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How can I switch off from being accessible 24/7 without feeling like a bad friend?

IMAGE VIA WILDFLOWER CASES
WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Call me, beep me, if ya wanna reach me. 

I was at a drinks night recently with some writer friends. Writer and content creator Maggie Zhou told me over a rose that she has the majority of her notifications (socials, emails) switched off at all times. Shock ensued. Admiration followed. Shame lingered. ‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘Isn’t that inspirational. Am I capable of doing that?’

My phone is unfortunately an essential extension of myself and my entire work life. I am reachable 24/7 as my scattered jobs often transcend emails and venture into the abyss of social media and LinkedIn messages. Instagram is where a lot of business can come from if you’re a freelancer.


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And if you’re in PR/marketing or the likes, you’ll often need to keep a close eye on the activity of clients, stakeholders, competitors, the news cycle and creatives you’ve engaged to complete paid partnerships.

The fear of missing a beat or a transient Insta story is crippling for those who like to stay on the pulse digitally. For clipping social content in PR (screen-grabbing the story when it goes live), you need to be watching socials closely. And a missed email emergency for a typo in a piece or a time-sensitive story? Disaster. 

It got me thinking…

So how does one switch off? Without admitting myself to a non-technology retreat or having my electronic possessions stolen in a highway robbery, I don’t think there is a definitive way. Maybe Maggie is onto something with the notification thing though. I think I’d be a lot more present and permanently less on edge if I switched off Gmail pings and unhinged from Hinge. 

Messenger gets me good. I’ve recently turned my ‘active status’ off on the Messenger app and it has soothed my accessibility angst immensely. I am now no longer visibly ‘active’ and available to my friends on chat. I’m not doing this to avoid, ignore, or omit anyone’s news from my life.

My theory is, if someone really needs to grab me, they can call or text. Otherwise, I’ll jump on the ol’ FB after I’ve gone to Coles or Pilates or finished putting out a work spot fire. But this year, I began to get really bad anxiety around neglecting friends’ messages when they could see I was active elsewhere or uploading a story to Instagram. 

The guilt associated with the switch-off 

Just this morning I received a note from a friend in Sydney’s lockdown, reading: “I’m SO sorry, I haven’t opened Messenger properly in ages. I think I’m going as okay as I can be.” I hate it when friends say ‘Sorry’ for not responding in a couple of hours, days, or even weeks, because I’d never want to inflict stress or self-loathing on them.

I don’t think we were made to be responsive and available to everyone at every second of every day. Doing nothing doesn’t mean you’re ‘free’, and I often forget this. I struggle with downtime and solitude. 

It’s important to realise some of the most precious and integral moments in our lives can be the ones of complete silence and stillness, like reading a book in bed on a Sunday or sitting in a green space with a coffee after a long walk. These uninterrupted moments are vital to our mental wellbeing. 

Just like a drug

I read Evelyn Lewin’s piece on ‘Switching Off’ in Sunday Life yesterday. She explains – with the help of author David Gillespie – that “many apps on a smartphone are designed to be addictive”. To reset our minds, she recommends accessing a “steady dopamine level” by doing something that takes your “undivided attention”.

This could be a puzzle, unloading the dishwasher or reading an old Vogue. She explains that over time, these activities can act like a nicotine patch for digital addiction, adjusting our craving dial down so that we no longer crave those frequent hits. 

I am the latest to the party, but a few weeks ago my Apple Watch arrived. My friends wholeheartedly embrace the strap-on phone extension. They’ll log indoor dances on a night out or stand up at rogue intervals when the watch tells them to ‘breathe’. But it has not been love at first wear for me. Going to United Ride or Love Athletica is my chance to switch off completely.

It’s maybe the only time (aside from being in a movie theatre or sleeping) that I’m not within arm’s reach and eyeshot or within the pulse range of my phone. It’s my time to let go. But the Apple Watch means I can feel a shot of electrodes on my left wrist.

What’s next? Microchipping? In my first spin classes wearing the gadget, I was scattered. Buzz! Matt liked you on Hinge. Buzz! Outlook notification. Buzz! Text message from OPSM, your contacts have arrived. 

This mood is felt by many

As Lorde says in her latest summertime anthem, “Can you reach me? No, you can’t”. The Q&A two-liner has gone very viral on TikTok, in case you hadn’t noticed. And of course, it’s been buoyed by millennials’ existential crises.

Usually, the sound is accompanying a 20-something doing their own thing on a Sunday or clocking off from their corporate job for the day bang-on 5pm. Of course, this trend only reinforces the notion that we’re all craving an escape from the incessant beeps and buzzes of our work and life notifications. 

Receiving and registering a menagerie of messages may seem like a shortcut to increased productivity. But how is anyone supposed to get anything done, be it work, play, catching up with a friend for a walk, or working out, without cutting the umbilical cord from the digital world for a second?

What can you do to detach, if only partially? 

Obviously, aeroplane mode is a thing. But I do not have the mental capacity to make a move so bold unless boarding an actual aircraft. So I’ve started switching my emails off on my phone as a first step to disconnection. I figured, emails can wait if I’m not actually on my laptop.

Also, my signatures go all whack on my phone anyway. Removing the stimulus (aka the notification) will remove the response (aka a haste reply). Often, my on-the-go responses are messy and mindless, so this is probably doing a lot more good than I even first anticipated. 

I think the first step to cutting back is turning off one app’s notifications at a time. I’ve also tried hitting do not disturb when I start reading (or binge-watching The Secret Life of Us) before bed. The theory? I spend more than enough time fixated on my phone during the day, so a full decompression from both work and social interaction requires removing the source entirely during late twilight hours. 

I won’t be far away from my phone anytime soon, but I will be making a conscious effort to detach at particular junctures in the day to better separate my work time, my social time and my me time. If you’re starting to feel the phantom buzz of an Apple Watch when it’s not on your wrist (true story, this happened to me yesterday after only one week of wear), then I suggest you have a crack at doing the same.

If you’re looking to digitally detox your life, try these tips.

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