Being a social media editor broke my brain. I don’t mean that in the hyperbolic “I’ve-spent-so-much-time-on-Twitter-that-I-dream-in-memes” sense, although yes, that too. What I mean is that, after two full years of checking my phone every 60 seconds, I’m suddenly incapable of doing anything—watching an episode of my favorite TV show, making dinner, reading a book—for more than 15 minutes without a distraction, whether it be reflexively reaching for my cell or tidying my apartment. (Yes, I am a procrasti-cleaner.)
I know this makes me sound like an old lady, but the iPhone is the root of my productivity problems. It’s a gateway drug to other distractions. It started innocently, checking the screen only when I received a notification, but soon enough I was involuntarily picking it up every time I broke eye contact with my laptop or book. Now, I’m conditioned to taking these frequent intermissions, and am no longer limiting myself to just watching a few Instagram Stories; it takes me five times longer to do my work than it should.
Every day as a social media editor consisted of a series of micro-tasks, like writing a Facebook caption or sending a Tweet. Typically, none of these took me more than ten minutes. Make, post, repeat. Or, more accurately: Make, post, check my phone for audience engagement, check my phone for emails, check my phone for texts, repeat. I was one of those mice in a maze experiment, scurrying around corners and in circles, searching for cheese.
That whole focus thing is sort of important because I’m now pursuing a Masters in creative writing. After two whole years, the days of analyzing user engagement and blocking trolls and replying to Gmail chains with, “Per my last email…” are over. In this new parallel life, I’m meant to write for hours at a time in a fancy Moleskine notebook; to walk around with my nose in a book and a Ticonderoga #2 pencil tucked behind my ear.
But every single time I sit down to read or write, I’m tortured by a nagging sense of needing to check my notifications or buy a dustbuster on Amazon or vacuum the corners of my apartment with the dustbuster I bought on Amazon. And then the dustbusting break turns into a dish-washing break, and the dish-washing break turns into a Facebook break.
Numerous friends and colleagues have suggested I just turn my damn phone off, which seems like an easy fix, but the anxiety I feel at the thought of being entirely unreachable is enough to distract me from my work. Screwed is the child who sends a mother’s calls straight to voicemail.
So naturally, I got a landline. Yes, it is I, The Only Millennial in America with a Home Phone Number.
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After falling behind on assignments in my second week of classes due to mindless Instagram perusal and other technological distractions, I decided I had no choice: I ordered a cordless home phone. It is literally the least sexy thing anyone in my age demographic has ever purchased on the Internet; I’m so embarrassed by its presence in my apartment that I keep it hidden behind a plant on a high shelf and the only people who know my number are the members of my nuclear family.
But you know what? It’s actually helping. When I’m home, I’m able to turn off my iPhone and actually focus on my writing without fear that I’m missing something urgent. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve received four calls total since I purchased it a month ago: one from my mom, asking me what I’m wearing to a cousin’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah; one from a man who’d misdialed; and two from a confused woman who insists that she keeps getting calls from my number.)
However, while this phone has certainly curbed my cell phone usage when I’m in my apartment, it doesn’t do me any good once I leave, and it certainly hasn’t dulled my desire to refresh Twitter 100 times a day. So I (home)phoned Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, for some professional advice. He couldn’t confirm that my brain is indeed broken, but he did say that my tendency to become distracted and my crippling phone dependency are quite common.
“People start having panic attacks when they have to turn off their phone. It makes people very uneasy,” he says. “There’s a desperation to get back to social media, social interaction, social exchanges. Snapchat, for example, has these messaging ‘streaks’—it’s designed so you have to respond quickly and you have to stay up to date.”
Reisinger tells me that the amount of messaging we receive now is probably 10,000 times more than what our grandparents received, and “that’s on the low end.” “Back then, your physiology had time to calm down. You always had a safe place, a shelter, away from the messaging. Where do we have downtime now?” he asks me. “Where is the safe place? We’re ‘on’ 24/7 with little ability to relax, and that actually changes the way your brain is functioning. It’s always in alert mode.”
This “alert mode” that many of us now inhabit all day long actually saps the glucose from our brains, which is required for creative or thoughtful thinking. This probably explains why I—and anyone else attempting to flex their creativity—struggle to get the work flowing. “All cellular functions in our body require an energy supply, or fuel, to function. The brain’s fuel is glucose, a sugar,” Reisinger says. “The alert/alarm networks of the brain are designed for ‘survival.’ When the brain is using such survival networks, other areas receive less glucose." He adds that survival networks have priority over other networks—brain areas used for creativity, exploration, recovery, and fun have a much lower priority.
In order to reverse these habits that are messing up our flow, we need to create new ones. “You can shut off your phone and tell your friend you’re getting offline, but you have to get over that fear, that addiction,” Reisinger says. “Try shutting your phone off for five minutes at a time. Then ten minutes. And every time you succeed, give yourself a pat on the back. It’s like building a muscle. You want to build some strength.”
Of course, easing up on our screen time won’t suddenly prevent us from succumbing to distractions at work or alleviate the need to take breaks. And if you’re like me, these breaks become opportunities to accomplish menial personal tasks (making a grocery list, responding to emails, Insta-stalking my crush), which can quickly snowball into an hour-long event.
So how do we use these moments of downtime to actually benefit our mental health, instead of continuing to scurry around the mouse maze?
“Allow the break to be a place that has some joy and excitement in it," Reisinger says, suggesting a walk outside. “Or try the raisin exercise: Just hold a raisin between your fingers and look at it—pretend you’re an alien and haven’t seen one of these things before. Observe what it looks like, smells like, sounds like. This exercise makes you more aware of your environment and allows you to enjoy novelty.”
I know that raisins are a controversial food item. Please feel free to try this with a chocolate chip or a Goldfish or whatever it is you’re into. Just remember to give your brain a breather, and to power down your phone, even if it’s just for five minutes at a time. And above all, remember that a Panasonic cordless phone only costs $29.99 on Amazon.
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