Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England. This week: braving a digital detox

I have often spoken of the pressure of emails. In fact, in the last few weeks I missed an important email that has led to fairly awful consequences for a particular client. Nothing that apologies, time and money won’t fix but finding the email was one of those professional moments that makes you go hot from your feet up to your head and makes you phone your boss suggesting he sacks you. 


I have also recently had about 35,000 Whatsapp messages from various school mum groups including one where a mum listed the 90% of the class she was inviting to her kid’s party, and the list didn’t include DALC2. Now I know that DALC2 couldn’t give a damn, and I know that the party will be poorer for not having my gorgeous little party animal there, but I was dumbstruck at the crassness of this woman. There is etiquette around parties; one rule is that you don’t make a big thing of it unless you are inviting the whole class, and another is that if you are inviting 85% you invite 100%. This woman has, granted only in a small way, invaded my day and my mood.

Perhaps, therefore, I was ready to read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, but looking back over the last year or so it is actually quite a turnaround for me now to be even considering it. There was a period from about 2010 to 2016 when I used to have witty potential Facebook statuses flying round my head all day. I almost used to think entirely in potential statuses. And I have absolutely sat scrolling through Twitter, noting what barristers I literally don’t know are cooking for dinner instead of closely watching my beautiful child’s swimming lesson.

Around Christmas 2018 I wrote a blog about Frankie & Benny’s policy of asking parents to have their phones voluntarily confiscated during their meal and my outrage at how judgemental and condescending this policy was. The blog didn’t get published before Christmas and it was too Christmassy to go out after. It was suggested that I refresh it and put it out around Christmas 2019 but so much has changed, and a lot of it is because of Digital Minimalism.

Within a few pages of the book I was feeling sick to my stomach. The average smartphone user, Cal Newport says, uses their phone for 2 hours a day. I mentioned this to my friend and she said she has a usage monitor and it is more like 4 hours a day. She is a doctor who regularly tells me she doesn’t have time to go to the toilet all day.

My previous argument, from the Frankie & Benny blog, was that I use my phone to do my banking, do my food shopping, arrange playdates, make reservations, answer quick work queries when I am not there, look up public transport times, check the weather, text Julie about defrosting things and maybe, yes, flick through social media. I am saving my child from having to go to the bank, or the supermarket, enhancing their life in other ways, and maybe also having a five minute break from them. I don’t need a waiter from a very mediocre chain restaurant to tell me how to parent.

But, I was encouraged from the outset by Digital Minimalism to consider, in very practical terms, which apps enhance my life and which don’t. (Clue: Asda- yes Instagram- no.) It very quickly became obvious to me that the smartphone uses I have listed above do not take two or more hours of my day. Compulsively checking social media- in the post office queue, when I’m supposed to be listening to my kids, when the kids are in bed and we are supposed to be talking to each other, and to be honest, at traffic lights and when I’m on the phone at work to someone dull- is where the time adds up.

Maybe I am just contrary, but as soon as the book informed me that there are teams of IT geeks working day and night in Silicon Valley to manipulate me into staying on social media for a few seconds longer each day, I immediately felt less inclined to do so. I don’t like being manipulated, and I want to intentionally, deliberately, say who gets my time and attention.

I actually deleted Facebook a year ago, because of genuine concerns about the theft of data and the manipulation of elections. You have to be the change you want to see in the world, and I can tell you that making this change has made absolutely no difference to my life. The PTA and the school get me by email. My friends have to text me a photo if they have a really nice meal or are wearing a new dress and- guess what- if it is important, they do. In this world of everyone telling everyone everything, as your guinea pig I can tell you I have had no FOMO, and more importantly I haven’t had to see a single person be passive aggressive about traffic or dog mess on the village Facebook page. It is great.

I heard recently that songs don’t have long introductions any more, and TV shows don’t have long opening credits, because we lack the patience and attention span to stick with them. We have seen the news cycle become so short that politicians can do and say anything one day because we have forgotten it by the next day. Big names like Keeley Hawes have to get killed off part way through a six part drama series to keep us hooked. I am on Season 3 of the Gilmore Girls (from the early 2000s) on Netflix and literally nothing has happened yet. It is wonderful.

There is a concern that if people are able to constantly distract themselves and never get bored, the next Ed Sheeran will never pick up a guitar. What if, when our kids are being appointed as judges, they lack the focus and attention span to consider subtle, nuanced arguments?

So Twitter and Instagram are now off my phone, as are the news apps and my internet browser, and if I want to use them I use my laptop. If you think you can’t ditch an app because you use it for work, Digital Minimalism has a plan for you. I am very close to deleting Whatsapp, but I genuinely need to plan that out, letting people know before I do.

Unlike the marketing department of Frankie & Benny, I don’t care what you do. I understand that a hit of Twitter, when you are looking after small children or working with people you don’t like, is as soothing in the short term as a cigarette break. But if you seem to spend most of your time reading messages or tweets from idiots that didn’t need to invade your headspace, if you want to free up some space in your head or time in your day, if you want to set a good role model for your kids before they start wasting 4 hours a day putting dog ears and noses on photos of themselves, and if you want to resist being manipulated by geeks, I highly recommend the book.