“What do you mean there’s no Wi-Fi?” I tried to keep the rising panic out of my voice. My boyfriend looked delighted, as if he was personally responsible for finding one of the few remaining Home Counties villages without broadband.
“No fibreoptic cables,” he said. “And mobile coverage is pretty awful too.” Having sold his city flat and left his job in finance last year to study for a philosophy degree, he had bought an idyllic cottage in the middle of — well, nowhere. But only now was the extent of its virtual isolation becoming clear.
During the week, I live minutes from the “hot spot” of London’s Silicon Roundabout — where I spend far too much time online. I send work e-mails late into the night, check news updates before I’m even out of bed in the mornings, and compulsively tweet mundane details of my daily life minute by minute. How would I survive entire weekends in this rural “not spot”?
At first, my heart sank every Friday evening as I said goodbye to my 4G signal at Paddington station, knowing I’d be involuntarily off-grid until my return on Monday morning.
On long country walks I found my thumbs twitching to Instagram blossom in bloom, or find out what breaking news I’d missed on Twitter. I realised how hooked I’d become when, spotting a magnificent hawk soaring overhead, my first instinct was not to watch it — but to google it. But once I gave up trying to get a signal, I admitted that going unplugged was making a difference.
While it would be impractical to live like this seven days a week, I could see that taking a few days’ digital detox might be the perfect balance — a 5:2 tech diet, if you will, which left me feeling mentally and physically lighter, happier and healthier.
It’s not news that many of us are hooked on our screens: up to 20 per cent of adults in the UK describe themselves as “addicted” to their digital devices and finding ourselves out of Wi-Fi range can feel like a legitimate cause of panic.
Too often our best intentions — getting fit, spending time with the family, or simply getting more sleep — are derailed by the 24/7 distraction of the gadgets in our back pockets.
This is not simply due to the time directly sunk in compulsively checking our overflowing inboxes — or in my case, flitting between Tumblr, Ocado, Netflix and back — but because endless electronic interaction hampers concentration and fuels “monkey brain” syndrome.
According to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, constantly shifting our attention from one activity to another “causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task”.
In other words, it literally depletes the nutrients in our brain — making our mind more likely to wander, even when we finally try to turn our attention to the task in hand.
Is this why Britain falls behind France, Germany and the US in productivity levels, even though we work some of the longest hours in Europe, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics?
The average British worker receives and sends around 10,000 e-mails a year, and experts believe this constant deluge is sapping the life out of us. Loughborough University researchers found that 70 per cent of e-mails are attended to within six seconds of their arrival, and it takes an estimated 64 seconds to get back to work after “e-mail interrupt”.
Connectivity has obvious benefits, but it also comes at a huge cognitive and economic cost. There are signs that the disconnection message is spreading: UK companies are increasingly implementing tech-free policies, and experimenting in following German car giant Daimler’s lead, in automatically deleting e-mails sent while a worker is on holiday.
The notion that we need to be online to be productive is a myth. Whatever your industry, whether you’re freelance or office-based, whether you’re working on a company report or the first chapter of your novel, your brain will thank you for time offline.
Unplugging is the ultimate opportunity for strategic thinking, creative day-dreaming and problem-solving. In the first three months of my disconnected weekends, I drafted six chapters of my latest book; under the old tech-heavy regime, it would have taken twice as long. I realise now how much time I spent procrastinating, diving down digital rabbit-holes, or aimlessly googling red herrings.
Instead, the tech-free time gave my brain the space to join unexpected dots, which transformed the writing process. Nor did I miss out on important work: I simply set an automatic weekend out-of-office message. (As an added bonus, my inbox is far less clogged with pointless mail these days.) I discovered that disconnecting, however briefly, was like closing the door on the outside world when it gets too noisy — reminding my primal brain how to think for itself, without a million Wikipedia entries or other people’s opinions clamouring for attention.
It’s also been a great way to reconnect with the truly important people in my life. The joy of missing out has replaced FOMO, as I savour the weekend breaks from acquaintances’ highlight reels on Twitter and Facebook and get on with living my real life.
For two days a week, I’m part of an actual community rather than a virtual one: my partner and I go foraging for apples, or collect firewood in the nearby forest, we cook together, and listen to music. We potter in garden centres, and we chat to neighbours in the village’s only pub.
If there’s one area of life where disconnecting reaps immediate results, it’s sleep. There’s much scientific evidence showing the short wavelength blue light emitted by tablets, smartphones, laptops and televisions interferes with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, disrupting our natural circadian rhythm. We are artificially wakeful but simultaneously sleep-starved. No wonder many of us are left feeling exhausted but unable to power down.
As a lifelong insomniac, I have started sleeping more deeply, for longer, and waking up feeling refreshed. I’m certain it’s not just the country air.
One year on, I don’t just enjoy my disconnected weekends now, I guard them fiercely. Getting the early train back into London on Monday mornings, I find I’m in no rush to reconnect: I stare out of the window, delaying going back online as long as I possibly can. But you don’t need a remote cottage (or a Luddite partner) to go tech-free: you can do this anytime, anywhere.
I maintain my 5:2 tech-free regime even in London. It’s as easy as switching my smartphone on to airplane mode and putting my tablet and laptop in the spare room. (For emergencies, my mother can call me on the landline!) After years of working through my weekends, I’ve discovered that I benefit much more from time off. You don’t need to ban work, but it should be offline: jot down your notes on pen and paper.
Similarly, you don’t need to ban all news — walking to the shops for the Sunday papers is an old-school pleasure; as is returning home to read them with a pot of tea.
Paradoxically, unplugging for 48 hours is the best way I’ve found of recharging my batteries — and like any positive habit, the more you practise it, the easier it becomes. In fact, my 5:2 tech-free diet has made me so much more productive I’m now thinking about trying 4:3...
The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016