Seeing the Forest for the trees

Experiments in being more present in my life

Kit Collingwood
Aug 5, 2018 · 5 min read

This post is about my attempts to focus and be present more in my life, both in and out of work. By writing I hope that:

  • in talking about these things openly, others may feel less anxious about experiencing similar problems
  • my experiments might inspire someone else to do similar, and
  • I might learn from others’ experience if they reply.

The problem to be solved

My life, like that of many people, is quite hectic (in a good way). I have a full-time job, two small children, and I am part of One Team Gov, to which I happily devote my personal time. I also have a relationship, family and friends who are very important to me, and a few hobbies I like to keep up with.

In order to manage these things well, I need to be able to calmly context-switch between topic areas; to find time to reflect; and to take care of my own physical and emotional needs as well as those of others.

Recently I noticed that I was feeling less able to find balance between the many things that are important to me; I wasn’t taking good care of my own needs, particularly the need for calm reflection. I was less focused, increasingly erratic in switching between thought streams, and less productive.

Most of this behaviour, I realised, was around the use of technology.

The black mirror

In my day job I lead various teams across the country, and I have to context-switch a lot to be effective. It means a lot of emails, phone calls, video calls and texts. It’s hard to keep up with all the types of communication — or stimuli, as I’ve recently been thinking about them — but it’s necessary. I rely on technology, particularly my phone, to get my job done.

I am in a long-distance relationship, for which I need technology to communicate.

Many of my friendships are often conducted through messaging services, and I mainly see my parents and siblings over video calls.

In short, technology enables many wonderful things in my life, and it’s necessary too. But, using tech frequently was leading me use it way more than I actually needed to. I was spending more time than I’d like refreshing, checking and instantly responding to things on my phone, which was reducing my sense of calm.

I was overstimulated and it wasn’t good. I often felt like I wasn’t as present as I could be in my everyday life. So I’ve been doing a few experiments recently to optimise my use of technology, particularly my phone, in order to give myself some time back and allow for greater focus and calm.

Experiments in being present

  1. Forest and Moment

I’ve been using these two brilliant apps together over the last couple of weeks, to help me get off my phone. Moment monitors your app usage in detail (yes it must be a data goldmine for them, but for me it’s worth it) and presents it back in easily digestible insights, including coaching to improve your stats. It’s great.

Screengrab from Moment

However, the real revelation has been Forest. This app gamifies being off your phone; you take a break for a set period of time (up to 2 hours), and a virtual tree is planted if you stay offline. The tree you’ve planted dies if you open your phone and navigate away from the app. When you’ve saved up a certain number of credits by planting trees, Forest plants a tree for you in real life.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It really, really works. In a world where I need to be on my phone sometimes, I’m now spending around 10 hours of my waking life every day not checking it — mainly by not replying to messages straight away and by breaking the reflex to check Twitter or the news.

Screenshot from Forest

2. The angle of my head

My previous commute consisted mainly of messaging, reading the news, listening to music or watching videos. I’d get to work and hardly know I’d travelled. I wore headphones the whole time.

I looked up from my phone recently on the tube, and I could barely see any faces, only the top of people’s heads. It looked like a strange kind of worship (it is, really). So I’ve experimented with keeping my head up recently — keeping my chin level from the time I leave my front door to when I get to work. No headphones, no phone, and (mostly) no book.

I’ve discovered two main things from this experiment. Firstly, I notice the world more. I’ve clocked a beautiful sunset I’d otherwise have missed, a major raid on an industrial unit, planes taking off, a shoe hanging from an impossibly high lamppost. Weird, tiny, funny things that have made my days a bit richer.

And secondly, there’s something about keeping your chin up which makes you keep your chin up. I can’t describe exactly why, but those extra minutes just watching and listening without the veil of technology have made me so happy and calm that I now value my analogue commute.

3. Tiny hacks

To supplement these two main experiments, I’ve taken some tiny actions to reduce my temptation to use technology. Thanks to Kylie Havelock for many of these, and for suggesting the apps above, and for keeping me going.

  • I’ve turned off or muted all but essential notifications on my phone. Essential means anything to do with my close circle of loved ones. My day job lives on other devices and I usually put those away when I get home
  • I don’t check my work phone in a morning until I’ve set 3 goals for the day. This stops email from defining my to do list.
  • When I need to do long writing I don’t start it by typing onto a screen. Instead go somewhere where’s there’s just daylight, me and a piece of paper.
  • I asked my team for feedback on my use of technology, and acted on it. Unsurprisingly, they told me they wanted me to be with them and not on my email when we’re together.
  • I meditate often, focusing on things I’m grateful for and on reminding myself I’m allowed to stop.
  • I write longhand a little every day, without any pressure or planning. This reminds me that my thoughts come out more clearly if technology is not the medium I’m delivering them through.

That’s all, folks

I hope you’ve found this post useful. I’d love your thoughts, here or @kitterati on Twitter.

Kit Collingwood

Written by

Working in digital government. All the books, music, words, laughter, feminism, inclusion. Compulsive optimist. Helping reform government through OneTeamGov.

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