Text and the City: Why notifications will be the death of us all

If I’d have attempted to pen this blog post when I actually thought of it, chances are my brain would have imploded.

When it first occurred to me, I was sat in bed, slowly rocking back and forth trying to find a position where my head didn’t feel like it was hammering against the side of a wall, where I didn’t feel like I was about to bring up an internal organ or two and where the consistent throbbing that was gripping my tonsils at the time was just about bearable. Needless to say, I never quite found that position for longer than a few seconds, meaning I spent many an hour dancing around on top of my bed like a spider on a hot plate.

As anyone who follows me on social media will be aware, at the end of March I had a case of tonsillitis that brought with it a less than healthy fever that, until the antibiotics kicked in, left me feeling fairly inhumane for the best part of a fortnight. It’s not the first time I’ve had tonsillitis in recent years and it came at what I hope is the tail end of roughly five months of feeling pretty grotty with one thing or another: An initial nasty cough picked up back in October lasted right through past New Year and was quickly followed up by a succession of colds, the last of which developed into the aforementioned tonsillitis.

In all that time I had, up until the end of last month, only taken a couple of days “off” sick, and even then I’d usually found a spare half hour or so during the day when the pills had kicked in to attempt to keep on top of the work piling up. When you’re freelance and you work for multiple different people, it’s especially hard to take any time off – whether that’s holiday or through sickness – because, if you don’t work, you simply don’t get paid. As a result, despite consistently feeling ill with one thing or other since the start of the winter, it simply wasn’t an option to rest. Taking the time off I probably needed would have more than likely resulted in me being homeless before Christmas had rolled in. I couldn’t even consider it.

That was a mantra I stuck to until said tonsillitis utterly floored me, I’m not too proud to admit. After being diagnosed at a walk in clinic (the earliest appointment I could book at my local doctor’s surgery was a week away, grumble grumble), I then took the rest of the week off and, bar the odd trip for drugs to Boots, barely left my bed the whole time. By the time the antibiotics had done their stuff and kicked the infection into touch, I felt about as well as I have done for almost half a year. It wasn’t easy, but shutting myself down for a few days and closing off the world was what I needed.

"Clarithromycin structure" by Yikrazuul - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia.
Thank the lord for Clarithromycin, which gave my tonsillitis a good kicking.

What was even more interesting was the testaments sent to me in sympathy from other freelance writers, all telling me that they pretty much encounter the same thing, never giving themselves time to fight any illness off because there’s always an article they have a deadline for or an event they’re down to speak at. As a result, you should probably keep your distance from most of the games journalists you encounter in the flesh – chances are they’re carrying something or other, and it might not just be the “hangover from the drinks thing last night” that’s dragging them down.

It’s not just a case of taking additional time off, however, but rather actually relaxing during your supposed ‘allotted’ free time. When you are your own boss, every hour is an opportunity. Every minute you’re awake is time you could, in theory, be earning money, or looking for additional work. If you work from home it becomes especially difficult to partition your time – when your laptop, tablet or smartphone is mere metres from you at all times, how exactly can you justify switching off and relaxing?

For a long time I’ve been guilty of thinking of the ‘freedom’ that being freelance gives you as extra time when I can work. It’s a huge pitfall to tip into, not only because it means that you end up working evenings and weekends and never quite switch off, but also because you begin to relax in the hours you should be working, procrastinating and working at a slow pace because your brain tells you that you can “do the rest when you’re watching EastEnders this evening.”

There are likely freelancers reading this piece who have been in the job longer than I and are currently nodding away to much of what I’ve said but, be warned, this isn’t an infliction that’s limited to people who are self employed or run their own businesses – it’s a trait that, thanks to the advance of technology, is beginning to impact on us all.

As advised by a good friend, part of me taking the time to fight off the tonsillitis also involved me disabling many of the features on my iPhone and iPad that we’ve all come to rely on. On any given day, I can pretty much guarantee that my phone will vibrate in my pocket one every 20 or 30 minutes or so, if not more often at peak times. It could be an email, it could be an SMS, it could be a WhatsApp message, a Snapchat or a tweet. It could be a Facebook ‘like’, an Instagram follow, a Skype message or a Vine comment. Whatever it is, my phone is designed to tell me about it at all times, and if I somehow manage to miss it on there, my tablet will give me a prod or two as well.


So instant are all these services that we almost feel compelled to respond in some way there and then. There’s no excuse that you’re away from your PC – indeed, given the mobile only nature of many of the aforementioned services, being at your PC ironically now stands as a valid reason for taking your time. At all other moments in your day, it’s almost rude not to reply, if only because the rest of the world knows you have your phone on you at all times. You can access Wi-Fi on trains, you even get Wi-Fi on some planes, and most major cities seem to have a 4G connection these days – there’s simply no reason why you can quickly fire off that email, retweet that mention or comment on that Facebook post the moment you see it.

Problem is, not much of this is fun. As logic suggests, interaction breeds interaction, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the more you respond to things, the more likely people are to respond back in quick time. As a result, you can quickly find yourself a slave to your devices, mixing up work with pleasure and living as if constantly ‘on call’. Once again, every moment is an opportunity to work – whether that’s on your actual job via an email or two, or your social standing via a check-in or three, the chance is wide open, staring you in the face.

It’s no cliché to suggest that many of us now spend more time talking about our lives than actually living them, and though I’m a massive advocate of social media and the technology that enables it, letting it define your day to day is in no way healthy.

So my steps to reset my life have been small so far, but nonetheless effective. I’ve taken all notifications off my iPad – it no longer beeps or flashes at me, instead serving as a tool for me to use if and when I choose to. My phone, too, has been stripped of the majority of its notifications, down to the bare essentials of text messages, emails and Facebook Messenger convos. Even then, I spend most of the day now with my phone on silent, meaning I engage with apps and the people on them on my own terms. It was actually quite a tough thing to do (and resulted in me being honest with myself and deleting apps that pretty much only ever depress me), but in just a couple of weeks I’ve noticed a difference. My phone and the world of the internet it taps into has become fun again.

Case in point: In its first draft, this blog post stands at just under 1,500 words. I started writing it at 3.47pm and, as I type these words, it’s currently 4.23pm. It’ll need editing, of course, and I must admit to slipping and posting a couple of tweets (slagging off Interstellar to a friend) during that 36 minute run, but on the whole I’ve shut out the world for little over half an hour and just tapped away.

Imagine just how even more productive I’ll be when the side effects from these strong antibiotics wear off and I stop seeing unicorns dancing on top of rainbows in the corner of my eye, too.

3 thoughts on “Text and the City: Why notifications will be the death of us all

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