Over Christmas, after months of preparation and psyching myself up, I got rid of my smartphone.
I had put everything in place, saved some minicab numbers, packed a notepad and pen in my bag and told my mates I was off. And then I closed down WhatsApp for the final time.
I’d been considering it for years, but always felt that my job made it impossible. I was scared of being out of the loop and losing touch with how people consume advertising and news. But despite this, I could feel my smartphone and everything that came with it having a negative impact on my creativity and ability to focus.
I eventually decided that I don’t want what I see every day to be controlled by an algorithm. Life is weird and unpredictable and exciting and unedited, and I want to experience that in full.
The reaction from people inside the industry has ranged from "but where will you find inspiration?" and "how will anyone know who you are?" to "you’re irresponsible" and "I wish I could do this too but I don’t know how".
So. Can people in advertising—and especially creatives—really give up their smartphones?
There are two things we talk about when we "talk about" smartphones. The first is social media and the second is the phone itself.
Social media was the first thing I quit—progressively—and starting two years ago. The only platform I still use (on a computer) is LinkedIn.
But that wasn’t enough. The omnipresent phone itself and the few remaining apps on it had become more addictive and unhelpful than a useful tool.
Latest estimates for the US put smartphone use at four hours and 16 minutes per day; it won’t be much different where I live, in the UK, and it’s probably higher in our industry.
But the impact is more than just the four or so hours a day you spend "on" your phone.
There’s a lot written about this by people who study these things but even personally, I noticed a shortened attention span. As soon as things get hard, you feel inclined to seek distraction (hello, smartphone) rather than sitting uncomfortably with something and working through it. And then, of course, there’s the concentration effect—the well-reported stat that it takes 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction.
These apply to everyone in any field of work, though they might feel more acute when you’re trying to crack a brief. But then there’s the question of inspiration, tied to social media.
Social, mostly accessed via the smartphone, and apps can feel like a shortcut to creative fuel: pop culture, memes etc. But if you’re looking at something on social media, it’s something that’s already been done, proved popular and delivered to you via algorithm. Originality is hard to find, and it’s even harder to find if you look here.
Some might say that the originality matters less if you want to be part of popular culture but the problem we have now is that it’s so addictive.
If social media were built in such a way to be responsible, and not addictive, it would be a useful resource. As it is now, it might be a useful resource to tap into culture but you have to take the addiction with it.
Even WhatsApp creates a blurring of boundaries between work and home. More so than email, it means you’re always on, always responsive, always jolting with the next dopamine ping.
Everyone needs a time when their brain can switch off. Creatively, this is when you’re solving problems. But even once I'd given up social media, I still used my phone as a sort of brain-pacifier. I’d have my headphones in with a podcast commuting, cram in ‘phone time’ while waiting for a friend, try to answer emails, check the news, just do something, anything. Its mere presence was stopping my mind from ever wandering by itself.
Now, without the phone, I feel calmer and less anxious. The rate that I was consuming information, news, images, advertising was making my mind operate at an unhealthy speed, and I felt a low-level mental twitchiness.
I end up working quite hard when I'm properly relaxed. Something will come into my head when I’m doing something completely different. But that can’t happen when you’re constantly engaging with your phone. The real world feels more exciting again.
Perhaps you think that I suffer from a lack of self-control, and this constant engagement with a smartphone is something you don’t do. And that’s great. But research shows that most people do the same—endless news reports and research findings, even from years ago, show the extent of the addiction.
Despite all this, I’m not going to argue that everyone should give up their smartphone. In an agency, it’s healthy to have as many voices and viewpoints as possible. One of those viewpoints could be that of someone who isn’t using social media and isn’t spending four-plus hours every day on their phone. But there can’t be many agencies where this is part of the spectrum of experience.
We’re all seeing the same things, subject to the same filters and being served information by algorithms. As an industry, we might be some of the heaviest consumers of popular internet culture on the planet.
And moreover, doing this feels like it’s out of our control—and it is. We’re addicted, by design. And like any addiction, at some point, it’s worth asking: can we live with this, or do we want to change something?
Dulcie Cowling is co-founder and executive creative director at Hell Yeah!