10 minutes to read

Managing my stress levels

I've struggled a lot with stress levels over the last few years. I am aware that I am a naturally uptight person, and highly competitive, so that I believe is as much a product of who I am as the situations I'm in. But this doesn't mean I should just ignore it!

It seems like other people are in a similar situation, so I felt like being open about how I try to reduce my stress would be a Good Thing To Do. Like Pedro, linked above, I feel a lot of my stress comes from tech.

I'll be honest, I'm not sure whether these things have actually helped, and I'm quite bad at sticking to them, but perhaps they help you instead, or get you thinking about how to reduce your stress.

Reduce phone distraction

Smartphones are, for me personally, a pretty awful invention. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the smartphone is practically an autobahn. Most apps, when taken as an individual, are useful, but together as a whole, apps and smartphones can do real damage to our concentration. Many in Silicon Valley are starting to agree.

Notifications are a real distraction in our lives, and realistically most notifications aren't important. From someone liking your latest Instagram post, to knowing that your parcel will arrive tomorrow, most notifications are informative but not essential. Do you really care, right now, that your new trainers are arriving tomorrow? Unlikely.

Is a notification timely and important? Only then can it justify a banner

I found culling notifications to be a nice way to reduce my reliance and anxiety around my phone. To find out how to do this on your phone, just Google "notification settings {your device}" and you will hopefully find some good instructions — if not, feel free to tweet me and I will do my best to help! Here's the settings I found work for me:

  • Permanently on Do-Not-Disturb mode: prevents vibrations, which I find much more distracting than anything else.
  • Permanently on silent: I get annoyed by Whatsapp multi-message servo triggering multiple "pings" from my phone.
  • Disable badges from any non-messaging app: I don't care when my apps have updates on the App Store, most of the updates are useless anyway.
  • Disable notifications by default: only enable notifications for apps where the information for you is timely and useful, not just useful. Realistically, this means I have notifications enabled only for Calendar and Whatsapp on my phone.
  • Never enable push notifications for news: 99.99% of the time the news doesn't directly affect you. Callous as that sounds, reading the breaking news immediately will not make any impact to your live compared to reading it in an hour.

Reduce phone usage

Reducing the amount of notifications is one step, but I often find it useful to keep the phone away all together. I got my first phone (a Nokia 5310i) in 2003, and I had survived the previous 14 years of my life without one!

The first rule we have in my flat is no phones in bed, and preferably no phones in the bedroom. We've got one charger in the bedroom (but away from the bed), and one in the living room. This helps the "I'll quickly check Instagram" problem where you end up still checking it two hours later. We've all been there!

A very powerful tool I use for reducing phone usage is to increase the barrier to using it. This can be as simple as turning off the fingerprint sensor, forcing you to type in a long(ish) code to unlock the device. This gives you a little extra time to allow you to think if you really want to do that (particularly useful if opening your phone has become muscle memory). Another good tactic I use is to move apps I waste time on around the home screen (or into folders). That way, I can't rely on my muscle memory to immediately open the app, but instead I have to think where it is.

Apps which I find myself wasting time on (Instagram and Twitter) have been deleted. If I want to use them, I have to go to the website, go to log in, use Face ID to unlock my password, and finally log in. That is three more steps than just opening an app, and three more steps I can catch myself before I realise I'm distracting myself! Logging out of accounts or websites every time you're finished with them helps increase the barrier the next time you feel like wasting time.

I have relatively few apps on my phone. Many things like email or Feedly I don't have, in order to reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone. I can only check my email when I'm at my laptop! Things like this are a nice way to ensure you don't spend too much time on the wrong things. Instead of constantly being disturbed by checking my emails, I have got to the point where I check them when I'm at my laptop, and no more.

Do analogue things

Moving away from constant tech in my downtime has helped me relax. In tech, doing something quickly is fine, because you can always change it if you mess up. However, with most analogue things, this is not the case, leading you to be slower (relaxing you), and taking more time to think. My parents would always tell me when I messed things up as a kid, to "measure twice, and cut once". In tech, we cut first and hope it fits the measurement. In my day job, if I had to write code with a typewriter, where a mistake will mess up a whole page, I would think much more before typing!

In tech, we cut first and hope it fits the measurement

My current hobby is to try out hand lettering. It seems interesting and is purposefully slow. It takes repeated practise with specific techniques, and a decent amount of concentration. Here's how I got started with it:

I've also taken to writing more on actual paper (for example, shopping lists and talk preparation). Not only does this bring you back to analogue, it helps you to not use your phone when you come to read the notes! Double whammy.

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I've been trying DIY and even built a little garden as well! Things like learning how to keep plants alive or to build things are not my strong suit tactile and slow-pace skills compared to tech. Here's a table I built last year, following this guide. I actually rushed it, as I was so excited to make it. I wish I had taken more time!

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Read more

Like an analogue hobby, I found reading an escape from the heavy schedule of a tech job. I used to read avidly as a child (in my teenage years, I'd read a book a week), and I wanted to see if I could return to that. Well, nearly! I'm currently reading at least one book a month, and I'm really enjoying it.

Many of the books have been on my list for a while, and I make a conscious effort to mix genres. In 2017, I set myself a goal to read a book each year and failed, which I feel was constantly picking heavy non-fiction books. This year, I am reading fiction/non-fiction alternately, which I found much more sustainable.

I'm not concentrating too hard on books I think I would like either, rather picking books that are interesting, or authors I've heard of but not read. This slight serendipity has meant I've read some interesting books — I'm currently reading one about fishing, a hobby I'd not even thought about for 10 years! If you'd like some book recommendations, feel free to tweet me.

I recently purchased Offscreen magazine, having seen some people tweet about it. I've only read a few pages so far, but I'm finding it a solid read, with some great thoughts in there. If you're reading this article, it would appeal to you, I'm sure (I particularly loved the interview with Craig Mod in Issue 18).

Reduce news input

The impact of news on our lives has change dramatically in the past twenty years. As a child, the news was either the 6pm news, or the morning newspaper. There was no more ways of getting news — you'd have to wait until the next bulletin to see if anything had changed. This, to a quote from Craig Mod in Offscreen, gave the news "edges"; it was a finite resource.

Now, news is nearly infinite, constantly rolling and constantly breaking. There's a few problems with the news in my opinion these days, but this is the biggest by far. I actively decided to reduce my news input, and only have one source of news on my phone.

This is, in my case, The Guardian. Reputation for less-than-stellar copy-editing aside, I find it a relatively good news source. Like I mentioned above, notifications are turned off (except for restaurant reviews, as both Grace Dent and Jay Rayner are excellent). An app like The Grauniad updates multiple times per day, but that's easier to manage than 4 apps doing the same thing.

I also rarely follow people in the news industry on Twitter. Whilst interesting, it clogs up my timeline with usually depressive tweets. You might find this helps too!

Reduce social media

Social media these days is really boring. I deleted my Facebook account a year or two ago, so I don't really know what that's like any more, but Twitter is mostly moaning. Instagram is generally quite nice still, but it's really only a matter of time, isn't it? Have a think about whether you really use all those social media accounts, and try to delete some if it suits you. Remember to make sure to give people alternate contact details if you want to stay in touch with them!

If you find yourself using social media "too much", as I did with Twitter, then try to make it boring. Be brutal with unfollowing and unfriending people who you don't care about. Every few months I go through my Twitter followers and unfollow a bunch, either because I don't know them or — far too often — their decent tweets are few and far between.

Remember, you owe no-one to follow them. You shouldn't feel guilty unfollowing someone. If you do feel like it could be awkward (like a colleague), just mute them instead.

One thing I've found recently — if you like to tweet or post to a social network but want to avoid reading it too much, uninstall their app, and use Buffer instead. This way, you can still send messages but can reduce the temptation of reading others.

Separate work and home

I've not had Slack on my phone for over a year now. The world has not fallen apart, nor have I been fired. Unless you're in a very particular job, you do not need to be contacted outside work hours. If you are in that kind of job, you should probably be being paid on-call hours.

You may feel like it is an expectation that you are constantly available, but by giving into that expectation you are simultaneously propagating it. This makes it harder for the next person to avoid it, and so on.

I have no work apps on my phone, except for the app we're currently developing. No mail, no Slack, nothing. I am a developer, I'm not important enough to need to be immediately contacted (and therefore, disturbed). I'd really recommend removing work apps from your phone if you're in the position to do so, or if you have an Android phone and your company supports it, try out Work Profiles. Remember, if you desperately need to be contacted, at least someone has your phone number.

Summing up

I wrote this in around 2 hours. It was very hard to stay focused, with a number of distractions flying around all the time (literally, in the case of the baby sparrow family across the road), but it is possible and I did it. Likewise, if you're serious about reducing stress and outside distractions, you can do it too, if you're willing to put in the effort.

Funnily enough, I was thinking of putting a "tl;dr" in each of the sections. But then I thought, who cares? If you can't read to the end of an article, you probably can't/won't regulate their life in the way I'm trying to do, rendering this essay useless to you. If you've managed to read this all in one go, without distractions, then high five! That is one small step to improving your concentration, and hopefully reducing your stress.

We live in a constantly connected world, where everything we want is constantly available on demand. Whilst this has its upsides, there are also downsides — the expectation is rising that you and your time are also available on demand to anyone. Your time is precious, and it should be guarded against other people and your own desires.

For me, my phone has not become a tool, but a source of anxiety. Do you remember phones before Instagram, back when Facebook was a benign and useful tool? Do you remember how powerful a phone felt then? That's what a phone should feel like. If someone produced a phone that just contained basic functions, a decent camera and Whatsapp, I would buy it in a heartbeat. But the creeping temptation and growth-based capitalism apps today must follow turn a wondrous device into a bottomless pit of information (and more recently, disinformation).

I initially meant to write this as a "how I combat stress" post, but as you can see, a lot of my stress is related to digital life and how to escape it. I suspect many people in tech can relate. You've seen how I'm trying to reduce my reliance on tech, and I hope this helps you too.

Live in Berlin and want to try analogue hobbies with others? I was thinking of setting up a group who meets and just does little projects together. DM me on Twitter if you're interested!