I've had all the notifications turned off on my phone for about a year now. Nobody would ever know, though. I never miss a thing. Because the damn phone is always in my hand. I'm never not looking at it. On the rare occasions I'm not looking at it, I'm thinking about the fact that I'm not looking at it.
I'm in an unhealthy relationship with my phone and we need to break up.
My word, the mobile telephone is a wonderful invention, isn't it? For someone like me, who has an intense desire to know everything, all the time, a tiny computer that can answer every single question for me is like a dream come true. I can Google "What's for lunch?", "is dubstep still a thing?", "Is it a headache or am I dying?" and get some pretty comprehensive if not entirely reliable results. I use it to manage my day-to-day life. I make lists, I count calories and steps, I have an app for budgeting, for travel, I check my bank accounts. My whole life is tied up in there.
But I'm not worried about that stuff so much. What I'm most concerned about today is what the mobile phone, more specifically, instant messaging, is doing to our human interactions.
There are a few problems with being betrothed to your phone. You know how, when you go to a restaurant, and they exceed your expectations time and time again, and then one day you go back, and the service is just fine, the food is just fine. The waiters were just polite enough. You feel intensely disappointed, but did they really let you down? No. Do you feel let down? Totally.
That's what happens when you're accessible to everyone that you know all of the time. They begin to expect it of you. They begin to think it's okay to wake you up in the morning to tell you something unimportant. They begin to think it's okay to ask you instead of Google. Because hey, you always respond, you're usually right, you're a smart person. And you're not bothered that they're taking up your time, because you're friends and that's what friends do.
Except it isn't. Friends don't drain each other's resources. Friends don't require access to you 100 times a day. Friends don't get miffed because you didn't WhatsApp them a picture of your lunch or like their new profile picture. But when people have this expectation that you will always be there, always on, and always receptive to them, the moment you let that slip, they feel let down by you.
But you don't owe anyone all of your time. If that person isn't your spouse or child, you probably don't need to check in with them every day. It's okay to be unavailable. Nobody is entitled to 24/7 access to your life.
Years ago, the idea that you might have remote conversations with 12 of your friends every single day would have been ridiculous. Years ago, if I had taken the effort to take a picture of a cauliflower and send it to my friend Helen because it "looked a bit weird", she'd have seriously questioned my sanity.
But instant messaging is just that, it's instant. It's throwaway, it's careless. It's about that moment and not about the bigger picture. But the culmination of all those tiny pointless moments is hours of your time, filled with inane chatter.
And just think what that's doing to the quality of your interactions. As the quantity of your interactions goes up, the quality goes down. You can't keep that many conversational balls in the air without dropping something.
Someone once said to me "Think of your energy like money" and it's something I use whenever I'm overextended. When you spend all of your energy, it's gone. Sometimes you can afford to lend it to other people and sometimes you can't. Sometimes you've got it and you feel like you should give it to someone if they ask, but you should actually be saving it for a rainy day. It takes an emotional toll having 10 people venting all their emotions at you all of the time. You're expending energy that you could be using to be a happier, more productive person, which in turn would make you a better friend.
One of my friends was nominated for an award a while back, a really big deal, actually. He messaged me to tell me and I was working at an event, rushed off my feet. I read the message, replied "NICE" and forgot about it. It wasn't until about 3 hours later when I really took the time to think about it that I realised what an awful thing I'd done. By thinking I needed to respond in the moment, I'd completely undervalued his achievement. I caught that mistake and apologised, but what about all the others I'd missed?
This is a two way street and something we're all guilty of. Because I spend so much of my time making myself available I feel wronged when people don't give me the attention I feel like I deserve in return (I really needed you to care about my weird cauliflower, Helen. What could you possibly be doing that's more important than responding to my cauliflower picture?)
And of course there are things you need people for, things you need to consult your friends on and things you need to talk through and understand. Conversation is important, constant conversation, is not.
So let's give each other a break. I'm not saying don't say hey once in a while, I think the world would be terrible if we stopped sending each other pictures of cats. But if you find yourself being IM needy, or even just wanty, put your phone down, go get a cup of tea, have a bit of a chat with yourself and imagine each little back and forth is a telephone conversation. Would you call Helen to tell her about that cauliflower?
Oh, you would?
The problem is worse than I thought.