If you haven’t heard of National Simplicity Day before then now might be an appropriate time to learn what it’s all about. You’re already reading this blog post about it, after all. We cherish the aims of this annual occasion here at MAG and therefore felt it was our sworn duty to make you aware of what, when and why National Simplicity Day is – hopefully helping you stumble upon the path to a simpler, more stress-free life (even if only for twenty-four hours) as we do so.
Long story short, Ofcom – the UK’s regulatory body for communications – has concluded that the average amount of time spent by UK adults each day staring at a screen is a whopping 8 hours and 41 minutes. Anyone who’s ever worked a dull nine-to-five can likely attest to how long that actually is - more than enough time to question every life choice you’ve ever made, compose a four-movement symphony, devise a complicated new business venture and count every tile on the ceiling twice over. And whilst the desire to keep crossing that road in Crossy Road and find the funniest meme on your Instagram feed is completely understandable, how much time each day is spent failing to cross that road or stumbling upon only sub-standard memes? A lot, if you’re anything like the average person.
People have been seeking out ways to keep themselves entertained since long before such things were readily available at our fingertips in easily-digestible digital chunks. We’ve always gone to watch plays, read books or told stories around a campfire. Many would argue that such things are what truly make life worth living. Arguably, however, examples such as those mentioned have a lot more substance than the majority of digital pursuits upon which we spend our time. Time-wasting games and activities often only serve to provide a fleeting little dopamine rush when we ‘win’; teaching us nothing and failing to really enhance our lives or well-being at all. Perhaps they have their place on a tired commute home (as you aggressively attempt to ignore the man loudly eating Wotsits by your ear), but when reaching for such time-killing activities become a reflexive habit they tend to just gradually accumulate wasted hours.
However, National Simplicity Day doesn’t merely encourage a removal of activities like this – it’s about cutting technology out of your life completely for an entire day (as much as possible, anyway). It’s not about a return to the ‘good old days’ of telegrams and hunting mammoth; nobody’s saying that technology is bad. Rather, its presence is simply so heavily-intertwined with modern life that we often fail to recognise the extent to which we rely upon it, whether for our day-to-day needs or for keeping entertained. By intentionally taking a day off we gain a fantastic opportunity to reflect upon its place in our lives.
Let’s talk about where the day comes from. On July 12th 1817 Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts. If you don’t already know of him, he was many things – poet, essayist, philosopher, amongst others – but his best-known achievement was his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods – a lengthy account of the two years he spent living a stripped-back, minimal existence at a spot called Walden Pond and the various insights he gained whilst doing so. Though it only sold two-thousand copies before Thoreau’s death in 1862 the work has since become regarded as a landmark piece of American literature and is frequently studied and celebrated across the world. In honour of Thoreau’s work and philosophy, National Simplicity day is observed on July 12th each year, and everyone is encouraged to try living tech free for twenty-four hours (a small ask compared to two years, let’s be honest).
This may sound horrible. It may sound impossible. “I work with computers!” you may cry, imagining the dire professional consequences of shunning screens at your office. And indeed, we’re not encouraging anyone to jeopardise their job – but we expect there’s still plenty of non-workplace-mandated screen time that fills up your day. Try only using tech when it’s specifically required for your work, and spend the rest of the day seeking out other interesting activities you can participate in. Why not take a stroll through nature? Hit the sports pitch or have a board game night with friends? Paint a beautiful picture? Finally read that book you’re constantly saying is your favourite? Tidy or decorate your house? Spend an hour or two doing some yoga or meditation? Take a pottery class?
All of the above have loads of potential to be fun, productive and enriching. You may find yourself feeling more intellectually-stimulated and prepared for life’s obstacles, finding your mind and body are better connected – there are a number of potential benefits to a brief technology-free period. Sleep, for example. One 2013 study found that 44% of those surveyed slept with their phone by their side to avoid missing any notifications. This, combined with the harsh blue light which phone screens emit, seems to be bad news for both the quality and length of your sleep cycles. People who stopped using their phones two hours before bed, and switched them off or silenced them overnight, reportedly felt far more rested in the morning and woke up less throughout the night.
Generally, people report experiencing a greater ‘quality of life’ after cutting out tech. This means more time with friends and family, better use of their free time, healthier lifestyle and a reported general increase in happiness. Particularly for those who find their work-life balance increasingly tipping to the ‘work’ side of things, cutting out all work-related technology after-hours has been reported as doing wonders for your preparedness, energy levels and attitude the next day. In a fast-paced world where burnout on-the-job is common, it’s important to take time to ourselves – having work emails constantly popping up, or the ominous face of your boss leaping onto your screen as they call you late at night can be a drain on our resources. Cutting out the device which makes such engagement possible will help ensure that your free time is actually free, productive and restful.
And see how it makes you feel about your social life! It’s a weird time to be alive; never before have we been so connected to so many people at the touch of a button. Our friends can message us in seconds, rifle through our old photos at any time, video call us through multiple different platforms. In theory, it’s pretty cool – the people we love and admire are quick-to-reach and we can keep them updated about our lives with ease. But is this necessarily good for us? There are multiple different studies on the downsides of social media (enough to cover an entirely different article), and most of these downsides are balanced out by some more positive aspect; at core, however, the greatest tension seems to arise from the contrast between the image people present online and the day-to-day reality of most people’s actual lives. One friend of mine described Instagram profiles as ‘mini-magazines of someone’s life’ – which I think very neatly sums up much of what the platform is about. But the reason we read magazines is precisely because they present genuinely-interesting information; not many people would readily dive into an essay about the secret method I use for quickly drying socks (also for another article).
Essentially, social media bombards us with the sensational, aesthetically-pleasing and compelling tidbits of others’ lives and spares us the boring and unglamorous details. This dynamic reportedly has a number of effects upon consumers of such media, including a decrease in self-esteem, heightened levels of anxiety and depression and an addiction to receiving online approval – often in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘reacts’ – from friends and other users. Try a self-imposed social media ban for a day; see if it leaves you feeling better about yourself.
In Walden, Thoreau states that “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” You may recognise the often-used phrase “march to the beat of your own drum” as originating from this quotation. It’s a wise piece of advice in a world that continuously expects people to meet certain standards, work at a certain speed, have a certain amount of social presence and the like. The truth is, many of these standards are set by society in frequently unrealistic and damaging ways; television, the internet and social media help perpetuate them as universal truths. Removing their influence, even for just a day, offers the perfect moment of quiet in which you may be able to hear your drum beat and recognise where you can make adjustments to your lifestyle in order to achieve a happier, more balanced and satisfying existence. Think of it as an experiment. If you’re going to commit to the day, may as well do so with a positive, open-minded attitude – right? Plan out some fun activities to utilise all the extra time you’ll have, log out of your accounts, switch off the phone and laptop, then just go with it. You may learn a lot about yourself in the process.
That said, Thoreau was clearly all about every individual figuring out what makes them happy, so if you already feel that those 8 hours and 41 minutes are too important to give up – even for a short while – then that’s okay too.