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BREATHING SPACE

What I learned from a digital detox coach

Twitter is my crack, the iPhone is my drug dealer and most people take their phones to the loo. Marisa Bate meets Tanya Goodin

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By Marisa Bate on

I’ve noticed it happening, creeping up like a rash, seeping in like water under the door. My phone is always in my hand.

It’s there on my way to work, on my way to Sainsbury’s, on the sofa on a Friday night, in the pub with a friend. In the short walk from the tube to my office, I refresh Twitter six, seven, eight times. I can’t open my laptop without opening Twitter. My urge to refresh is so great that I’ve started setting a deliberately shaming stopwatch on my desktop in order to humiliate myself by the little time I can stay away. (There’s also something particularly galling about becoming addicted to an app that is essentially in decline and mainly used by navel-gazing journalists.)

I am aware that there’s a science behind our addiction to the constant updates, the endless stream of nuggets of information, the interesting for a second until you’re onto the next thing/thought/meme. The dopamine in our brains is trigged by the instant hits and we’re left craving more, more, more. But I am not that person. Or at least I never use to be. Recently, I spent 18 months as the proud owner of a burner with no internet connection. On holiday, I happily and actively avoid any wifi connection. I’ve stopped using Instagram altogether.

But something has changed lately. And now Twitter is like living with nits – the constant, shaming itch to scratch away at sentences that are mostly entirely meaningless and often unhealthy, either in how they make me feel about myself, or about others.

I’ve also noticed that when it comes to my job, I have been feeling flat, deflated. Ideas are not coming, things I have been writing haven’t been quite sticking or coming together as I would like them too. I can’t articulate myself, I can’t find that spark of something that would normally lead me to someone or something interesting. I can’t do anything because I’m too busy clicking refresh on Twitter.

 Now Twitter is like living with nits – the constant, shaming itch to scratch away at sentences that are mostly entirely meaningless and often unhealthy, either in how they make me feel about myself, or about others.

 

So it was somewhat convenient when I received an email offering me a coaching session with digital detox coach, Tanya Goodin. Goodin’s written a book called Off and had worked in digital for 22 years before she had a “meltdown”, around three years ago, that manifested in two parts. Firstly, Goodin realised something was wrong when she had been told by a sales assistant in Carphone Warehouse that in order to fix her phone, they would need to keep it for 12 hours. “I couldn’t cope” she told me. “I thought my life was on that phone”. Secondly, she was asked at a dinner party what was the best book she’d read in the last six months. She realised she hadn’t read a book in two years.

And so she went abroad, started to research, spent time in Silicone Valley, where she discovered the logging off movement, or the “internet sabbath” as it is known. Remarkably, the people at the forefront to the digital age were recognising that we shouldn’t be on it all the time. Even Steve Jobs had strict rules about when his kids could use tech, apparently.

Now Goodin offers weekends and weeks away, training people to have a more healthy relationship with the tech in their lives – from social media-addicted graduates to C-suite professionals who have been signed off work with burnout. One TV executive, Goodin tells me, pulled out from a detox weekend because she truly believed she “couldn’t” be without her phone for thee days – even though she had PA and it was a weekend. “I told her there was a landline in the cottage for emergencies but when she found out we’d be going on hour long walks, she said that was too much”.

I meet Goodwin for our coaching session and thoughts tumble out like confessions. I don’t go in for therapy but I imagine what this is what it’s like, someone listening to the things you’ve been too ashamed to tell anyone else. I tell her about hiding my phone screen from my boyfriend so he doesn’t see I’m on Twitter again, I tell her I can’t focus on a simple task, I tell her I’ve been feeling flat and unsatisfied about my creative output.

And it wasn’t until I was sat in front of Goodin that I connected the dots: that too much Twitter was resulting in feeling flat; that my head is clogged with half finished-thoughts of others and there’s no space to formulate my own; that instead of being immersed in the detail of a long read and allowing thoughts to go further and deeper, I’ve learned a lot about nothing in particular. I tell her that often I’ll have “read” the whole paper in the time my boyfriend – who isn’t on any social media platforms at all – takes to read one article because he is *actually* reading, and I’m collecting headlines like I’m in a game of Mario Kart.

Apparently, I’m unusual in some of my habits: I only really use Twitter; I can have long periods without tech; I don’t have problems sleeping; I read actual books on my commute. But like 90 per cent of her clients, I take my phone to the loo, I check it the minute I wake up and last thing at night and my instant defence is “I need it for work”. This, Goodin says, is a common excuse – something even someone who has worked exclusively online for two decades doesn’t buy anymore. It may not be as true as I tell myself, but I still stand by this to some extent: influential voices have conversations on Twitter that I’m expected to know about, Twitter is a barometer for (a section of) public opinion, ideas can be born from it, and most troublingly, a writer’s worth is increasingly linked to their social media following.

So we agree I can’t come off Twitter completely, but how do I mange my dosage? “Twitter is crack and your phone is the dealer” Goodin tells me. “You’ve got to stop going to the dealer”. I tell Goodin I used to be the sort of person that never knew where her phone was but now it’s never out of my sight. So we think about the times it doesn’t need to be in my hand; when I’m in the garden on a Saturday morning or when I’m pottering or when I go out for dinner. And it’s as if I’ve suddenly remembered that I’m happiest when I’m *not* on Twitter, but if I’m on it so much, then am I not happy? There have been countless studies that point to social media making us feel worse – anxious, isolated, jealous and unhappy. And I don’t doubt that. But I start to wonder if my increased usage was a symptom and not the cause.

Goodin’s advice is practical: take the app off your phone (I’d already done that and now access it via Safari in a daily exercise of self-deceit), don’t use it as an alarm clock, leave it at home on some occasions. Her book is a beautifully illustrated pocket guide to small tips and tricks to step away, to log off, to stop visiting the drug dealer and pick up a book instead. And since my session with Goodin, I’ve kept my phone in my bag more, or in a different room. I chastise myself for checking Twitter absentmindedly and am quicker to come off it than be sucked into a rabbit hole of time-wasting. I’ve set myself a quota of two long reads a week and I never leave home without an actual physical book to catch all those in between moments. Goodin forced me to look honestly at my habits, and now I know how to change them.

And, hopefully, now I’m starting to spend less time on Twitter, maybe I’ll have more headspace to figure out why I was there so much in the first place.

Off: Your Digitial Detox For A Better Life by Tanya Goodin is published on 3rd August

@marisajbate

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