It’s that time of year, when some people are assessing their willingness to persist in their efforts to lose 10 pounds, speak more kindly, or to finally start exercising. Personally, since the start of 2018, I’ve been experimenting with a texting diet. My goal isn’t to lose weight but to free myself from endless, often meaningless, messages and instead use my resources to create space in my day that I can invest wisely.
Text-messaging is the paging of our era. Except, unlike pagers, which typically communicated urgency, texting tends to fragment our time with false alarms and What’s ups? and Heys ….
Still, we’re addicted: More than 81 percent of Americans say they text regularly. Adults under age 45 send and receive more than 85 texts a day, 95 percent of which they read within three minutes.
Besides the hazards of texting while driving (or walking), I’m convinced that hovering over our phones, tensing our fingers as we furiously type, then staring at our screens as we wait for a reply is no way to savor life.
In my psychology practice, I focus on helping people learn to manage their emotions effectively, and I’ve noticed how texting can get my clients into trouble. One 22-year-old college senior has a habit of sending his parents angry texts when he feels overwhelmed, which ends up exacerbating his distress, not to mention taking a toll on his anxious parents.
A 34-year-old I’m treating tries to dodge loneliness by texting “What are you up to?” to various guys in the wee hours, which, not surprisingly, often leads to quick sexual encounters that leave her feeling more painfully alone.
When I was dating, I hated noticing the time I was wasting with “witty” exchanges that didn’t translate to substantive connection in real life. Yet despite the downsides, there’s something about the lure of instantaneous feedback that makes it easy to let our urges to text get the better of us.
“But texting is so practical!” you might say. Plus, for many of us, it feels less emotionally risky than making a phone call. The trouble is, there’s no way to prioritize texts, no spam filter to help us distinguish the important missives from the time-wasters. I’ve struggled with this myself.
A few months ago, I went to see “Hamilton” after debating for months over whether to splurge on the tickets. Yet right before the curtain rose, instead of basking in the anticipation, I found myself texting with a man who was going to come to my house to do some repairs after the matinee. Once the show began, I found myself worrying about whether my texts had gone through, and couldn’t help peeking at my phone during intermission, when I discovered that during the thrilling first act, I’d received roughly 20 texts, including a flurry from a group of friends discussing where to meet for dinner in two weeks’ time. But no text from my repair person. I felt as if I’d allowed my phone to hijack what could have been a satisfying few minutes mulling over the magic of what I’d just seen.
I concluded it was time to repair my smartphone situation.
I began to think about what texting was truly best for, and came up with only one example: time sensitive and conclusive conversations along the lines of, “So sorry, five minutes late.” I then began to apply my own internal filter. Whenever I feel the urge to text, I ask myself: “Is this the best medium for what I have to say?” When it isn’t, I pivot and either make a phone call (which often leads to a meaningful conversation) or send an email, which I can do at my leisure.
I’ve thought a lot about changing my relationship with technology, and tailoring my messaging habits was a practical inroad. Still, it wasn’t always easy to get away from texts.
It’s not unusual for me to look around my favorite yoga studio and notice, from the unique vantage point of my downward-facing dog, that the guy behind me is sending a text on the upward-facing phone.
So many of us are trying to be more mindful. During my years of studying the mindfulness-based interventions that I use to promote emotional well-being in my clients (and myself), I’ve come to appreciate that mindfulness is not necessarily about meditating, then frantically multitasking the rest of the time.
But setting some limits on my texting turned out to be not as difficult as I’d feared. It helped to delete a messaging app and cancel texting services from my work phone. When friends and colleagues send me messages on my personal cell phone, I wait until I’m truly free, then reply. “Thanks so much for reaching out! Texting is tough for me. Feel free to call or send an email. Talk soon!”
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve pretty much broken up with nonessential texting and find that I’m thinking more clearly and connecting more deeply with people I care about.
I also have more time. Recently, I told a friend that I was looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity because reducing the texting in my life has given me a few extra hours a week, hours I’m excited to put to better use. To quote Hamilton, “There’s a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait.”
Psychologist Jennifer Taitz serves as a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA. She is the author of “How to be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate” (TarcherPerigee, January 2018).
Originally published at www.sfchronicle.com