Digital Detox

Somewhere along the way, my phone got out of hand.
Rather, it was never out of my hand.

So, so addictive

Alarm chimes. Hand goes to phone. Depending on the latest incoming message a cobalt or green-means-go light flashes from the top right corner of my phone, a tiny beacon. Before I’m even awake my fingers are stubbing out the unlock code, skimming across the screen; my half-shut eyes are skimming Guardian headlines or reading messages.

At some point I roll out of bed and head downstairs to start coffee, phone firmly in hand. While the kettle boils I’m scanning email or Tweeting. The cat, my partner, and my mental health are all forgotten in an urgent need to catch up on Instagram.

Friday night, Chris and I were sitting side by side. I was absorbed in my phone. He said something. I wasn’t listening. As I struggled to tune in to reality, it occurred to me what a waste it to substitute a smartphone for human interaction. What was I going to miss? Another blast of bad news, a Gap e-flyer, a handful of photos by people I’ve never met and probably never will. In other words, nothing. Nothing of value, nothing of note, nothing that substitutes for time spent with someone I love.

So I turned my phone off and said: “I’m having a break.”

Stoic philosophy

Saturday morning, I woke up before Chris. With my phone switched off, I reached for my Kindle and read a couple of chapters before coffee. Without the distraction of my phone, I had time to meditate for a few minutes. I read a chapter of Epictetus and mused on it.

We went for a long walk, looping through Overton Park and back to the house through the Evergreen Historic District. In the afternoon we did errands and talked. Came home, had a glass of rose and discussed plans for the coming months.

There were a few times I missed my phone: in the car, sans Spotify; needing to look up an address; wanting to look in an online shop. Those moments brought home to me how much I rely on my phone for distraction. Whenever there is a lull, I reach for it. Sometimes the pretext is information or function, but none of it is urgent. The address was for a letter that wouldn’t post until Monday anyway, the online shopping was (needless to say) not that important. And guess what, FM radio still exists.

We made Thai green curry for dinner. I simmered sweet potato, onion, red pepper, courgette and cherry tomatoes in a rich coconut milk sauce. Chris blacked Indian aubergines beneath the grill, peeling the charred skin at the last minute and adding the smoky flesh to the vegetables along with fistfuls of spinach and a handful of fresh basil leaves. We cooked a big pot of basmati rice, drank more rose. With our phones out of sight and mind, we concentrated on the food and conversation.

Buddhist wisdom

Chris wanted to read after dinner. I’d finished my book so started the only other “new” book on my Kindle, Radical Compassion — a collection of essays by contemporary Buddhists. Without the lure of my phone, I concentrated more; thought more about what I was reading.

There was even time, in the midst of everything else, to write for a while.

Before going to bed, I looked at my phone. Should I turn it on to set the alarm for morning? It was strange to see it lying on the night stand, reduced to its real dimensions, just a slab of black plastic. The flicker of temptation passed. My phone is a significant part of my routine, a valuable accessory, but it’s not essential.

Communication is essential. Closeness. Caring. Connection. All these things the phone can facilitate. It can also be an attention black hole. It was good to take a day off and remind myself what’s important and where things stand.

If you don’t hear from me on a Saturday don’t worry, it’s digital detox day.





2016 in a word: Attention

Is any part of life excluded, on which attention has no bearing, any that you will make worse by attention, and better by inattention? Nay, is there anything in life generally which is done better by those who do not attend? Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely?
~from Discourses by Epictetus

I struggled to concentrate in 2016. Looking back over the year, the thing that stands out most is how difficult it was to pay attention. Maybe I’ve always been this scattered but I don’t think so. There was a time when I could sit down and finish a task. These days, the mere thought of a project sends me into nervous fits. Doing one thing seems neglecting something else and the swirl of thoughts, ideas and emotions makes it difficult to focus. Everything is out-sized these days: hopes, anxieties, plans, fears.

An Eye on London

Partly this is a function of politics and society. Twenty-sixteen was a year of blood and thunder. Britain is Brexiting because half the population couldn’t pay attention to reality long enough to see past the Leavers lies. America elected as president man whose communication habits put a Ritalin’d up teenager to shame. Shouting was the most highly rewarded mode of public discourse. Good people died in droves. Many whose names we’ll never know sank beneath the waves while fleeing hell at home, or were blown apart by partisans of one sort or another. Others, whose names are carved on our memories, died in their homes, leaving us to mourn their legacies as best we can—by listening to their music and cherishing their spirit (RIP Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, and so many more).

It was a hard to be attentive with so much clamour, sorrow, tumult, and emotion.

He flies for work, he flies for fun…

My personal attention deficit was aggravated by my boyfriend’s globe-trotting work schedule. When we were apart I was always half in his time-zone: setting my alarm to wake up so I could say goodnight, or waking at 3AM to catch him before he went to work. Our time together was a perpetual ticking clock. We drove ourselves to sleep deprivation because we couldn’t bear to waste the hours sleeping.

As the relationship reshaped my life it got increasingly difficult to be present. The last few months in Ibiza were spent wanting to be somewhere else, and planning my departure. This literally gave me headaches. Walking through sun-dappled pine woods, or sitting on the beach staring at the perfect turquoise sea, I’d chide myself for not paying more attention. I wanted to absorb it all, to appreciate it as it deserved to be appreciated, but my heart was elsewhere and my mind was spinning like wheels in sand.

Sand — peaceful till you get stuck in it

This year is my first real experience of not being able to pay attention and it’s scary. Inattention triggers a cycle of un-productiveness, anxiety and insecurity. I write badly; ideas dry up; I wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my life; everything I haven’t done looms huge in my mind; I feel like a failure; I don’t know what to do next. I literally can’t remember what day it is or where I’m supposed to be. My confidence evaporates. Some days, I’m barely capable of getting myself out of bed and into clothes. It astonishes me I’ve managed to survive this long.

The world is huge and, if we choose to believe the news, on the verge of collapse. Twitter, Facebook, Feedspot, The New York Times, The National Enquirer—anywhere I look, it’s a jerky, attention-fucking montage of violence, celebrity meltdowns, funny animal videos, and advertisements. Everything is for sale. Nothing matters. We’re all going to die. Did you hear the latest about Kim and Kanye?

I need a better filter.

All that really matters… friends and the moment

My best memories of 2016 are the times I was paying attention. A fine afternoon on Cala St Vicente drinking red wine and lemonade with my nephew Luis. Hiking with my dear friend Sarah on a sunny afternoon in France. Walking through the plaza of St Peter’s in Rome at twilight with Chris. Many other clear, bright moments with people I love. Tonight promises to be another: New Year’s Eve with my family, friends and partner.

Moving forward, my intention for 2017 is to attention. It’s the only way to stay grounded in a world that’s spinning too fast.

Share your new year’s intention in the comments or tweet @CilaWarncke

Savour your surroundings