The Marie Kondo of the digital world joins us to talk post-pandemic screen/life balance
What really is fun? And how do we get more of it in our lives?
We have no doubt that this conversation will leave you with a smile as we welcome Catherine Price, journalist, speaker, author of the international best-seller, How to Break Up with Your Phone, and, according to The New York Times, “the Marie Kondo of brains”.
In this episode we discuss:
- What the pandemic has taught Catherine about screen/life balance
- How to define and find fun
- Why a daily delight practice will spark joy
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
The music you hear in this episode is by Freedom’s very own Tanajah
Catherine: Like you can’t just put on your calendar, have fun on Tuesday afternoon from 02:00 to 04:00 PM.
Georgie: It’s like, mum’s nights out when you’re just there in the calendar lurking and you’re like it’s an enforced fun night, and it’s the most terrifying thing ever. And it’s almost certainly going to be a flop.
Catherine: Exactly, exactly.
Georgie: Spontaneous kind of. It’s, I just drank a bottle and a half a glass of wine and I know this is really fun.
Catherine: What I realized at some point, when I was taking regular 24-hour breaks from my phone, is that I was feeling this sense of existential malaise because I actually didn’t know what I wanted to be doing with my free time.
And that inspired me to think about, oh my gosh, what is missing from my life? Like what is this feeling? I thought I was an interesting person. I can’t think about anything I want to do for enjoyment.
And I came to realize what I was truly missing in my adult life was this sense of fun, which I’ve come to define as playful, connected, flow. So being totally engrossed in the moment, connected ideally with other people, but you know, with yourself or with the environment. And then playful, where there’s a sense of levity, and not taking things too seriously.
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each week, I’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. I’ll be asking them three questions to get to the heart of what productivity means to them.
This week, I’m in conversation with Catherine Price, a science journalist, speaker, and consultant who’s been named the “Marie Kondo of brains” by The New York Times.
She’s the author of the international best-seller, ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’, and founder of Screen/Life Balance, a movement dedicated to helping people scroll less and live more.
We’ll be talking about screen time, fun, and just why we all need some daily delights. We started the conversation by talking about her book, ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’. I asked her, given our experiences in a time of COVID, if she was to write the book again, now, mid-pandemic, would you change anything? Yes, she said, in two ways.
Catherine: Well, I think if I were to rewrite ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’, now, I would be, if anything, even more adamant that it’s important to break up with your phone and have better screen life balance.
And to clarify, just for anyone who is not familiar with it, by break up with your phone, I do not mean dump your phone. I’m not advocating that we just get rid of technology entirely. It’s all about creating better boundaries with it.
So, similar to how if you break up with a person, you’re not saying I’m never going to date another human being again, this is just recognizing that we’re in an unhealthy relationship and that we deserve something better, and then making the space to create that better relationship for ourselves.
I think that, like in the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for The New York Times, about how to try to maintain screen life or create screen life balance when your life is shifted on the screen.
So I’d say it’s certainly become more challenging for people because all of our boundaries have evaporated, where we no longer have an office. We’re parenting and homeschooling and living with our partners, if we have one, and doing our work all in the same physical location.
You know, exercising on the living room floor, if we’re able to do that at all, it’s just all one jumbled mess. And so I think that it is actually more important than ever to work on boundaries with technology, because otherwise, it’s going to seep into everything.
And I think that, while I’m not against technology by any means, it’s worth noting how much time we’re now spending, staring at the screen every day. It was pretty high before the pandemic. The best statistic, I’d be interested in what you’ve gathered, but the best statistic I had is that before the pandemic, it was about four hours a day for most people. Not counting the iPad, not counting the tablet or the computer or the television.
Georgie: Yeah, just on phones. Yeah.
Catherine: Yeah. And now with the pandemic, I think it’s totally reasonable to say most of us are spending the majority of our waking lives staring at some kind of screen or interacting with technology. What else are we really doing? We’re spending far more time doing that than we are in offline hobbies or really engaging with even the people we’re living with.
So I think it’s even more important than ever to pay attention to, especially because I think that we’re all just so burned out. We were burned out just because we’re trying to handle so much at once. But there’s also the impact that constantly being online, in particular, has on our working memories and how it exhausts us because we’re always trying to multitask, which our brains actually can’t do.
So there’s a lot of burnout that could be not alleviated, but improved if we had better boundaries with devices, and if we focused on trying to do one thing at a time. I think we’re underestimating how draining our habits around technology are during the pandemic.
Georgie: Secondly, she said, if she was to write the book again, she’d be a lot more cautionary about the way our phones are influencing our behavior.
Catherine: And I think one thing I become even more passionate about, which isn’t necessarily related to the pandemic, but just as a result of doing more research on the subject is the behavioral effects that spending so much time looking at things chosen for us by other people is having on our behaviors.
So in other words, if you’re spending all of your time letting YouTube autoplay, where’s that going to lead you in terms of your beliefs? Or even if you’re just looking through Instagram, and you’re not going down conspiracy rabbit holes, but you’re just looking at ads and content that an algorithm is choosing for you, how is that going to impact how you spend your day?
And so I’ve been thinking about the attention economy, as I’m sure is familiar to most of your listeners, but the idea that our attention is a commodity that is being traded, and sold. To think about it more in terms of behaviors, you know, and as Jaron Lanier points out, it’s not just your attention that companies are after. They want you to do something. They want you to buy their product or they want you to share their content.
And so I’ve been thinking about that a lot more in terms of what’s the life I want to lead? And what boundaries do I need to create for myself so that I make sure that the actions I take on a day-to-day basis are because I want to be taking them, not because I’m being influenced by someone else, or some algorithm that’s designed by somebody else?
Georgie: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I’ve actually been thinking about that quite a lot recently too, because I think I’m really limiting my tech experience, because my app system isn’t set up well.
So actually, from the point that you get that phone, your experience is already curated, because there’s a certain number of apps there that are available for you to use. And I haven’t been open minded enough to think, hang on, these apps that are on my homescreen, are they really the ones I want to see every day? We always think a lot about the content within these products and services, but actually, often it’s just the shopfront as well is the problem.
Catherine: Totally. I mean, yeah, I think about that a lot. And that’s something I think many people don’t think about. But that can be one of the most effective techniques to start to change how you interact with your phone, is to look more critically at your homescreen and your menu bar and say, okay, well, what’s there, and it’s there because I want it there, or is it there because that’s the order that I downloaded these things from the App Store in.
And if you know that an app is a problem for you, like, you know, the news is a problem or email or social media, A, why is it on your phone, and then B, if you’re going to leave it on your phone, certainly shouldn’t be right in the front. You know, it’s like leaving cookies in your pantry when you’re trying not to eat cookies. Of course, you’re going to eat them if you have them there.
Georgie: Let’s not talking about cookies in the pandemic, please.
Catherine: Sorry, sorry. Eat all you need.
Georgie: Next, we discussed her own relationship with screen life balance. I asked, as a successful author who is effectively building a brand, and as a mom of a young child, how does she manage her time online?
Catherine: I constantly struggle with how to be an author who’s supposed to have a public presence, and then not caring at all about social media and not wanting to turn my life into a performance. I’ve no interest in doing that. I do not believe in putting things about my kid online for other people to comment on. That’s my view of violation of her privacy, and just weird. Like, why would I be doing that? Can’t I be confident enough in myself that I don’t need to just get affirmation from random strangers on the internet?
My literary agent, I think, would love it if I didn’t hold that perspective. Because you know, when you try to sell a book idea, one of the first things they do is they go on to social media, and they see how many followers you have. And I will say I don’t put work into that because I just don’t want to care about it. But I think it’s actually harming me, career wise.
I mean, honestly, like I was trying to sell a book about fun, which we’ll get to in a little bit. But one of the publishers to talk to you was like, well, for all that she’s done with ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’, you think that her social media presence would be bigger, she’d have more followers. And I just started laughing because I was like, well, first of all, did you read the title of the book? It kind of makes sense that I haven’t put too much effort into it.
Georgie: I succeeded.
Catherine: Right, right. Exactly. I’m like, “Yay, I won.” Okay, you’re not interested at all in my next book, because I don’t have enough followers on social media. So that has been a challenge.
And my attempt has been to focus more on building my email list because I feel like that’s a much more personal communication strategy. I don’t think, honestly, I don’t think I’ve particularly done a fantastic job of that either. I’ve done a really good job of keeping my family off the internet, I guess, in terms of revealing personal details, but that is a constant challenge.
So one of the workarounds I found is that I was thinking, okay, well, they want me on social media, but I hate social media. What could I do to help people that would be true to what I’m trying to actually do in this world, which has helped people create distance with things like social media?
So I came up with social media intervention feeds, which basically, if you follow them, you’ll regularly get messages like, do you really want to be on Instagram right now? Or it’s Saturday morning, how much time do you want to spend on your phone? And, you know, it occasionally gets comments. It’s hard to tell because I think people don’t really comment on intervention feeds. But some people have said things like, “his is like a cold shower.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s so wonderful to hear. I’m like a cold shower.”
I hired a part time assistant who’s been wonderfully helpful. And she and I, it’s pre-populated, so that no one has to spend too much time on these feeds. Because that would be the ultimate irony for the author of ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’ to herself be spending tons of time on social media or been forcing someone else to.
Georgie: And what about during the pandemic? Has that changed anything?
Catherine: During the pandemic and just my own screen life balance, I’ve certainly found it more challenging, because whatever opportunities I had for human connection to begin with, which were few because I’m a freelancer, and live a kind of isolated professional life, to begin with, whatever opportunities there had been, are certainly limited now. And certainly, socialization is limited.
And so I’ve really tried to think more critically about the various types of my screen time in the same way that you think about the types of food in your refrigerator. Like, which parts feel nourishing, which parts are essential, which should I really not have available to me.
And I think one valuable principle I’ve kept in mind that might be helpful to listeners is the idea that there’s no such thing as just — like screen time, it’s not uniformly bad. It’s really how it makes you feel and what you’re doing with it.
So, for example, I love playing music with people. But I can’t play music in person with people like I used to during the pandemic, because we can’t go into each other’s homes. So a group of friends and I have started using this app called Acapella to record little music videos with each other. And basically, you have to do it one by one, it’s nowhere near as fun as actually just playing together in real-time.
But it’s created fun projects for us to work on together. It’s kept us bonded and interacting with each other through the months of the pandemic. And when I use that app, I feel like that’s actually a great use of my time, because I feel like I’m closer with my friends, and I’m making music and I’ve got a project.
So I think being a little less critical of ourselves is helpful, while at the same time being critical of how our screentime is making us feel, that’s been a really useful practice to take with me going into the pandemic.
Georgie: Yeah, amazing. Well, that sounds fun, that Acapella, the activity. And I wonder, is that something that came about in your fun research. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now, your fun book, what fun is? And yeah, how do we get it back in our lives? Tell me.
Catherine: I am writing a book about fun during the middle of a pandemic. And the irony has not been lost on me. It’s a direct offshoot of my work on ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’, and then on Screen/Bife balance, because I realized that once you create distance between yourself and your phone, and once you start to be more mindful and intentional about your screen time.
And as anyone who’s used the app, Freedom, knows you’re going to end up with more free time. And you have to know what you want to do with it. Otherwise, you’re going to drift right back onto your phone, or you’re going to spend all your time working, and you’ll be super productive, but you won’t actually be having any fun.
And what I realized at some point, when I was at a point at which I was taking regular 24-hour breaks from my phone, is that I was feeling this sense of existential malaise because I actually didn’t know what I wanted to be doing with my free time.
And that inspired me to think about, oh my gosh, what is missing from my life? Like what is this feeling? I thought I was an interesting person. I can’t think about anything I want to do for enjoyment.
And I came to realize what I was truly missing in my adult life was this sense of fun, which I’ve come to define as playful, connected, flow.
So being totally engrossed in the moment, connected ideally with other people, but you know, with yourself or with the environment. And then playful, where there’s a sense of levity, and not taking things too seriously.
And that’s actually what led me to sign up for guitar classes that led me to the musical community I was just talking about. That was so nourishing. And I came to realize that many of the effects I felt when I was having fun, were the opposite of what I experienced when I spent a lot of time on screens.
You know, when I’m spending a lot of time on screens, I’m typically totally alone. I am sitting still for long periods of time. I’m barely breathing. I’m not laughing. I’m multitasking. So I’m not in flow. And I’m not really feeling connected to anything except for the internet, which is not very satisfying. Versus when I’m having fun, I’m connected with other people, I’m in my body, not just my brain. I’m doing just one thing at a time. I’m fully engaged.
And if you look into the research on what types of experiences are actually better for us, not just mentally, but physically and physiologically in terms of reduction in our stress hormones and having better balanced physically in our bodies in ways that actually lead to long-term better health outcomes.
Everything associated with fun is associated with these better health outcomes. And all the things we typically do when on screens tend to be associated with higher stress, and therefore, more negative health outcomes. So I came to realize that it wasn’t just that fun felt good, it’s that fun is actually deeply important to our short and long-term health.
Georgie: Well, that all sounds great. But how, I wondered, could you find fun in a pandemic? The answer she said, delight.
Catherine: Then I came to the challenge of how do you actually have any fun during a global pandemic, that I don’t have a perfect answer for. But I will say one practice that’s really helped me is the practice of noticing delight. And this is an idea that was inspired by a book called ‘The Book of Delights’ by a poet named Ross Gay, that a friend recommended to me.
And in it, Ross Gay writes a poem — not a poem, a mini essay, he calls it an essayette, every day for a whole year about something that delights him. And these can be tiny little things, like pecans or, you know, a waitress who calls him ‘hun’. Or he’s got a very funny story about bringing a tomato plant onto a plane, which I highly recommend spending a bit of internet time watching. It’s on his Amazon page for ‘The Book of Delights’. It’s delightful.
And he talks about how it didn’t mean that life suddenly became a non-stop stream of joy. But the more he noticed delight, the more he paid attention to and sought out things that delighted him, the more delight revealed itself to him.
And he gave me and my friend, Vanessa, actually, the idea that we would start to consciously go around life, find things that gave us a little spark of delight, even if it’s tiny, and then put a finger in the air and just go delight and label it out loud.
Which actually is a proven technique from positive psychology, I didn’t realize till I researched my fun book. But labeling your own experience is very beneficial, especially when accompanied by a physical gesture.
So now I walk around, if there’s anything that I find vaguely delightful, like, right now I’m looking at icicles on my parents roof, delight, that’s delightful. They’re very long. They probably would kill someone if they fell on them, but they’re delightful to look at.
And then this inspired, something I really recommend listeners try, which is not just to notice delights for themselves and say it out loud and do this with anyone you happen to be interacting with on a regular basis in person. But a couple friends and I started this delight text chain where every, you know, couple days or a couple times a month, at least, we just text each other pictures of things that delight us, or little comments or little videos, something that brought us delight.
And I think it’s actually a wonderful use of technology. Because whenever I get one of the messages on my delight text chain, it really does bring me a little bit of delight. And it also makes me feel closer to these people whom I otherwise would really not be interacting with regularly. And it’s been wonderful.
And I’ve heard from a lot of people on my own mailing list for Screen/Life Balance, when I asked them to suggest that they try this as well, that it really has brought this sense of positivity to an otherwise very, very difficult time in a way that doesn’t feel oppressive. It’s even easier than a gratitude practice.
It doesn’t mean that we’re pushing aside all the bad things and difficult things that are happening right now. But it’s just deliberately, you know, acknowledging those and then turning towards something more positive and letting that come into our lives as well. Because delight is all around us if we actually pay attention to it.
So I’d recommend anyone really struggling during this difficult time, experiment with a delight practice for a couple days and see what happens.
Georgie: I was just thinking, what amazing things teach your kids. I feel like I’m so grateful for this podcast because Catherine, you have given me a great thing to start doing with my kids from tomorrow. From the time they wake up we’re going to start to like pinging around the house, I reckon.
Catherine: Yes, exactly.
Georgie: And what a skill for a kid to have? And yeah, thank you for sharing that little nugget of joy. I really am grateful.
Catherine: And you got to report back. And that’s a good thing when you hear other people’s delights and you’re like, ooh, now I’m delighted too. I feel like there’s no negative effects to a delight practice, it can only go well.
Georgie: I’ll definitely let you know. Catherine, it’s been fantastic talking with you today. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and your passion. And you’ve just put a smile on my face the whole way through this conversation. It’s been a joy. And hopefully, we’ll get to speak to you again in more detail about fun when your book is out in the later part of the year. Right?
Catherine: Yeah, in late December. Yeah. If all goes according to plan. And yes, thank you so much for having me on. I’ve been a long-term fan of Freedom, so it’s really a treat to be on this.
Georgie: Take care.
Catherine: Take care.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.