A week with Do Not Disturb mode

2023-09-24 00:00:00 +0000 UTC

One Sunday afternoon this month, I set my phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode, then decided to leave it that way for a week, as an experiment.

Why? I was working my way through Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, and somewhere around chapter 5, the author makes the point (rough paraphrasing) that your life is your attention; which I understand to mean, you can see your life as a collection of memories and subjective experiences, and these are the sum total of the moments of what you’ve turned your attention to.

The next time my phone buzzed, it was hard to square its demands on my attention with everything else that matters to me. I don’t want my subjective history of life to have so many voids left by unsatisfying scrolls of… “content”. And usage of my phone is a silly number of hours I have available to myself, where I could instead be doing something I find fulfilling.

So, I decided to make an experiment, to see if I could silence my phone with Do Not Disturb mode and reclaim some attention.

What happened? Mainly nice things. For one, I generally just had less of an urge to look at the phone. On an iPhone, even if you unlock it, the apps are quiet – there’s no red dot or number showing you the things that the phone wants you to look at. So it was less tempting to me. If I wanted to distract myself, I deliberately had to choose to do so by tapping on an app, I was not pulled into the experience. Otherwise, I would glance at it, see the “Do Not Disturb” text and icon, and choose to do something else. It was like a little nudge – “is this really how you intend to spend your time?”

Then, when it came to using the phone, I was also more focused to do the task I wanted to do (message someone) and get out as quickly as possible. One way I felt about the overall experience of engaging with it: like choosing to dip my feet into the stream, rather than shielding myself against a firehose.

A complication with the experiment is that setting Do Not Disturb on the iPhone also enabled it on my Mac. I hadn’t bargained for that in my experiment, but quickly appreciated the silence it gave me to work without distraction on more complicated tasks.

But, it’s a double-edged blade, as the peace of mind also meant it was harder to e.g. respond to Slack messages quickly for synchronous conversations. And not having notifications about upcoming meetings made it difficult to arrive on time; I ended up setting alarms on my phone, which was awkward.

One counter-intuitive effect of the experiment was that, while I was able to reduce my screen time (25% down for the week & book reading was way up; the week after, screen time is up 29%, I barely read a few pages), and focus my attention more on things that were valuable to me, I had heightened anxiety and stress about what I was missing. Was a colleague waiting for my reply? Did my family text me? Was there something important in Signal, WhatsApp, Google Calendar, Slack, email, etc? The low-level anxiety about missing an important notification offset the peace of mind I otherwise had from muting the phone. It almost felt like I was holding my breath at times, without the regular flow of notifications and pings.

I don’t want this level of dependence on a phone (or computer). I remember when I first got a phone two decades ago, and the double feeling of “this is cool, I can find my friends any time” juxtaposed with the more sinister thought that now anyone could also find me at any time and anywhere, whether I wanted that or not. With the smart phone, the problem became that much worse: now any nonsense can seize my attention at any time.

And our lives are what we turn our attention to.

So, it might be time for another experiment.

This time, I’ll leave notifications enabled on my computer, which I use for work, and where I can engage with Signal/WhatsApp, so I won’t worry about missing messages from family or friends, most of the weekday anyway. But the rest of the stream of moments of attention that go into a day: I’d like to keep those for what I choose.