Burnout & Boundaries

Like a lot of adults, I spend a great deal of time doing absolutely nothing on my phone, other than continuously leer at it. Have a spare second? Pick up the phone. Going to the bathroom? Take the phone.

I’m not even present with what I’m doing: I am merely zoning out.

Last week I’d had enough of my own behavior and announced a social media break. It lasted about four days, and over a weekend in which I picked up my phone only to take pictures at a festival.

My break from social media allowed me to see just how much time I spend reaching for my phone. To tune out. Escape from living in the moment. Even if I’m not fully aware that’s what’s happening? 

That’s precisely what is happening.

I’ve spent much of this year developing and setting boundaries with my phone. As much as I want to ditch the iPhone for the most basic flip phone available, there are things that the smartphone offers me: a quick camera, a music & podcast device, and my mental health apps. Instead of chucking the phone altogether, I am adjusting my relationship with the device.

For the last few weeks, I’ve had a rule of No Screens after 10 PM. That means no phones, no laptops, and no TV. I sit in bed with a cup of herbal tea, my journal, and a book until I can’t keep my eyes open.

When I adhere to this rule, I sleep well and wake up in a decent mood (so long as I am up before my three-year-old). When I don’t: everything suffers. My attitude, my to-do list, my focus; and that impacts my entire household in one way or another.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, in “giving up” my phone by 10 PM, is that it makes me reach for it instantly at first light. I need that dopamine hit first thing in the morning. Or, at least, I thought I did.

I saw a YouTube video about how looking at our phones first thing in the morning makes us reactionary. We wake up, still in mushy brain, and are pulled into the problems of the world and our mood is then set for the rest of the day. When this time of day is most receptive for creation, we are consuming, and getting stuck. This made me realize that that was precisely what I was doing.

Encouraged by this new found knowledge to take action with, I put my phone charger in my office, far from its original home on my nightstand, and closed the door on it for two nights in a row.

I didn’t have my music to help drift me off to sleep, but having to work with my thoughts and let them come and go (also known as meditating) is a learning curve I’m willing to keep going following. (I did it for 20+ years before the iPhone, I think I can relearn this skill.)

I was up earlier these two mornings than I had been in previous months, and I sat down immediately to write and/or read with a quiet cup of coffee. I didn’t reach for my phone until I had completed at least one task on my to-do list. 

That was a fantastic feeling, I have to admit.

The problem I have encountered is that once I’ve achieved that goal, my phone becomes a free-for-all time sink again. Yesterday was the perfect example.

I was up at 6:30, wrote a bit, had a cup of coffee, and didn’t look at my phone until 9 AM. And then it was only to see what time a local store opened so I could plan my day’s itinerary.

I dropped my son off at his grandmother’s, went grocery shopping, came home, and sat. I just sat. For hours. Looking at my phone.

I tuned the world out.

But I didn’t really. Did I? Because I was looking at the world… through my phone. And all I did was consume. Tweets and Instagram stories and feeds and bad news and horrible news and good news and more terrible news.

I burned out in an afternoon.

Later that evening, my husband asked me how my day was, and I told him it was the first time I did absolutely nothing in ages. 

“Did that feel good,” he inquired, knowing I am not one to simply do nothing at any point in time.

“It was interesting,” I replied. My husband looked at me from around the refrigerator, his eyebrow cocked and mouth open, not entirely sure how to take the comment. In his household, “interesting” is what was said when his father didn’t like a meal but didn’t want to say it outright. 

I paused to consider how to explain my choice of words. “I needed to do nothing today to realize that it is not something I like. To just sit is not my kind of doing nothing; I need to create, to bead, to read, to write. That is my kind of ‘doing nothing all day.’ But I needed today to learn that. “

And it is so fucking real. I am burned out and so tired, I realize because I didn’t create. I consumed. I ate but wasn’t fed. My brain tuned out my soul and tried to escape. 

And this leaves me tired. 

I am trying to convince myself to feel that I didn’t waste yesterday, but rather instead, I learned something valuable about myself and the person I am and the way I interact with the world. Awareness allows change, right? I am now at least mildly aware of how much I let my phone to control me, my time, and my day, even when I have clear boundaries set.

Now I can build more boundaries around my phone even further and test how my days go from here. For that, I am thankful I exhausted myself yesterday by doing “nothing.”

Now I am armed with new knowledge to take action upon. I blew past my 10 PM No Screens limit to write this, but my phone spent the night in my office. 

Screen time is now scheduled for today, with specific goals in mind. First, editing and publishing this post. Then, share this post on social media. When these goals are reached, the phone goes away again.

How about you? What is your relationship with the phones and screens in your life?

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