I maxed out the data on my mobile phone plan last weekend. I couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to pay the extra money to get another gig of data allowance to tide me over until my monthly plan reset again.
And so I spent the week without internet access on my phone. I could only get the internet in my apartment or at work. Maddening at first, I had to get used to a phone that couldn’t do much except be a phone. I couldn’t access the newspapers I wanted or my feedly, LinkedIn, twitter feed or my favourite tunes off soundcloud (that last one was especially difficult to live without.)
Now that I was no longer tethered to an iPhone, I noticed everyone else that was. I stood on the subway platform looking around at all the heads tilted downward, eyes down, looking at the screen in the palm of their hand. As the week went on I started to track how long it took for people to whip out their mobile device. For those who arrived at the subway platform without already looking at their phone, it took an average of four seconds for someone to reach into their pocket or bag and retrieve their mobile device.
It happens that a piece in the New York Times yesterday explores this exact issue. It argues, as does my 4 seconds average on the subway, that we are increasingly wedded to our mobile devices. We use them as a means to stay in a constant state of busyness and ultimately to distract ourselves from what’s inside our own heads. We have swapped idle moments of idle time for distractions on tiny screens and an overwhelming need to out-busy the next person.
All of this is not without a price. Turns out there are advantages in doing nothing and embracing ‘idle mental processing’. Benefits we are potentially forgoing in favour of the crazy busy that’s distracting us. Research cited in the NYT article says that down time as thinking time can make you more empathetic and more innovative. After all, it argues, ‘an idle mind is a crucible of creativity’.
The NYT article describes credible research studies that show the majority of study participants found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for even a short time. By a short time, I mean between 6 and 15 minutes – about as long as it takes to wait for the next subway. What’s even more alarming is one research paper found that 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women would rather administer themselves electronic shocks than sit idle with their own thoughts.
I have a natural tendency towards introspection. That other people don’t, to the point where electric shocks are a superior alternative, doesn’t make sense to me. I have written before about how downtime breeds clarity. My New York life is busy and full but I still cultivate the time just to sit and think. Usually left for the weekends and when I’m outside, it’s a way I can push back against New York and say yes, it’s okay to think idly sometimes and no, I don’t have to maximise every single minute to enjoy this city to its full.
I have to be careful, however. I have a tendency to over-think. Over the years I have learnt to find the line between helpful self-reflection and over-thinking and rumination. Dwelling and worry isn’t helpful. Thinking and processing is. The older I get, the better I get at it.
My week without internet access on my phone made me think about whether I even need internet access on my phone. Self-reflection might come easy to me, but even I get caught up in wanting to fill up the idle minutes in my day to day. I’m thinking about downgrading my mobile phone plan to get rid of the mobile data and to only include texts and calls. I’m hoping that by not reaching for my iPhone, my hands will stay empty but my mind will be more full.