I was lucky enough this summer amidst the challenges with travel, to get away to Croatia with my family. After such a long period of not getting away I felt like I may have forgotten how to switch off and how to actually ‘holiday’.
Day one; venturing down to the pool with my book and all of the wonderful paraphernalia that is taken for a day such as this. The sun was shining, the water was warm and after a short while in the pool with my son I felt a pang of something……. and then a thought entered my head that I needed to check my phone…….like a strong magnetic pull…. I went into system one* thinking mode, climbed out of the pool and began to dive into emails, WhatsApp messages, Viber, LinkedIn, Instagram, the list continues. The most worrying thing was that in those 30 minutes I was no longer on holiday, I was back in a busy workplace responding to emails and thinking about next steps and projects ahead in the coming months.
A short sharp burst of Dopamine** no doubt was released as I picked up my phone and it started to take my attention. This phenomenon is well described in a Netflix movie called ‘The Social Dilemma’ and I urge you to watch this if you’ve not already. I realise that my system one had really taken hold and I was no longer experiencing my holiday, but instead something very different. Rather than looking at the sky, beautiful trees, wonderful greenery and experiencing the calm and fulfilling weather I was no longer present.
Once the hormone levels had dropped, I put my phone back in my bag and tried to relax back into the holiday…… that thing that we look forward to for years! My mind soon drifted back to the content I’d seen, which had filled my mind moments before. Trying to urge myself back into my holiday and become present, I decided to walk to the bar and get a nice cold beer.
On my walk to the bar I was absolutely horrified to notice that perhaps 90% of the bronzed bodies around the pool were indeed using their phones. Now if I’d seen many of them with headphones in I might consider that maybe they were listening to an audiobook and actually switching off or leaning in to something worthwhile (of course people may have been doing something more useful as I didn’t see their screens…. but I am not very hopeful about this). But this wasn’t the case. People were hunched over, avidly staring into this small rectangle in their hand. I realised I wasn’t alone in my phone addiction. Often normalising behaviours can be comforting but in this case it wasn’t.
As a psychologist; human behaviour is what makes me tick. I decided it was time to do a little bit of research starting with myself. I walked up to my room and put my phone safely away and out of sight and reach. ‘I can do this’ I told myself. I picked up a notepad in the room and walked back down to see my family. On the route down, my demons started to kick in……what if somebody was unwell at home and needed to contact me? What if there was an urgent work enquiry that couldn’t be left for another seven days? The questions continued in my mind, arriving like buses at a coach park filling me with doubt about my actions.
I recognised that these were the clever strategies of a hooked mind and so I decided to write these thoughts down.
Much of the work we do focuses on accepting our thoughts, recognising them, hearing them and not ignoring them. When we try to ignore our thoughts they can become more powerful and I certainly didn’t want this to be the case. I wanted to be free of my phone and to experience my holiday. ‘Ah ha gotcha’ my brain shouts at me…. ‘how are you going to take photographs without your phone?’ I wrote this down.
My informal research question to myself was ‘if I remove my phone will my desire to use it reduce?’. I decided to measure this through writing in a journal. I carried this journal around with me and whenever I felt the urge to check my phone I noted it down. I also noted down what thoughts were accompanying my urge to use my phone in order to encourage it.
The second half of day one was surprisingly difficult and also surprisingly shocking because of how surprisingly difficult it was!!!!!! The number of times that I automatically reached into my bag to grab my phone without even thinking was remarkable. I didn’t even classify myself as a big phone user… I was clearly wrong.
Day 1; 56 conscious thoughts about checking my phone!
By the end of the second day I was noticing more. I was going for walks and engaging in my environment. Although I believed I was already doing this (with my phone) when I went for runs or walks, I realised that in the absence of my phone and the regular ‘checking’, I began thinking more deeply about life, projects and people. Without the tactical distraction of ‘checking’ I could spend the time thinking about and also reconciling challenges in my life.
Day 2; 36 conscious thoughts about checking my phone!
Day three I wanted to go for a run. I know that in order to motivate me I need to listen to good music while running. I wondered whether this was simply another powerful thought to engage me back in phone use. So my challenge was to listen to music whilst running and not access any other phone apps. Airplane Mode!!! This would make it possible, while still preventing any notifications popping up and emails pulling me towards them. And I could even use my camera too, this was a revelation for me.
Day 3; 12 conscious thoughts about checking my phone!
Day four and five came and went, and for the first time in too long I thoughtfully engaged and thrived in my time away. Something interesting also happened in these two days. Although I was still thinking about checking my phone it wasn’t having the same cognitive effect on me………. I felt like I had begun to unhook and unplug. I’ve always found myself easy being able to be in the present. This experience made me realise that in the presence of a phone that was much harder for me.
Day 4; 15 conscious thoughts about checking my phone!
Day 5; 10 conscious thoughts about checking my phone!
Day 6 and 7……………… I forgot my journal! And no longer felt the need to notice my thoughts about my phone as I was engaged in my holiday.
*System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach”. System 1 activity includes the innate mental activities that we are born with, such as a preparedness to perceive the world around us, recognise objects, orient attention, avoid losses – and fear spiders!
**Dopamine: Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. That’s why it’s sometimes called a chemical messenger. Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It has been
described as our reward centre.
This blog was written by Naomi de Barra – a Business Psychologist and valued member of The Career Psychologist Team.
When we get overwhelmed with distressing emotions or unwanted thoughts it’s a bit like being brought out to sea by a strong current into the middle of the ocean. If we don’t know what to do we can feel tired, frightened, exhausted and alone. Our mind might be telling us there’s no way back, our breathing can get faster and as we struggle to stay afloat by treading water or trying to swim against the current, it can feel exhausting and terrifying. Sometimes our mind might even tell us that drowning might be a good way to relieve our distress. One thing is for sure, the more we struggle the faster we will sink!
To a poor swimmer, doing “nothing” in such a situation would be counter-intuitive, in fact they just wouldn’t think of it. But to an accomplished swimmer, lying flat on the water comes naturally and easily. This is how one person describes their experience of staying afloat:
“I swim out and just lie on my back in the ocean, allowing ripples to pass under me. When larger ripples or waves surprise me I accept this, knowing that the moment will pass and the uncomfortableness I feel will not last forever. Sometimes, after I float for a while I look up and can see I’ve been carried away by the current and I know what to do. I don’t swim against it, instead I either let myself go with it until it brings me back to shore or I swim sideways instead, without tiring myself. While I lay back I can even notice the feeling of the sun on my face, the sound of the gulls, the smell of the sea, the sensation of buoyancy and the taste of salt on my lips as I allow myself to think about the things I am grateful for. Then, when I’m out of the current I will swim into shore and be with the people I care about. The worst that will happen is that I may be 100 metres further down the beach but I won’t have tired myself out and I won’t have drowned”.
Sometimes, we can feel overwhelmed with distressing feelings, physical unease or unwanted, judgmental thoughts, particularly in quieter times or when feeling under stress. These thoughts are just like the ripples in the ocean; they never stop but they always move on past us. Some are small while others are larger waves, which hit us unexpectedly and can knock us off-kilter. Sometimes, life can even feel like we are caught up in an overwhelming current of emotion. This can occur in any life domain including work and careers, personal lives, relationships or individual general health and wellbeing. The good news is that ways to deal with life’s waves and emotional currents can be learned and practised, so they don’t have to overwhelm us. Indeed, just like we can learn to stay afloat in the ocean we can learn to stop struggling, lie back and wait for our unwanted thoughts and feelings to pass us by. For some people this might involve getting help from a psychologist, coach or therapist, for others it may be helpful to start with mindfulness exercises to help them to focus on our breathing and connecting with their five senses (what they can see, feel, smell, taste or hear), until they come safely back to shore.
Mental health problems can arise for many of us in the workplace. The above metaphor was developed in collaboration with two clients who gave consent for this to be published to help others. Both individuals are highly successful business executives; one of whom suffered from work-related anxiety and panic attacks and another who suffered from chronic depression and at times could become submerged in suicidal thoughts. If you’re struggling with your mental health in your career or working life, you may benefit from having a quick chat with a career psychologist. A good starting point may be to have a look at The Career Psychologist website (https://www.