• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Going Off the Grid

On breaking your mindless phone habits.

December 19, 2017

Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.

I love my cell phone. It’s sleek, fits in my too-small girl-pants pockets, and comes out largely unscathed every time I unintentionally throw it on the ground. Throughout the course of graduate school it has slowly become an extension of my hand: I anxiously search for it when I forget where I left it, and I incessantly lock and unlock it using the fancy fingerprint reader when I’m fidgeting before a seminar. Sure, the pings of my email notifications come in with a pleasant baby blue light, and yes, the rear camera is perfect for capturing my crunching through leaves around campus. Yet I know I miss out on things when I’m glued to a screen.

Cell phones, email, and social media are great, they allow us to stay up to date with long lost acquaintances and provide some very helpful tools for organizing our lives. Having access to researchers around the globe can help us to grow our network, and connecting with a virtual community of other students can offer much-needed moral support. However, there is a growing body of research showing just how detrimental this constant access can be to our focusing skills, work productivity, and daily life. It even spans outside of academia, as taking a “digital detox” is a growing trend and big-name executives are eschewing fancy smartphones in favor of unplugged time for their family. The rise of technology, while having so many benefits, has allowed us to disconnect from the real world. You can get pulled from deep work by a single text message regardless of whether or not it’s important. You can avoid talking to your friends and family by checking social media even when you’re sitting across the table from them. Worst of all, your entire evening can be ruined by one stressful email that likely could have waited until morning.

I’m as guilty as anyone, but it has got to stop. However, the answer isn’t as simple as banning smartphones and deleting all your social media accounts - we can’t perform our jobs effectively without keeping communication channels open. So how can we as graduate students take a step back from our devices to better focus and engage without losing out on the benefits? Here’s what I’ve been doing to wrangle my devices so that I can try to live in the present and fully engage.

First, turn off email notifications. Don’t think, just do it - I promise your world won’t implode. Over time I’ve begun to realize that most of the information I get in my inbox is just a distraction. Newsletters are not urgent. Meeting requests are not urgent. Messages from my advisor are not usually urgent. Many of these messages can adequately be answered in an hour or two when I check my inbox. However, there is an art to this. Make sure you check your email manually a few times throughout the day so you don’t miss anything too important. If there are people (like your advisor) who might need something more immediately than in a couple hours, communicate with them ahead of time work out a way of connecting. Give them your cell number, let them know they’re welcome to stop by your desk, or consider using a team communication app such as Slack. My lab has recently started using this, and it’s enabled me to fully ignore my email when I’m in the middle of something because I know my boss can message me directly if he needs something. If you just can’t bear to part with your email, implement inbox filters to limit notifications to certain people, times, or topics. Or, if you’re feeling extreme try an email sabbatical.

Speaking of apps, fine tune your notification settings. With email my personal favorite way to do this is use Outlook’s mobile app which sorts my emails into “focused” and “other.” When I had notifications on, only the focused inbox would alert me to new messages and automatically filtered out the spam. Analyze each of the apps you use on your phone and decide which ones you need notifications for and which ones you don’t care about as much. Here I’d suggest turning off all social media notifications. It’s unlikely that you’ll forget to check it later and it’s probably not worth disrupting lunch with a friend to see what another friend in another city is eating for lunch. Limit notifications to ones you care to know about immediately and turn off the rest. This can be app-specific or fine-tuned for particular types of notifications from a given app. You can even use another app like Tasker to control times of day that notifications are allowed or built-in operating system functions to control “do not disturb” settings.

Consider deleting apps off your phone and logging out of accounts on your computer. I found this an effective strategy to prevent the habitual opening of apps even when I didn’t intend to look at them. If there was a particular offender, I would delete the app off my phone before I went to bed and not re-download it until I got home from work the next day. The same thing with online websites, I’ve stopped leaving the browsers logged in so it takes a conscious effort to access new content. By increasing the opportunity cost of going on social media it forced me to be conscious of time I spent online and limit usage to times when I knew I could relax.

Don’t carry your phone with you or keep it next to you at your desk or in bed. Do you really need to stare at a screen as you walk down the hallway to the water fountain or take a rest break at the gym? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been run into by someone glued to their phone screen and not watching where they are going. Additionally, research has shown a correlation between distance to your phone and levels of distraction and disengagement. Consider turning on airplane mode while your write or keep your phone on silent and out of sight. Try plugging your phone in across the room instead of by your bed so you’re not tempted to succumb to an hour of scrolling in the morning. This will allow you to consciously choose times you want to be distracted and give your brain a much-needed break.

Consciously uncoupling your life from your phone will be difficult and not always straightforward. Often, you’ll look around and realize you’re the only person in the room not on your phone. That is scary and makes you feel incredibly self-conscious and left out. It’s okay. Take a deep breath, realize it’s not weird or shameful to sit without an electronic device in hand, and revel in the simple enjoyment of observing the world that is around you. Take the opportunity to offload your brain for a bit, people watch, or strike up a conversation. After all, inspiration tends to strike when you least expect it.

It’s that time of year when we at GradHacker also go off the grid. Have a great holiday and see you when we return in January!

[Image by Flickr user Doug Belshaw with adaptation from Andy Lark and Owen Lin. Used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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