Is it Time for a Digital Declutter?

We all love our mobiles, tablets and laptops. But could your relationship with tech be affecting any of your other relationships? If so, maybe it’s time for a digital declutter.

I was born in the seventies. I grew up with Donkey Kong, the ZX Spectrum and Walkmans so I’m slightly (!) on the old side to call myself a digital native but I embrace new technology and, on the whole, I think it brings enormous benefits to our lives. Every now and then, though, I do a digital declutter – take stock of my relationship with technology and make changes if I need to.

Below are a few tips if you fancy doing one yourself (and a bit of background on why you might want to). Go straight to the tips or read on…

Technology is a tool. You should use it, it shouldn’t use you.

How often do you see a table of – normally young or youngish – people out for dinner in a pub or a restaurant all on their phones?

The first time I saw it I was shocked. Now it’s a relatively common sight but it’s still horrible to witness – it looks so rude!

Surely, the more that sort of behaviour becomes ‘normal’ the more social skills – speaking to real people – will suffer. What’s considered socially acceptable is changing fast and if we stop talking to people in real life we’ll lose the ability to do it.

Mobile phone addiction is already ‘a thing’ and so is phone-call phobia. We’re fine communicating via technology but speaking to a real person? No, thank you!

We’re slaves to our phones and we allow them to interrupt us all the time.

We’re notified every time someone calls, texts, emails, or interacts with us on social media, whenever there’s a breaking news story, someone scores a goal and on and on and on…

Studies have shown that we check our phones on average more than 150 times a day and US smartphone users touch their phones an average 2617 times each day.

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What do we possibly think is happening that means we need to check them that often?? Can you imagine walking to the front door 150 times a day to check if any post has arrived?!

Our brains are hard-wired to seek novelty and stimulation.

Probably a hangover from the days when we had to keep scanning the horizon for enemies – our brains seek novelty. We love to see those little red dots and open an app, it gives us a tiny dopamine hit so, like Pavlov’s dogs, we feel rewarded and can’t wait for the next one.

But this need is affecting our relationships with friends and partners.

Here’s a quote from an article about the reasons people give for getting divorced, it was in the Metro last year [link to article]:

Family lawyers are seeing an increase in women and men arguing that their spouse’s constant texting or social media use constitutes ‘unreasonable behaviour’.

Something designed to help us connect can drive us apart. And it’s not only divorcees who cite loneliness when their partners are more interested in their phones than them, it’s an awful lot of people on social media where it often feels like it’s about the quantity of friendships rather than the quality that matters.

Have you heard of Dunbar’s Number?

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who’s done a lot of research into human relationships looking back thousands of years. Through his work, he came up with ‘the Dunbar Number’, which is 148 (you’ll often see it rounded up to 150).

One-hundred-and-forty-eight is the maximum number of members in a social group people can “function with effectively in social relationships”.

That’s 148 people made up of about 5 close friends, 10 good friends, 35 ‘just friends’, and the rest are acquaintances.

Those are averages, some people have more friends, some have fewer but I hate to break it to you, those 837 people on Facebook can’t really be your friends! Humans simply can’t maintain that number of social relationships.

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Facebook hasn’t been around long enough for people like Dunbar to look at trends over multiple generations but there’s plenty of research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that social media is affecting us, what happens longer term remains to be seen.

Apart from novelty and stimulation, my brain is addicted to information. I love reading and learning.

There are 4.5 billion pages on the internet and I know from looking it up that it would take me more than 60,000 years to read them all but my brain still wants to give it a go.

When I log on to LinkedIn, I try and read every update since my last visit. Why do I do it? Why can’t I stop myself!? I have no idea, it’s a compulsion.

I don’t consciously think, ‘I must find out what all 2000 people I know professionally are doing today’, I just read and scan and scroll.


digital declutter

I used to do something similar on Twitter. I’d scroll and scroll mindlessly, not even really reading, just glancing at tweets, liking one every now and then or replying or retweeting. I’m not saying Twitter has no value, of course it does, but when I reflected on what I was doing, the time I spent doing it and how it made me feel, I realised that, for me, it’s a total waste of valuable time. I left Twitter two weeks ago and I haven’t missed it for a second.

That was the start of my most recent digital declutter.

If you’re thinking of having a go at controlling the tech in your life, here are a few tips (some I’ve come up with, some I’ve borrowed from other people) that you might find useful.

Digital declutter tips:

  • Don’t use your tech in the bedroom except, say, on Saturday mornings
  • Use an alarm clock instead of your mobile to wake you up (most of us look at our phones as soon as we’re awake and get sucked into checking emails, WhatsApp, the news…)
  • Don’t take your phone to the bathroom with you (we all do it!)
  • Check your email and social media accounts at a few pre-planned times each day and don’t look at them any other time
  • Remove links from your Bookmarks bar – it’s amazing how much less frequently you visit a website if you have to type the address in first
  • Don’t always answer the phone when you’re with other people, it’s like saying ‘the person calling me is more important than you are’
  • Never have your phone on the table during a meal (this one should be illegal!)
  • Use the ‘Repeat call’ feature on your mobile so if someone rings repeatedly they’ll get through even if your phone is on ‘Do not disturb’
  • Ditto with ‘Favourites’ so some people’s calls always come through even with your phone on silent
  • Make sure your nearest and dearest have your landline number
  • Turn your notifications off (it takes 23 minutes to get back to what you were doing after you’ve been disturbed!)
  • Don’t look at screens for two to three hours before you go to bed, the blue light plays havoc with your sleep patterns
  • Use the f.lux app if you have to be on your computer/tablet before bedtime
  • Pick up your phone or your tablet when you need to use them, don’t pick them up every time your hands are empty
  • Listen to what Passenger have to say about it and get out into the great outdoors…
We should run through the forests, we should swim in the streams,
We should laugh, we should cry, we should love, we should dream,
We should stare at the stars and not just at screens…
… We want something more not just nasty and bitter,
We want something real not just hashtags and Twitter…
– ‘Scare Away the Dark’ by Passenger

Technology, going digital, social media, it’s all incredible. It makes life easier, it enables new relationships and opportunities, it makes things we wouldn’t have dreamt of being able to do years ago possible, and it provides me with a livelihood and job I love so I’d be the last person to knock it.

But for me, technology should be a step forward, a better way of doing things, an improvement on the status quo, not just another distraction from what’s going on in front of me. And it should always be a tool: we control it, it doesn’t control us.

I’d love to know what you think, especially if you’re a phone addict. Do you enjoy it or does it rule your life? Has your addiction caused you any problems?


P.S. Here’s a link to that song by Passenger. Go on, it’s worth a watch… ‘Sing it out now!’

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4 thoughts on “Is it Time for a Digital Declutter?

  1. Well done on your digital declutter, Sally. Will check out the Passenger song 🎶

    The phone-checking figures are horrifying but don’t surprise me. I was at a conference in summer 2016 when the speaker from Twitter said that the average person unlocks their phone 110 times per day. It can only have increased since then.

  2. Thanks, John. Our chat on LI the other day was my inspiration for writing this post. I was quite excited and thought I’d invented the term ‘digital declutter’ but sadly it already existed!

    It’s amazing, isn’t it. Once you realise how much you check it and how much is unconscious you can figure out whether you want to change what you do or whether you’re fine with it. Realising that the first thing I do on waking is check my phone suddenly struck me as a bit tragic.

  3. As a self-confessed connectivity-addict this blog’s very interesting Sally. I wonder where our tech addiction will end…youngsters going out for dinner together but all sat in isolated booths messaging each other on a touch-screen mounted in their table?

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