use an analog alarm clock and a paper notepad. You could chill at home with an antique record player, or use a film camera to capture life’s most important moments.
But with a smartphone, you can do all this and more — with just a few taps on a screen. The appeal of smartphones is that they remove genuine obstacles, like the challenge of finding your way around an unfamiliar city, or of wondering what song is playing on the radio. We no longer need to physically search for a restaurant, or wait to tell our friends about something funny.
Smartphones create a world where days unfold seamlessly, and frustration is kept to a minimum.
It’s hard to imagine turning back the clock (or should I say, updating the time and date). In fact, it’s not just hard to imagine – for many people, it might actually be impossible. Impossible, that is, without seriously over-complicating their day-to-day lives and genuinely harming their job prospects.
So, it’s not surprising that in order to claw back some time away from screens, some people are taking a break from “real life” altogether…
Digital detoxing: an increasing popular solution
Screen-free time is now in such high demand that businesses are beginning to monetize it – offering paying customers off-the-grid, digital detox retreats and expensive “nearly screen-free” private school educations.
It’s an interesting question: would you pay extra for the certainty of a screen-free vacation? Have we really become so dependent on our devices that we need to have our phones, laptops and tablets physically removed, in order to secure undisturbed screen-free time?
And there may be some truth in that. After all, how feasible is it for the average office worker to go screen-free for the entire day?
Not everyone can afford the luxury of screen-free time
The majority of industries and organizations are now totally reliant on digital technology – at the very least for email.
Can you imagine your working day without a screen? There’s obviously a delicious irony in the fact that I’m writing this on a screen and you’re reading it on a screen. But the problem is one of choice. You could choose to stop reading this, but could you choose to stop checking your emails and have a flawless digital detox for a few days?
I, for one, can’t do that. Screen-free time simply isn’t an option for me, unless I’m on holiday — but even then it’s a massive challenge. And there are some professions where being in constant communication, via a smartphone, is literally a case of life or death – for doctors, surgeons and the emergency services as a whole. It’s sometimes still possible for them to get by with a pager, or an old Nokia — but how long will that last?
Many of us do, in fact, possess a “right to disconnect” – but this usually only extends to our free time. And it’s in a similar category to our “right” to leave work at 5pm, which many companies treat like a joke.
Is leisure time our only chance to be screen-free?
For years now, our dedication to smartphones and social media has been the source of ridicule from a vocal and cantankerous minority.
But these days, the “anti-screen” movement seems to be picking up steam (or reaching 100% charge).
With bars banning customers from using smartphones inside their establishments, and cafes advertising themselves as “laptop-free zones” – it seems that more and more people are rebelling against the status quo.
And with the right amount of discipline, anyone could put their phone or laptop away for the evening. The problem is that staring idly out the window — and daydreaming in general — is never an appealing alternative, even though such quiet, contemplative moments add something meaningful to our lives. But even if we have the fortitude to commit to screenless evenings, most people find it extremely difficult to avoid laptops or smartphones during work hours.
What are some ways to increase screen-free time?
Having screen-free time might not be impossible, but it’s certainly becoming more and more difficult. That’s especially true if you work on screens and can’t afford some of the more luxurious options – such as wealthy-hipster private education and digital detox retreats.
So, what can the rest of us do?
1) Assign screen-free time
Assign a screen-free 20 minutes each evening. Make this time really count. If you’re making dinner, use a recipe book rather than a website. If you’re washing the dishes, put your phone on silent and get lost in your thoughts. If you’re chatting to friends or listening to music, resist the urge to look something up online.
When 20 minutes per day starts to feel comfortable, you can extend it to 30, and then 60.
2) Buy an alarm clock
Of all the functions on a smartphone, the alarm clock is one of the easiest to replace with a non-phone alternative. It’s also one of the most important functions to give up.
Why? Well, as soon as you stop keeping your smartphone in the bedroom – under the premise of “needing it for an alarm” – you’ll no longer be tempted to sit up late at night, scrolling through social media or checking your work emails right before bedtime.
This should result in better quality of sleep — giving your screen-free time an immediate, tangible benefit.
3) Stay mindful when you’re on the go.
Being present in the moment costs no money at all – but it is easier said than done.
Start by walking down the street and acknowledging what’s around you. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell?
A lot of the time, we default back to our phones because we don’t feel truly engaged by our surroundings. But by forcing ourselves not to rely on instant gratification, those little everyday sights begin to seem entertaining again.
At the end of the day, screen-free time may be hard to come by – but it’s definitely worth trying.
Do you sympathize with the anti-screen movement — or are you an unabashed tech lover? Drop us a line with your thoughts — and check out the rest of our blog (sadly not yet in analog form) for more stories like this one.