I knew it would be barely sustainable for me, a Millennial working in the precarious creative field, a small business owner, a woman plagued by an unshakable sense that I’m forgetting something or not doing enough to claim success; still I tried, and subsequently failed, to take a digital cleanse. I aspired to turn off my phone and limit computer time as much as possible without losing my jobs for about two weeks (give or take) and utterly failed. Though, I did learn something.
I run the social media of two different businesses and manage a business of my own. I’m a freelance writer who spends hours researching and writing on a computer. I spend my free time reading articles and wandering around the vast expanses of the internet like I’m Mad Max. I’ll spend hours scrolling through Instagram, feeling increasingly bad about myself, aimlessly imbibing content that I’m not even enjoying. I’m among the least likely to be able to unplug, but the most in need of breaking out of the anxiety of being always on call. I don’t think digital communication is inherently bad; I’m able to learn things I wouldn’t otherwise and keep in touch with friends in other cities. I literally specialized in it in graduate school. However, social media algorithms built to keep you scrolling, notifications that keep us on edge, and the slow death of true leisure, make life particularly hard for many of us.
On the first day of my failed retreat, I planned to do just the bare minimum of what I had to do to keep my myriad jobs. I woke up, posted a few things on Instagram and Facebook, then turned my phone off. It was remarkable how quickly I could move from one thing to another, without having to locate, let alone listen to, my phone. I made some food, I organized the flotsam and jetsam that collected in the recesses of my closet. Admittedly, I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do. So I read. I read nearly 100 pages in two days, something that rarely fits into my lifestyle because it is one of the few things that cannot be multitasked. Reading is a solitary, quiet action. That’s part of why it feels so good.
I turn everything into work, I commoditize my time and energy, I even put things like “paint nails” on my to do list because I wouldn’t be able to give myself credit for having done something unless it fits within a productivity frame.
I almost always work while listening to a podcast or YouTube video. I don’t know when I started or why working in silence feels uncomfortable, but it does. Part of my justification for it is that I’m multitasking, something that study after study shows humans are just not good at, but which feels so much more productive to me. Why not do two things at once? But I’ve had to re-listen to podcasts or lectures two, even three times to finally get what I wanted out of them once I realized that I was tuning them out, using them as pacifying white noise. However, it feels so unproductive to just sit and watch or listen to something. It feels lazy to just relax, unless it’s a performative relaxation, one that’s photogenic and aspirational (and tugging at the relationship between “lifestyle” and class). Being pulled in multiple directions by multiple screens feels like it’s a good use of my time because I would hate to be seen as lazy, but then, suddenly, everything is work.
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This is an example of what writer Oli Mould refers to as “domicide” in his book Against Creativity, in which the workplace creeps slowly into the home and leisure time. If I get home from work and want to relax on the couch, might as well do so with my laptop so I can answer emails or outline an article. But even when you’re passionate about your work, even if it’s something you love but also happen to do for money, it’s still work. This is facilitated by the omnipresence of ways one can be reached. If you have your phone on you at all times, an email can distract you at dinner, you might feel compelled to answer a Facebook comment asking what your hours of business are at two in the morning.
The forces behind that domicide are not only capitalistic expectations of being a good worker, but how that notion colonizes one’s sense of self, creating anxiety and fear. On some level, my life orbits the fear of someone yelling at me. I was at a friend’s house playing a board game and I couldn’t fully listen to the explanation of the rules because I couldn’t stop myself from responding to someone who had a negative review of the popup arts market I run. It doesn’t matter what their opinion was, I heard “you’re doing a bad job.” I take on excess work for fear of the hypothetical person or authority saying “you’re not doing enough. You’ve been given this time on earth and you’re wasting it. Doing what? Playing on a Nintendo Switch?” I deny myself things that would bring me pleasure because of supposed expectations from omnipresent external forces able to contact me through countless online portals.
Part of the reason I decided to start this digital cleanse was pure anger. Early in July, I was working on a timed skills test for a potential job (that I was ultimately offered) and turned my phone off for about two hours to work on it. When I turned it back on, I was met not only by a barrage of emails, text messages, and notifications, but a Facebook message from someone asking about scheduling for my market and after he didn’t see a response in an hour, a followup “Mary, please respond.” One hour. This confirmed my fear that someone’s waiting to yell at me when I’m not always on call and absolutely perfect, but I was overcome for a change, by fury, not despair. Yes, I’m worried about what people think of me, but will the world truly stop circling the sun if I’m not at the beck and call of everyone else?
This is akin to what feminists call the “mental load.” The mental load, particularly in heteronormative partnerships, explains the stress put on a woman to manage the household chores, forced to delegate and give specific tasks to their partners, who bear none of the managerial tasks of remembering or doing more than is necessary. While the original idea is viewed through a gender binary, the core element is still there. Women and femmes are socialized into people pleasing habits, and are therefore more likely to feel a sense of responsibility to put the needs of their social group ahead of their own. Being extremely online suddenly expands that social group to include high school acquaintances, coworkers, strangers, customers, and trolls. We’re accommodating to everyone who asks for our time, and there will always be someone online asking for your time, either to explain something, do something, read something, or critique something. What’s worse is that when strangers are demanding your time, it’s easy to feel the same way towards friends and family. Relationships are either subordinated to work or feel like a chore. If you have five notifications on Instagram, and one is of a close friend, you still might respond to all of them with the same glib coldness to move on to the next batch on Twitter.
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I failed my “week off” because I succumbed to all the tasks I took upon myself and the necessity of having a phone to run a business, to respond to comments, to plan a friend’s bridal shower. Doing the minimum to keep my jobs slipped into meandering, procrastination, and ultimately a retreat that was neither restful, nor stressful. I was suspended somewhere between true time off (which I achieved some times through reading or cleaning) and working (I just considered cleaning the house “time off”…).
I failed to completely disconnect from the stress I put myself under because it’s scary to just be, to not be performing, or taking photos, or accommodating others, or working. It’s hard to admit that sitting and watching something is perfectly fine, and that I don’t need to act like I’m on a precipice between failure and success. Life resists those binaries.
I failed because it’s not necessarily the phone that’s bad for me, but it plays to my worst habits. Being in constant contact, having an audience at all times, they pervert the typical way we interact and look to others to see reflections of ourselves. I might believe myself to be intelligent and thoughtful, but humans are bad at ascertaining our values and flaws. Donald Trump tweeted that he’s “a very stable genius,” and though he may even believe it, it’s objectively false.
So, we need feedback from others to show us who we are — that usually happens in face to face interactions. If others grimace when you say a joke, it was unduly hurtful. They laugh when you’re funny. They support you when they feel supported by you. But when you’re in constant contact with an audience, not only of one’s peers, but everyone, we’re always second guessing everything. And there will always be someone online more than willing to tell you “you’re doing a bad job.”
The old say of the young who are bullied online: to “just log off,” but that doesn’t stop the doubt. The creeping feeling that that person is right, or worse, that your suspicion that you’re a bad, lazy, haughty, unpleasant, unlovable person was correct. We absorb the assumptions we make of the world and sometimes those little voices in our heads saying we’re not good enough were put there by another person, and other times it’s by an Instagram comment or a grumpy customer.
But, you can’t make everyone happy, and failure isn’t necessarily bad. I so wanted to have a retreat where I cooked and read and worried about nothing other than what I was to do next, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me this time. But I did get a chance to reflect not just how my smartphone makes me anxious but why. Why is often a much harder question, but I believe it’s worth asking; being “always on” is taxing because it creates an untenable mental load and expectations of immediate gratification bleed into our interactions with colleagues and friends. We’re empowered by selfies, but social media offers a funhouse mirror reflection of our worst selves, gives credence to our doubts and faces to our anxieties. Our phones’ notifications and apps’ algorithms are built with obsession in mind, trying to keep you watching, scrolling, and reading for longer than you’d like to so they can make money.
I used to be slightly annoyed at my business partner for having a healthy set of boundaries — only working certain days and not responding to questions until she was in work mode — but her method was far superior to my frantic domicide. I might not be able to fully unplug for a while (that new job I mentioned? It’s remote work at a political digital communication firm. I’m not going anywhere), but I do have much more reverence for my boundaries. I won’t claim it’s been smooth sailing, but I’m learning to not force myself to work late into the night. I’m also learning that dinner with friends isn’t the time to worry about emails.
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Feature image by Stil via Unsplash.