This week I downloaded an app called Space that tracks the time you spend on your phone. It sends you little updates when you’ve been on your phone for a long time and then it dims you’re your screen when you’ve hit your max time for the day. Guess what? I spend too much time on my phone. Like, way too much. Like, who even knew that spending this much time on your phone was possible?
It turns out that one day last week I spent 250+ minutes on my phone. I started to wonder how this was even a thing, then I realized what I was doing last Friday. I was promoting my work as a writer.
Self-promotion for me includes posting updates to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It often means taking pictures of my book so I can reuse them as promo. It also means keeping apprised of the many emails I get in a day related to writing. Rejections. Acceptances. Emails from people wanting to interview me or asking about my book. Emails about workshops I’m teaching and workshops I’m attending. Phone calls from editing clients and friends.
When you’re just reading your email and seeing the rejections roll in, it’s really hard to feel positive about writing. Writers who submit their work out know that it’s a numbers game. But that numbers game feels a lot harder when it’s incessantly in your ear, pinging as another notification.
Recently I asked a friend who manages an artist/writer collaborative program about keeping in touch with people. She said that she never has to worry about writers responding to her because we’re always checking our email. I had to laugh because that is the truth.
So where does the line get drawn between self-promotion and self-care? In a world where authors have written entire novels on their phones, is there even a good answer to this question? Or should writers just accept that being tied to technology can help your writing career?
Major writers spend a lot of time on Twitter, like Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Weiner, Chuck Wendig, Meg Cabot, and Nisi Shawl. They use social media to help boost their brand, shout out their news, and meet readers. The internet is a valuable tool for authors.
But overdoing a good thing can be really dangerous. Studies show that being addicted to the screen is associated with structural and functional changes in the brain. These can impact emotional processing, executive attention, decision-making, and cognitive control. All of which are vital to being a writer. Writing uses the important parts of your brain to fuel your creativity. We think about creativity as operating differently in the old left-brain right-brain adage, but the truth is that we need ALL of our brains to get words on the page.
For me, the phone addiction will probably always be a losing battle. But here are some of the steps I’m trying to focus on as a creative person towards digital detox:
1. Spend more time outside.
I’ve instituted a rule that I spend at least thirty minutes (preferably more) of my creative day outside, enjoying the sunshine, going for a walk, or just taking my notebook down to the lake near my house. Not only does this combat the screen fatigue, it also helps stimulate my writing brain. Being outside can change your perspective on a scene, give you more space to check in with nature, and let you observe humanity. (You know, that thing you’re writing about.)
2. Set a limit for time spent online.
When I get to my computer in the morning, I’m always tempted to open my email and start reading it or to jump on Twitter. These days, I’m turning my phone to “do not disturb” and opening a blank word doc on my computer before I do anything else. As much as it judges me, my space app is just one example of useful tools for reducing technology fatigue. Yes, I am advocating using technology to fight technology burnout. If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em with their own game.
3. Practice tangible activities.
Technology is a huge benefit for writers. The sheer number of online tools and resources proves that point. But there’s something beautiful about coming back to the tangible. When possible, I’m trying to spend more time writing by hand or by dictation. I print out my stories and edit them by hand, or edit my poems by rewriting them. This lets me interact with my writing in a way that grounds me. Sure, I still need to jump on the computer when an idea runs away with me, but having a pen in my hand stimulates the tactile sensation of writing.
4. Return to paperbacks.
For a while, I was reading a lot of books on my Kindle, which is great. Until you realize that the Kindle is another screen! I noticed that I was interacting with reading in a totally different way on the Kindle. I’d read a little bit, then get bored and switch to a different story. So lately I’m trying to read more paper books. I realize that this is ingrained with the privilege of not needing accessibility tools that Kindle is so wonderful at providing, but it’s one way I’m trying to change my approach.
5. Accept the world will keep on turning.
Maybe the hardest thing about reducing my phone time is the feeling that if I’m not on Twitter or my email, that I’ll miss out. However, the problem with this mindset is that it asks me to be available 24/7. It’s similar to my problem of not knowing how to say “no” to things. Saying “no” to my phone for most of my day means that I can say “yes” to the things that matter, like spending time with my kitties and spouse. The rest of the world is just going to have to keep on going without me.
I realized that when I was spending less time on my phone, I was also spending more time in my head creating. I think we could all benefit from a little extra time in our lives.