Learning to appreciate

A recent article I read, 100 Blocks a Day, had me thinking a little about the value of time and how I spent it, whether the ways I spent it bought me happiness. As my spare time has reduced quite drastically in the past year and a half I took stock. Some things were clearly beneficial and fun. Others things I felt rather hung up on. I didn’t want to react negatively, but trying different things out felt like a good thing. A few little changes felt like they could make a big difference.

It wasn’t too long ago that I realised I’d become addicted to something, not like drugs or alcohol but to my phone, or rather social media. A quick fix of other people’s photos, comments, shares and likes would be what I needed. But as time went on I discovered just how much time I’d spend actively looking at social media. Push notifications are supposed to alert you to new things, but somehow that wasn’t enough. I found myself regularly just refreshing, to see if there’s anything new. Before, timelines were chronological. You’d see the latest at the top, and could scroll down to see what you’d missed. But now what you see isn’t in your control. You’re given a prescription of your social fix. Something an algorithm has deemed worthy of your next fix. The illusion of control — ‘see first’ and ‘unfollow’ are options for you to have a say in what you see. Regrettably, I regularly find myself missing out on the things shared by people I care most despite this. Instead I’m shown controversial and already ‘popular’ posts.

Video games used to be my vice. I’d been addicted to them before. Like a glutton for punishment I’d return time and time again to a game that I wasn’t particularly enjoying just to prove to myself that I could do better. My spare time filled more with games than anything else. Before that it was TV, which took a back seat. I had a group of friends I’d play with online. But eventually the competitive nature of online gaming tested that friendship. Thankfully not beyond repair. Games came and went as the focus. I found even with the time I spent on them, far too much, that I was missing out on things. Numbers mattered, maximising damage, speed, efficiency. But gradually I came to the realisation that the accomplishment all felt empty. The fun and enjoyment from gaming as a child had evaporated and I was left feeling I’d wasted time. That feeling was almost incomparable to the one I felt recently playing Mariokart with friends and colleagues over the festive season. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get from the faux-innocence response of ‘Oh did you?’ 😇 to your exclamation that you lost a life right at the end of an intense kart-battle from a friend! Far more fun.

Nowadays there’s an almost ‘no-wait time’ for things. You can buy something and have it within an hour without leaving the comfort of your sofa. Gone are those days of waiting in for the post to come and clunk on the floor, or a knock on the door. Will it arrive in today? Will it come before the weekend? We’re kept up to date more than ever before. Estimated delivery windows. Companies now update us on the stages of a package. We no longer fill in a mail order form and just hope that weeks later something arrives. We know when something’s being processed, packed, dispatched, out for delivery. We can track where our package is. It’s second nature to check. But now I find myself asking why. I’ve gone from checking the state, to just waiting for a delivery. The office I work in emails me that something is delivered for me. I don’t even have to wait until I get home. This is a huge convenience, especially as no-one has to be in for a home delivery, or missing it with a distant collection point and no car.

As child I eagerly anticipated the arrival of small K’nex models that we’d posted off small cut-out tokens from my Mum’s Weetabix cereal boxes to get. Occasionally I’d even be allowed to do this while the box was still full of cereal; if it meant I would have enough tokens to get the next kit. These seemed to take weeks to arrive, which might be wildly off, I was a lot younger then. So every day from the start of the shortest estimated delivery date I’d be hoping that the post would arrive before I had to go to school. This would of course do me no good — I’d just spend the school day wishing I was at home building them. Even when it did arrive I just pined after what I could make with them the whole day. Once I’d made a larger robot (dwarfing Action men, a formidable opponent) with moving arms, only to later augment it with racing car feet. So it could slide along with ease.

Takeaways were a rare treat growing up. I can’t recall more than a handful of Chinese or Indian takeaways at the dinner table. As I got older there were occasional kebabs after playing in the Orchestra on a Friday night — I knew how to live, right? — McDonald’s would be a rarity despite my best efforts asking, read - begging, for a happy meal. There was no chance at all that I’d actually end up with the toy I was after. But looking back I’m grateful of that, they’re still a treat because of their rarity. I much prefer to rustle something up myself.

Instant messaging is a great way to catch up with people, but it’s still weird to me to see ‘active x hours ago’. Conversations online have moved towards being open-ended. Slack at work is particularly prone to causing distraction. I feel a tendency to need to reply immediately. It’s instant-messaging after all, right? But I’m in the office with these people. I can see that it can be more disruptive to have a chat. But if work takes up more than half of your waking hours during the week nurturing those relationships is important.

In-person conversations regularly reference things online, a picture, a quote, a video, a gif. It’s often expected that you’ve seen it, or you’re soon bought up to speed if you haven’t. These feel like they’ve become a replacement for the news on TV, or radio. I find this quite welcoming. Good news feels ever-sparse. Applications have been changed from just having a link, to previews of the content, and even extracting the key part completely, to save even exiting the app’s experience. Visually pleasing animations for sent, typing, received, and read states all contribute to a pleasurable feeling. However, totting up the time I’d spend daily in these apps, in comparison to actually typing or reading was a little worrying. I recently read that in 2016 Facebook’s vast user base reportedly spend an average of 50 minutes a day in their app offerings; Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, not including WhatsApp.

It used to be that I’d only get notifications of new things through email, which I’d have to consciously decide to check. Now each app has their own mechanism. My phone buzzes, beeps, and lights up to get my attention. As does my iPad, and laptop it’s on. Three devices letting me know (nagging) that there’s something new to see. My reaction used to be to grab the device and see what it was. I’m now also reminded of things that happened years ago. Which I started to see as a “come back” plea for attention. There was a time when notifications would directly related to you. Now event pages I’ve liked notify me when they upload a photo. That show of interest felt like I opened a gateway of shoulder tapping notifications. They started to frustrate me, feeling tricked that it might be interesting. Being tagged in a post saying that you’re out and about felt like great way to tell everyone that I wasn’t home, instead of something nice. However, once I received one along the lines of “You haven’t posted in a while” I felt some sense of achievement in bringing about this change.

Picking up the phone, each time getting some more of that drug. The brain releasing a wave of dopamine. This habit has a danger of eating our time, draining energy, sapping self-esteem and it all adds up. In an era of optimising many aspects of life this certainly seems a good candidate. But how can that cycle be broken? Reducing my usage of something which is now regarded as a cultural imperative has been difficult but necessary. I found my mental health suffered greatly as the cycle continued. I would draw unfair comparisons to friends, and more often than not I’d see myself in an unkind light.

As we strive to optimise our lives we start to lose out on the little things. Part of it might be due to growing up, but there’s still plenty of joy to be found in the little things. Like seeing cards and gifts arrive for special dates. Unveiling thoughtful gifts and messages from our loved ones. Hidden surprises out of our control.

It wasn’t until I started a long commute — an hour and a half each way — that I really found the value of ‘free time’. I look back on occasion, depending on my mood I’ll see it as squandering time, or making the most of it.

Since I’ve taken a step back from social media I’ve given myself back time, felt happier, and have more mental freedom. Now, I look forward to the next Dance class, or Dance social. I can once again easily sit and watch something without checking my phone. It’s tiring to divide attention, heaven forbid missing a good bit!

I didn’t take an approach I’d read about — deleting apps. It worked for a while, but I felt a fear of missing out. Another way was to turn off notifications, so that it’s a conscious choice to check. But I challenged myself to tackle it head on and take back control. In hindsight the disabled notification route would have probably been an easier option.

For me, it hasn’t been about consuming less content, but more allowed me to pick and choose when. I can now take my time in replying to messages and properly appreciating what my friends are up to, giving them my full attention. Combining this with daily Headspace meditation, I feel more productive, accomplished, and happier as a result.

After writing I found the following: