Getting My Attention Back

There I was. All alone in my room. Finally. After hours and hours of trying to get through my to do list, handle all the chores, speak to everyone I had to speak to, I finally had forty five magical minutes to myself to indulge in what I had been looking forward to all week long. I was going to immerse myself in the fantastic world of Harry Potter.  It was the second time I was re-reading the entire book series, and I was happy to find that I had forgotten most of the details that made the book such a charming and fun read.

Just as I settled into Ron and Harry’s antics, my phone screen sprung to life. A little green notification popped up on the screen. It was a Whatsapp message. I looked away from the phone. “No,” I told myself. “I will check it later. I won’t read it now.” A few short moments later, another message popped up. This time, I picked up my phone and tossed it onto my bed on the other side of the room. “No!” I told myself.  “I am not going to check my whatsapp messages.” I turned back to Harry’s efforts to catch the snitch and win the prized Quidditch trophy for his house. But in the back of my mind, there was a vague, nagging suspicion: what if it’s an important message? “Who sends important messages on a Saturday evening?” I shot back. “Leave me alone.” But the nagging voice would not. Eventually I managed to shut it down, feeling proud of myself for having kept my urge to check in check.

Only later did I realise that I had absolutely failed. This dawned on me as I was reading “How To Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in my life, and I would highly recommend giving it a read if you haven’t yet. Amongst several nuggets of wisdom, one that really stood out for me was this one: when reading Imaginative Literature (fiction), try and read it as fast as possible and as immersively as possible. This way, you can fully experience the emotions that the characters are going through with them, and remember the characters, events and places that keep the story tapestry hanging together. And that was when it hit me. Even though I had “managed” to keep my eyes away from my phone, and had beaten the temptation to “check my phone”, it had still interrupted my reading pleasure. That’s when I started to understand that interruptions are not merely in “the outside world”. They are quite often within us as well. This is why it’s so difficult to read a book, or study, or focus on anything, when you’ve just had a big argument with someone close to you. Even though they’re not in the room, the interruption still remains within. It pulls us out of the moment, and reduces our capacity to “enjoy the moment.”

It just so happened that around the same time, I was reading a book on productivity. One of the early chapters of the book is a “Cellphone Addiction” test. There are several cellphone addiction tests online. When I did the test, I scored in the middle ranges. This meant that even though I was not “buried in my phone,” I still used it as “a social crutch.” That means I used my phone to fill in the little “in-between moments,” the “lapses in conversation” and the “I don’t anyone in this crowd” situations. At those moments, I would invariably take out my cellphone with the excuse of needing to check something. The news. The weather. Sports updates. Anything.

The author went on to give some wonderful advice: quit social media. Now, I know that many people would say that Whatsapp isn’t social media. But I do think that it has a social media dimension to it, especially when it’s used to “post status updates” and “share Memes.” For me, the gradual approach to quitting anything doesn’t work. I’m a cold-turkey kind of person. So I quit Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – all at the same time. The main thing the author advised was not to not tell anyone about it, because of the crab in the bucket syndrome. When people see you pulling away from the crowd, they feel impelled to use whatever means – usually emotional blackmail (“don’t you like us anymore?”) – to keep you in the crowd. This is what will happen if you tell people that you’re quitting social media and whatsapp.

I went ahead and quit all of the above. The first three months were hard. Even though the “crab in the bucket” effect was minimised, it didn’t altogether disappear. I still had to endure the occasional jab from colleagues, family and friends. By month 4, I was used to it. After 9 months, I decided to get back onto Whatsapp because my mother said she wasn’t going to spend any more money calling me on the normal phone (she’s in Kenya and I’m in South Africa). So I eased my way back onto Whatsapp, and that’s when the big surprise came for me. I no longer felt the urge to check my phone. Not during the in-between moments. Not during the lapses in conversation. Not during the “I don’t know anyone here” moments. It was like the addiction to the phone-checking dopamine release was gone! The biggest plus was that I was finally able to leave my phone in another room when working, and only check it three or four times a day. I had struggled with this for the longest time, convinced that the world would end, and that I would miss important phone calls from clients and business would come to a standstill. None of these happened. Do you know what happens whenever I miss someone’s call?

I call them back.

If you want to break your addiction to Whatsapp and “constant cellphone checking”, here are the steps below:

1. Accept that you are an addict. This is the most difficult step of all. I now understand why alcoholics find it so hard to take this first step. It is so easy to say “I’m not an addict.” “I have it under control.” “I check my phone when I want – I can work without it.” Sometimes we are so fully convinced that it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility that we could be addicted. My advice to you is this: entertain the possibility, and try the next steps. Because you really do have nothing to lose. The idea you have in your mind of how the rest of the world views you, is far removed from reality. Trust me. The world won’t end if you leave social media. It’s a good rehearsal for when you die. People will be like, “Oh, did you hear so and so died? Pass the salt, please.”
2. Get a second sim card and give this number only to your nearest and dearest friends and family. Inform them that you’re switching numbers, and that’s all. Say no more. Otherwise you’ll get pulled back into the bucket.
3. Shut down all your social media accounts. Do not tell anyone about it. Just do it. Don’t suspend them. Don’t pause them. Close them and delete them.
4. Wait 6 months.
5. Go back to all the above accounts, should you so desire.