Switching phone data off at 8.30pm freed me from being enslaved to internet

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This appeared in Livemint website on July 17, 2018

I’m way more productive, and much less stressed. My evenings are spent enjoying quality family time

I embarked on an “8.30pm data-off plan” four weeks ago to regain a sense of equilibrium in my life. I had reached a breaking point of sorts. Each time I picked up my phone, I was subjected to an information overload, I found my senses assaulted by various relevant and irrelevant things. Prioritizing was becoming increasingly hard. I was constantly distracted. I would jump from news and email to WhatsApp, then Twitter, Instagram, to checking missed calls, to googling something; all this kept me from doing what needed to be done. I had begun to exist in a state of constant distraction. And it was leading me down a precipitous path.

One day I saw a bunch of missed calls from my brother, accompanied by a text asking me to call him urgently. I picked up the phone to call him and saw something in my inbox that needed attention. And I “forgot” to call him back. When I finally remembered and called him, I couldn’t get through. Several hours of high stress ensued. Turns out, he was boarding a long international flight and needed me to do something for him. I’d let him down and it made me feel miserable.

This distracted existence was creeping into my world outside the phone screen too. I would walk into a room to get something, spot something else that needed attention too, and forget why I had walked into the room to begin with. I would get up to head somewhere, and, while grabbing my keys, find something that also needed to be done. The next thing I knew, I was late everywhere I went, and stressed because of a pile of things I just couldn’t seem to finish. The way I was using my phone was affecting the way I was operating without the phone too.

Work-life balance didn’t exist, as the work—most of which we do on our phones—never seemed to end. I was overstimulated and underproductive. Add to this the constant need to seek external validation for our thoughts, ideas, photographs, posts. I was on an instant gratification trip.

Like any de-addiction programme, this started out hard. The first day had me itching to grab the phone and check for updates. I suddenly didn’t know what to do with my hands, since I didn’t have the phone on me (phone without data is no fun). I would start a conversation with real people, and want to leave halfway, like one could on social media. I didn’t know how to put myself to sleep. Social media is the bed-time stories that adults read to themselves.

By Day 4, it got easier. I found that I was sleeping better and longer, since I wasn’t wandering in the wonderland that Instagram and Pinterest can be. By Day 10, I was no longer feeling compelled to constantly check my Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts, even during the day when data was on. And I was able to take a bird’s-eye view of the vitriol and “setting of narratives” on social media. I no longer felt the need to say something on a trending topic or seek external validation for what I thought and believed. By Day 15, I was feeling at ease and less wound up with anticipation of what could be in my inbox, chats or timeline.

However, like any addiction, there were withdrawal symptoms. I felt the need to share my anguish the day India lost to Australia in the Champions Trophy. Or use travel time from work to home to be online way past 8.30pm. I was beginning to have FOMO and fear of putting data on the next morning—that I would be greeted by an onslaught of things to deal with.

On the upside, I’ve made a lot of progress in the last four weeks with this simple exercise. The world goes on just fine, I’ve discovered. I’m using the smartphone smartly, setting the agenda, rather than the other way round. I’m way more productive, and much less stressed. My evenings are spent enjoying quality family time.

I have a long way to go and regulating phone time isn’t going to be easy. Each time I feel the urge to bust my 8.30 data-off rule, I remember what Arianna Huffington, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post(now HuffPost), told me—that in the early days of electric power, people slept with their lights on because it was such a novelty. We soon realized that in order to use it to better our lives, we didn’t need it on all the time!

Gul Panag is an actor, entrepreneur and hobby pilot.

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