As you read this, I have gone into hiding. Really. Try to ring me: you won’t get an answer. Try to email me: you’ll get an out-of-office without a promise that I’ll check for urgent messages once a day. Try to reach me on social media: you won’t get a tweet out of me and there’s nothing to like. Try to app me: those two delivery ticks you’re waiting on won’t appear. Not for two weeks. Not until I’m digitally detoxed.
Sometimes, I think back of the days when I started out as a freelancer. I barely used email and mobile phones were the size of fridges. My newspaper and journalism school both still used the good old hot waxer machine and I physically pasted my own first stories on the pages. If someone needed me for an assignment, they rang my parents’ landline and I checked my paper diary to see if I was free. The phone book was my bible, I spent a small fortune on magazine and newspaper subscriptions and accessed the rest in libraries and archives.
I didn’t have Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Google Calendar, LinkedIn, Instagram, Youtube, WordPress, Hootsuite, Mailchimp, Flipboard, Kindle, Paypal and Skype to run my business. But I did have one thing that has become increasingly scarce with the introduction of new technologies: focus.
Every time I read statistics about digital technology usage, I am torn between thinking it is both efficient and highly distracting. The average person checks their phone ever six and a half minutes. Three quarters of people say they absolutely could not spend a day without their smartphone or computer. In the UK, independent regulator Ofcom says that the average mobile phone subscriber sends 200 text messages per month, but that figure is heavily distorted since the introduction of Whatsapp. And we somehow still find time to watch 241 minutes of TV per day, too.
Creative freelancers in particular have had a lot to thank the digital revolution for when it comes to the running of their business. Without the Internet I certainly wouldn’t have been able to build and sustain my business as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as I have. More so, I would never have been able to do it all largely by myself, without the need for web developers, coders, personal assistants, administrators, PR agents and –to some extent- even publishers. The stuff I’ve been able to teach myself by simply watching YouTube tutorials, attending webinars and browsing user forums is pretty amazing. And at a fraction of the cost of a college degree.
My office is anywhere, as long as there’s wifi or 3G-signal for my laptop or phone. I plan everything on the go. No bus, tube and train journey is left unused to reply to emails, update to-do-lists, research stories, engage on social media, check newsletter reports and website stats, schedule appointments and plan interviews. But it is not just travel that has been transformed since I have a mini computer connected to the internet in my pocket at all times. Breakfast, supermarket queues, a friend who turns up late in the pub, ad breaks on TV and even episodes of writer’s block have all been given a new use.
But people who understand our brains better than we do ourselves say that it isn’t all that helpful. Even before our lives were interrupted by tweets, status updates and app notifications every three seconds, researchers found that doing more than one task at a time takes a toll on productivity. Psychologists studying cognition say that “mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.”
Despite everything we’ve gained, we are losing our ability to concentrate. To focus on one task. To switch off and make room for new thoughts that we can actually think through. We are more switched-on than ever, but we have lost the ‘off’ button.
There is a counter-movement appearing, ironically spreading through the web. There are ‘disconnect to connect’ ads, screenless weeks, digital detox camps and even a National Day of Unplugging on March 6 next year. But I’m not waiting until 2015.
I’m starting today.