How to Stop Wasting So Much Time on Instagram and Despairing About the News

The mind-altering power of being in nature without your smartphone

Alexander Matthews
Nov 14, 2019 · 6 min read

In spite of months ago having abandoned social media and deleted my phone’s news apps, I still seem to be bombarded by dispiriting news. In my birth country, South Africa, I only so much as have to glance at the front of a newspaper to see headlines about rapes in taxis and children gunned down deliberately by gangs. In the business and politics sections of the paper, things are gloomy, too — sky-high unemployment and ballooning public debt, a government paralysed by inertia, an opposition wracked by division. The recent (thankfully brief) return of power-cuts as well as planes grounded due to safety compliance issues brought home the far-reaching, insidious effects of malfeasance, incompetence and misrule.

Zoom out a little, though, and things are scarcely better elsewhere. Britain is in Brexit-induced gridlock. Trump’s trade wars imperil the world’s economy, his foreign policy has imperilled the Kurds and his assualt on the environment imperils old growth Alaskan forests. Buses have been burning in Chile; protesters were teargassed in Hong Kong. Huge chunks of tranquil northern California (where a couple of months ago I was tasting wine), have been evacuated and experienced sweeping power cuts as wildfires threaten homes and futures.

What is there to be done?

I put my laptop and phone away and took my dog to the forested slopes of Table Mountain. The streams were swollen with recent rain, the birds were chortling, the leaves quivering with happiness. The nirvana that is a forest walk with a Weimaraner offers respite — but also a reminder. A reminder that amidst all the chaos, the upheaval, the uncertainty and scary, awful shit, there is an immensity of beauty in the world too. And the more time I spend in nature, the more my attention seems to observe signs of hope in our human world. Some are quotidian — the re-sealing of roads, a giant giraffe sculpture erected in a once-derelict park, a dog walker picking up litter. Then there are a million small miracles created daily by doctors, DJs, rugby players, chefs, winemakers, artists and designers. In South African townships better known for horrific violence, there are surfing wunderkinds, dynamic entrepreneurs, pulsing electro scenes, and grannies growing a bounty of organic veg.

Cultivating attention towards these green shoots is not to ignore the scale of my birth country’s problems (or, indeed, the world’s). But it is, I’m finding, a way of moving from helplessness and constant anxiety towards a calm spaciousness where one feels empowered to make a difference, however small.

In 2012, when the kleptocratic Jacob Zuma ruled the roost, and South Africa was mired in similar levels of despair, the late Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, wrote in her final novel, No Time Like the Present:

Brought down the crowned centuries of colonialism, smashed apartheid. If our people could do that? Isn’t it possible, real, that the same will must be found, is here — somewhere — to take up and get on with the job, freedom. Some must have the — crazy — faith to Struggle on.

I find great solace in Gordimer’s words — in being reminded of what has been overcome. And no matter where you live, her words should offer some encouragement to you too, because, while each country’s history is unique, triumph over near-overwhelming adversity is one that almost all share. For much of Europe, it was surviving two world wars. For Japan, it was that as well as two atomic bombs. While we’re living in a time of turmoil and upheaval, it’s worth remembering that humanity has triumphed over far worse.

The more we are glued to screens, the more headlines we see, and angry tweets, and maddening video clips and pulsing CNN tickers, the more disconnected we become from both our history, and our own surroundings — and how we fit into both. Addicted to every morbid twist and shocking turn, we become paralysed by fear, dismay, frustration, feeling that nothing we ever do will make a difference.

So — join me; let’s leave our phones at home and go back to the forest. Let us stand among trees decades old, many of which will still be standing long after you and I have passed on. Let us drink in the sound of the stream, the fresh scented air. Let’s place our hands on cool, lichen covered rock and wet, furry moss.

Nature not only gives us space to breathe, think, dream and simply be — it also provides us with a sense of perspective. It reminds us of our own smallness, of the shortness of the time we’re on this earth. It helps us to gain a better understanding about what matters (and what doesn’t), about what can be overcome, what can be ignored and what should be embraced.

I’ve long felt this, and long relied on time outdoors as a source of succour, solace, peace and perspective. But I thought Jenny Odell’s recently published book, How to Do Nothing, so wonderfully articulated ideas around this in fresh, powerful, and hopeful ways. (You can find the transcript of the talk which originally inspired the book on Medium.)

Odell argues that time spent in nature keenly observing it — i.e. “doing nothing” as traditional notions of productivity might suggest — is an antidote to the addictive, destructive, disconnecting distractions of social media. Neither she nor I are saying that digital technology and the internet are inherently wrong. She is also not insisting that people should delete their Facebook accounts like I did (though, personally I doubt you’ll regret it if you do). Rather, Odell is calling on us to shift our attention and thus disrupt the ways we use technology — and are expected by the world’s tech companies to use it. The more we practice pausing to observe the natural, physical and social world surrounding us, the less addictive screen-time becomes and, in turn, the less likely the outrages of the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter trolls are likely to provoke despair. Attention directed towards our physical neighbours and the ecosystems within which we live leaves us better placed to offer and find support, create solutions and contribute meaningfully towards positive change — change that benefits ourselves, our neighbours and our natural environment.

In a year where hope has seemed like an increasingly scarce commodity, hours in the forest “doing nothing” — and reading a book which serves as a manifesto for doing just that — gave me an abundance of hopefulness: an inkling that so much is possible if we’re willing to look up from our screens and pay attention to the extraordinary riches that lie beyond.

Further reading and listening:

In addition to How to Do Nothing, I also highly recommend The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, which explores the science behind why time spent in forests and other kinds of nature is so good for our mental and physical wellbeing. Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet gorgeously argues the benefits of less smartphone time, modifying our news diets and the importance of face time over FaceTime.

On Being’s Krista Tipett has conducted so many delightful, soul-nourishing interviews. In particular, two deal so beautifully with attention and nature: her 2015 conversation with the late poet Mary Oliver and the 2012 conversation with audio ecologist Gordon Hempton.

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