Two months ago, bright and early on a Monday morning, I tapped into my phone’s settings and switched off my email notifications. My family’s annual week at the cabin had begun, and after wrapping up some final to-dos, it was time to check out for a few days.
You see, despite my many attempts to cut down on screen time in the previous months (which I wrote that I would do in this very column last October), my usage had gotten more out of control. I was checking my emails, texts, and social-media feeds first thing in the morning and last thing at night, on weekends, at stoplights, at dinners with friends and family, even during my morning walks, when I should have been seeing nature instead of another news-feed update. If I wasn’t on my phone, I was probably on my laptop.
“Mommy, look at me instead of your ’puter.” Those were the words that finally pulled me out of my virtual rabbit hole. It was a few days before our trip, and I was working from home with my girls. All day, I kept putting them off so I could finish one more thing. But the 4-year-old was done with my excuses.
And there were plenty of them. Too often when my girls needed help or wanted to show me something, my responses were, “Just five more minutes” (which usually turned into 10) or “I just have to finish editing this article.” I was so busy on my devices — both during and after normal work hours — that I wasn’t available for the most important people in my life.
I refused to let that be the case during our few days away together. So I began to pay attention to the habits that were triggering my excessive screen use.
I realized that when I was away from my laptop, I’d compulsively check email on my phone to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Then, rather than putting the phone away, I’d almost immediately open Facebook or Instagram. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a quick email scan turned into 20 minutes of mindless scrolling — and missed opportunities for real-life connection. (Investigative reporter Charles Duhigg describes identifying routines like this as the first step in sustainable habit change — learn more at “The Power of Habit“.)
Realizing email was one of my gateways to disengagement, I made a commitment to truly disconnecting during vacation, something I hadn’t done in too long. The tiny action of switching off my email turned out to be incredibly eye-opening and freeing. In those few days, it felt like a weight lifted and I could breathe. I played with my kids. I had conversations with my husband that didn’t include references to news headlines from social media. I read two books for fun.
The experience was so stress-relieving that I decided to leave email turned off on my phone when I got back to the office; with the exception of a day or two as needed, I’ve stuck with it. It turns out, most after-hours emails don’t require immediate responses, and my kids love having a more present mom.
A simple tap of a phone setting — that’s all it took to initiate an important shift in my life. I still have work to do to reach my healthier screen-time goal, but it’s a start. And that’s better than nothing.