Reconnect without the tech
Best-selling author Paul Greenberg shares his tips for keeping in touch with the real world when travelling for business
“Let me just check one more thing.” With those seven words, businesspeople doom themselves to never disconnecting. Why? Because the tech industry spends billions of dollars making sure the one last thing you check is never the last. Colours that are spot on lure you to another app, alerts that niggle their way into your subconscious keep you hopping; clickbait tailored precisely to ‘naturally’ follow the last thing you clicked daisy chains you to still more options. And it all adds up.
The average smartphone user will stare into their phone 1,400 hours per year, the equivalent of a full waking year every decade. A year that could have been given to friendship, creativity and love. In a life where we’re often on the road and often physically disconnected from what we love most, how can we give our real life the attention it deserves? This is something I spent two years investigating for my book, Goodbye Phone, Hello World. Let me walk you through a typical workday complete with the pitfalls of digital distraction while travelling for work.
The alarm goes off in your hotel room. You check your phone. Why? All this does is suture you into a day-long pattern of checking. This precious first moment of consciousness is where you can break the pattern. Start by not using your phone as your alarm clock. Better yet, don’t keep your phone near your bed. Once you’ve established this rule, start to work constructively with that valuable time between sleeping and waking. Maybe start a dream journal. Carl Jung believed that individuals who engage with their dreams come to realise that dreams collectively “form a coherent series in the course of which meaning gradually unfolds”. Put a notebook, a flashlight and a pen next to your bed. Document your dream as soon as you wake. This first step can set you on a course for creative thought throughout the day. Another bit of good practice is take 15 minutes of what was your smartphone time and dedicate it to something you’ve always wanted to do: write a poem… or a book. Pursue that practice consistently throughout the next month, increasing the time you spend on it by one-minute increments each day as time allows. Most importantly to business travellers, try to pick something that’s portable and containable within a notebook or a drawing pad.
Many of us take our morning toast with a dollop of online news. And this a cue to those around you that it’s OK to do the same. This sort of behaviour promotes the feeling of what social scientist Sherry Turkle calls being ‘alone together’, a condition that weakens family ties and degrades relationships. Research has shown that even the physical presence of a phone lying on the family meal table is enough to steer conversation to shallower subjects. At home, establishing tech-free spaces with the agreement of all family members is a good way to protect those deeper conversations. When travelling, try to keep this same, digital-less meal habit. Distracted eating often leads to overeating and the more you shut down the more you can focus on eating healthily. Wouldn’t it be nice to come back after a business trip without those five extra travel pounds?
Exercise apps have exploded but we are not any more fit as a result. That’s partly because goal-setting fitness apps tend to lead us toward obsessive-compulsive ‘streaks’ that may be out of sync with our capabilities. An alternative is to ask a friend or colleague if they would be up for a joint workout. Research shows that people who work out with others are more likely to stay on track with an exercise regime and improve their performance. If you’re on the road, consider replacing a gym-based workout with a run or walk through whatever city you may be temporarily inhabiting. And don’t take your phone with you when you do. A daily 30-minute walk or run can lower your blood pressure by as much as 10mm Hg. But checking email frequently has been shown to have the opposite effect, raising blood pressure by that same 10mm. Worried about finding your way in a strange city without Google Maps? Ask directions for a change or read an actual map. These interactions get your brain in shape for the day ahead.
Any time a communication channel or app is open on your phone or computer, marketers will use that channel to reach you. And because tech companies employ fleets of programmers to analyse what keeps you clicking, they will work extremely hard to keep you online. It’s therefore important to build pauses at every turn to prevent unconscious transition from directed tasks to undirected wandering. Remove as many bookmarks from your browser as possible. Switch the colour option on your phone to grey scale (yes, it looks boring, but that’s the point). You might even introduce ‘speed bumps’, as the digital distraction critic Catherine Price calls them. These are devices of your own design that slow your path back on to devices. Stow frivolous apps inside folders so that more than one click is necessary to access them.
In 2017, the French government passed Article 55(1) amending its labour code with the droit à la déconnexion or ‘right to disconnect’. The law requires that companies with more than 50 employees designate hours when staff should not send or answer emails. Until you are protected by such laws at your own workplace, try to bring these issues up with your co-workers. And bosses, take note: many studies show that allowing workers to disconnect and recharge tends to lead to greater productivity. This right to disconnect should extend to your vacation time, too. Treat your leisure trips as real time away and not just a different venue for exploring the terrain of your devices.
Try to make going to bed as tech free as possible. If you’re with your partner, this is a key moment. New York-based couples therapist Katherine Stavrianopoulos notes that when spouses turn to devices, it is a way of “exiting the relationship”– that is, removing themselves from the emotional engagement that is the very basis of togetherness. She encourages couples to ask themselves why they turn to their devices. In that spirit, make sure the last interaction before bedtime is a real-time exchange of words and looks. If you’re travelling and can’t call home, try taking five minutes before bed to meditate on a photograph of your loved ones. Yes, a physical photograph, not an Instagram shot – because we all know where that Instagram shot leads…
Of course, all of this is hard to start. We all love our phones. But remember – as you try to carve out a more human space for yourself and your intimates – that the rewards are really worth it. No matter how much you love your phone, it will never love you back.
Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg is out in the UK on 10 November and available to pre-order at Waterstones
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