Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be talking to Catherine Price today over the phone. She is the author of, funny enough, How to Break Up with Your Phone, which is being published in twenty-six countries and translated into eighteen languages. An award-winning writer and science journalist, Catherine’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many other publications. She's appeared on The Today Show and other impressive outlets. Her previous books are Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, Mindfulness: A Journal, and The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. A graduate of Yale University and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, she currently lives with her family in Philadelphia.
Welcome, Catherine. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Catherine Price: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: Catherine, this is the craziest because you're the first person who I heard about your book and then realized that we had gone to high school together. [laughter]
Catherine: It was very funny when I heard about a Zibby. I was like, I know a Zibby. I wonder how many there are. Then I saw a picture and was like, oh, my god. I do indeed.
Zibby: I know. I was like, I know her! That's amazing. So exciting to hear of all the things that you've accomplished in your life since we went to high school together. It’s so funny too how if you don't see someone's picture, you might not recognize them from just their name. Can you please tell listeners what How to Break Up with Your Phone is about? What inspired you to write it?
Catherine: Breaking up with your phone does not mean dumping your phone. I always like to clarify that right from the get-go. Otherwise, people tend to freak out and say, oh, my god, I could never do that. Basically, it’s the same thing with a human relationship. If you break up with someone, you're not saying you're never going to date a human being again. You're just saying there was something that wasn’t working in that relationship for you. Hopefully, you are on the lookout for a new relationship that's healthy and that feels right for you. That's what we’re aiming for here, a healthy relationship that you feel in control of.
What inspired me to write the book, a couple things. I've been a science journalist. I tend to try to turn my own personal issues into professional projects because why not? [laughter] Over four years ago, I'd had a baby. I was up with her one night, overtired and maybe a little bit hallucinatory because I basically saw this scene as it would appear to the outside world. I was sitting with her in my lap. She was looking up at me. I was looking down at my phone. If one must know, I was scrolling through eBay for antique doorknobs. True story.
Catherine: Yeah, we can discuss that if you'd like. I realized that's really not what I want my experience with her to be like. It’s certainly not how I want her to be experiencing her relationship with her mom, for her to be looking up at me and me to be looking down at my phone. The science journalist in me also recognized that babies, their eyes are developed just so that they see as far as their parent’s face if you're holding them in their arms as a way to actually foster emotional connection. From an actual scientific, evolutionary point, I also realized, wait, I don't want this to be a habit that I get into where I'm not meeting her gaze and basically, she's only able to look at my face.
I looked into all the material I could find about phones and technology. It was funny. It was 2015. There wasn’t really that much out there. Then what I did find was really concerning, but it didn't have any actionable step in it. It would be like one page of tips and tricks. I was left feeling depressed and out of control and then powerless. My hope was to write a book that would combine a look at the science in an easy-to-read, almost fun -- I tried to make it fun -- format with an actual plan that people could use to begin to change their behaviors. Again, it’s not about not using your phone. It’s about a mindful relationship.
Zibby: You did make it fun. There are a number of things I really like about this book. One is that it is not that long. It’s compact and small and feels manageable. We were just talking about how hard it is to find time to read, of course. This book does not take that long to read. That's amazing. Is that a goal?
Catherine: Yes. I was trying to make it short because I realized that unfortunately for us writers, people don't really read books as much as they used to, in part because of our phones. I didn't want to have a 250 or 300-page book that would make people feel burdened. I really wanted to give them something easy to read and easy to act on.
Zibby: Maybe publishers think they're not giving people enough if the book’s not long enough. I feel like, as a consumer, the exact opposite way. I read the book. I can cross off reading a book off my list. Now I feel better myself, and I've gotten all this amazing information inside it.
Catherine: That's a very good point, actually. It gives you a self-esteem boost. They totally don't think about our self-esteem when they publish very long books. They should really be pamphlets. We should be publishing pamphlets. Then everyone can check them off their list and feel very accomplished.
Zibby: Some books, I should get a medal for finishing. I want to scream it from the rooftops. “I just finished this five-hundred-page book! Is anyone going to do anything? I could've read two other books, but I didn't.”
Catherine: Exactly. Anything by Ron Chernow, you're like, “I deserve a medal. This was very long.” I've actually been carrying Power Broker around with me for over ten years, the Robert Caro book. It’s so big that I actually ripped it into pieces just so I could carry around manageable chunks, but I still haven’t finished.
Zibby: I have to do little tricks like that. I have to be like, I'm not going to read this whole book. I'm going to read the first half and then I'm going to reassess. Then I get to the first half -- I'm getting off topic. Point is, I'm glad that your book is the perfect length, especially for moms. I love the cover, the yellow and blue and white little text bubbles and everything. More than the format and the physicality of the book is the content of the book, which is super helpful. I want you to talk more about it, but just for other people, it’s so consumable and actionable. I actually feel like I can do what you said. I don't feel like you were preaching to me about what I have to do, but just nicely suggesting it from a point of understanding. I wanted to personally thank you for that because now I'm going to take these suggestions to heart.
Catherine: Great. That is exactly what I would hope. That makes me very happy to hear.
Zibby: Obviously people agree with me because the article you wrote in The New York Times, which was called “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain,” got two million views in the first four days. How crazy is that? Were you freaking out?
Catherine: Yes. That was actually, it was an article that this guy Kevin Roose wrote about me coaching him through a phone breakup. It was a funny story because he was a freelance writer as well. You're constantly pitching people. I'd written to Kevin Roose when my book came out a year and a half ago. He wrote back and said, “Sounds interesting, but I'm really busy right now. Keep in touch.” Never tell a freelance writer to keep in touch because we will. We corresponded several times over the course of the year. There was one night in December where I got this email from him out of the blue that said, “I've reached a breaking point. I really need your help for the sake of my mental health and basically my sanity and my relationships and everything. I need help with my phone.” I later asked him, “What was that moment that made you contact me?”
He said he was at an Alvin Ailey performance with his wife. He realized he had snuck out to “use the bathroom.” In fact, he was just going to check his phone. He emailed me on the way home. I helped him through this thirty-day process that I outline in the book of breaking up with his phone and trying to get more control. I always get nervous when I work with people who are technology experts because he’s tried a lot of stuff before. He also needs to use technology for work. It’s a real challenge. It was really fun to see that actually he was able to make a lot of changes. He ended up writing this article, the one you mentioned called “Do Not Disturb.” It was truly insane. He said he'd never gotten as many responses from readers to any article he'd ever written. It went over four million reads. I think that was just in the first forty-eight hours. Then it was on the top of all the lists for a number of days. I thought, wow, that's really pretty amazing. That speaks to the fact that people are really waking up to this being an issue and looking for help. Also, he's a really funny, great writer. I recommend people check out that article just because it’s fun to read.
Zibby: In your introduction, you pointed out that smartphones have infiltrated our life so thoroughly in the past decade that we never really stopped to consider what do we want our relationship with them to look like? We just accepted it and moved on. Tell me more about that.
Catherine: It’s like if you were dating the same guy from high school and never actually asked yourself if you wanted to continue that. When you're twenty-five and you're about to get married, you're like, “Wait. I'm not actually sure if we’re still compatible. How did this happen? It just happened without me realizing it.” Similarly, we were all so excited about smartphones when they came out. We immediately got them. The apps started to multiply. Before we realized what was happening, it went from a pleasurable pastime or a real productive tool to something that we look at compulsively, in some cases, hundreds of times a day and end up feeling that we’re not really in control. How many times have you looked down at your hand and realized your phone’s there? You have no idea how it got there. You have no idea why you're in Instagram or email or whatever. Forty-five minutes have passed. What I realize is that we actually should be taking a step back as a society and as individuals and asking ourselves what role do we want phones and in the broader sense, technology to play in our lives? Phones are just one technology. They're probably going to be pretty outdated soon because you have to type with your thumbs and stuff. How do we want to interact with technology? What steps do we need to take to make sure that we have a healthy relationship?
Zibby: This is not how to break up with your phone and replace it with your iPad? That doesn't count?
Catherine: [laughs] I know. People ask me that. The benefit of the iPad is at least you're not carrying it in your pocket. That's part of the issue. When addiction psychiatrists talk about addictions, they talk about ease of access. The easier it is to access your problematic substance, the more likely you are to abuse it. The good part about iPads is you're probably not going to be checking them in the elevator. Then of course, before bed becomes an issue.
Zibby: Actually, speaking of mental health professionals, I took the quiz in the book for how addicted you are to your phone. It said, “Go see a psychologist right away.” [laughs]
Catherine: There's a thing called the Smartphone Compulsion Test that this guy, Dr. David Greenfield created. This guy created The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction back in 1998, which is so prescience that he made this Smartphone Compulsion Test. As he himself will say, if you have a smartphone, you're going to fail the test because it highlights behaviors that we do all the time and that have become so commonplace that they seem normal until you take a step back. You realize, wait, that's not normal at all, like feeling anxious if you're separated from your phone for more than a few minutes, or always having your phone at your place setting during meals, or sleeping with it next to your bed, or mindlessly swiping through apps for hours at a time. At first, you're like, yeah, of course. Then you're like, wait, this is actually strange. If you swap in any other technology or really anything else, even if you had to have your coffee cup near you as much as we do our phones, that's weird.
Zibby: Particularly weird is when you said that one in ten Americans admit to checking their phones during sex. What part of sex? [laughs] When are they doing this?
Catherine: I know. I don't know when exactly.
Zibby: Not that I really want to know. I don't really want to know.
Catherine: I did some interview, I remember, with an Australian group. They thought I was saying I had done that research. I was like, “No, no, no.” They're like, “Tell me about this research that you did about Americans and sex and phones.” Nope, not intruding upon people's bedrooms. All of that speaks to the fact that we’re allowing them into very intimate moments where if you actually think about it, it’s really weird. Sex is one where it actually does still seem weird, thankfully. I've spoken to people who have told me about issues, one guy in particular, about postcoital moments where his girlfriend caught him reaching for his phone which was under her pillow. Then he had to play it off like he was stroking her hair. She totally knew what he up to and got very upset about it.
Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Your concept in the book, by the way, of phubbing with a “ph,” P-H-U-B-B-I-N-G, which is phone snubbing someone else, is so perfect. That's what makes me take stock of my own habits is when I feel rejected by somebody because of their phone habits. If my husband is on his phone, I feel offended. He's like, “You're on your phone all the time.” It somehow feels bad being on the other side. Even my mother who’s in her seventies, when I see her and we’re taking the kids to somewhere and she's on her phone, I'm like, what? It feels so personal. I at least try to remember how I must be making other people feel if that's the way I feel. Do you have that sensitivity too?
Catherine: Yes. I don't know who came up with the term phubbing. It’s short for phone snubbing. We all need little wakeup calls or jolts. The experience I describe with my daughter that night, that for me was a real wakeup call where I was like, something about this is weird. Similarly, I often encourage people to just spend a day trying not phub anybody and noticing when that happens with other people. Doing that for a day, just observing, can be very illuminating. You'll start to notice how often either you're temped to pull out your phone in the middle of a conversation or someone does it to you. If you look around the world around you and you notice table of people where they're not really engaging with each other, they're all on their respective phones, you start to realize this is strange.
Again, with any other technology or anything else, it would be undeniably rude. If someone had a book that they were carrying around and you're in the middle of the conversation and they were like, “Uh huh. Uh huh,” and pulled out their book and read half a page acting like they're listening to you and then put their book down, you'd be like “What did you just do? That was really weird and rude.” We do that all the time with our phones. I would like to suggest that is very rude. It is true, it is reducing the perceived quality of our interactions and getting in the way of relationships. Sometimes I feel like a couple’s counselor. I try to make light of it, but this is a real issue that’s affecting people's relationships and brains, frankly, and our experience of our own lives. Anything we can do to raise our own awareness and raise other people's awareness of this is very worthwhile.
Zibby: For sure. It’s super important. To your point about the bad manners of it, for a while to get myself to not check email so much, I was like, is this a situation where I would be able to check regular mail? Could I pull a stack of my mail out of my purse, like my bills and my letters, or would that be really weird? That's essentially what I'm doing in front of this person now, right? That's the test I use.
Catherine: That's so true. That the worst insult too. You're like, what you're saying is so uninteresting that I'd rather be paying a utility bill, or not even paying it, looking at it. That's even worse, not even taking action, just being aware of it. Okay, great. Then, what were you saying? By the way, kids pick up on so much. There was a special that Diane Sawyer did that aired, I believe, in April. It was called ScreenTime. I really recommend people check it out, even if just for the first half hour. They feature this experiment that these researchers did where they had parents come into a room with their kids and play with Legos for ten minutes or so. In the middle of it, the parents were asked to pull out their phone and interact with the phones for two minutes and just ignore their -- basically do what we do all the time. They had cameras in the room showing the children's reaction. I think that the producers must have deliberately -- it’s a segment in the piece that goes on longer than it would need to make a point. I think it was really to drive the point home.
You watch how the kids respond. It’s so poignant. Obviously, we have to check our phones sometimes. I'm not parent shaming. It was really interesting and painful to watch. You see these kids completely -- their entire physical being changes as soon as the parent reaches for the phone. They became disinterested in the toys. They’ll try to make these repeated pleas for the parent’s attention. One little girl just sits in a chair and folds her hands in her lap and waits. It’s really hard to watch. At the end, they interview some of the people who were in the experiment. They said, “Having watched those videos, I'm definitely going to change my habits because I had no idea that it was having this impact on my kids.” It’s pretty powerful. I would recommend people watching it, not to make yourself feel bad about yourself, but just as a really useful reminder that the way we use our phones affects other people in our lives, and particularly our children. They don't always have the ability to speak up for themselves about it.
Zibby: Thank you for that little dose of guilt. [laughs] I know you didn't mean it that way. You're absolutely right. You're right. The good news is we all buy the whole concept that we are too addicted to our phones. Honestly, the screen time alerts now that automatically come up with how much time you're spending on your phone, for me at least, are enough to be like, oh, my gosh. Four hours? Are you kidding? I could read a book a day at that rate. You have this thirty-day plan to cure ourselves or at least manage our addictions. What do you think are the most important steps in that?
Catherine: One of the most important is to not beat ourselves up over it. What's done is done. You can't change what you did in the past. Also, the phones and apps are deliberately designed to be very difficult to have healthy relationships with because that's how they make money. Instagram is making money when you scroll through it for two reasons. First, it’s an advertising-based app. They get to show you sponsored posts. Then also, they collect all sorts of data about you that they then can use to create really targeted audiences to show those ads to. It’s not just what you do on Instagram like what you look at or what you like. It’s how long you linger on each picture. In many cases, Facebook, which owns Instagram, they follow you around the web. They’ve got cookies on all these websites anywhere where there's a Facebook like button so that they know the steps that you took before you did something else. They know that you looked at this site and that site and that site. Then you bought this thing.
I say that as a way to make people recognize that we’re all being manipulated by people whose entire purpose is to steal our time and attention from us. We should not feel bad about the fact that it is hard for us to control ourselves on the devices. I would argue we also should be pretty angry, frankly, at those apps for taking what could be a truly pleasurable, useful, and enjoyable experience and then adding this potential dark side where it’s interfering with our interactions with our kids. That's a preamble. One of the most important things to do to start with is just to become more aware of your own habits. You can't change a habit if you don't even realize you have the habit. If you don't realize that you are pulling your phone out anytime there's a spare moment, then there's no way you're going to change any of that. In the case of that New York Times reporter, he realized that he would pull out his phone in the three or four seconds it would take for his credit card to process when he went downstairs to buy a snack. He’s like, “What am I possibly doing during those three or fours seconds? Nothing. Why I am doing it?” Noticing that he was doing it then gives him a chance to ask himself, “Do I want to be engaging in that habit?”
The first thing I really recommend people do is try to start catching yourself when you reach for your phone on autopilot. Don't judge it. Just notice it. One thing you can do to make that easier is put a rubber band around your phone. When you reach for your phone and feel the rubber band and you're like, “Why’s that there?” you can actually, “Oh. It’s because I was supposed to notice that I just did that.” Another thing is you can change your lock screen image. I made these lock screen images people can download at phonebreakup.com. They say things like “Why did you pick me up right now? What for? Why now? What else?” little, I call them speedbumps that help people take a pause so that they then can decide consciously whether they want to use their phone. That's really the goal, conscious usage. It’s knowing that when you are using your phone, you are aware of it and you feel good about what you're doing.
Zibby: You wrote on the little handout cards you give about screen/life balance, “Your life is what you pay attention to. And once you spend your attention, you can never get it back,” which I loved. It’s not like you have this unending store of it. You only have what you can do. It’s a good reminder.
Catherine: I like to think about it like it’s a budget in the same way that you have a budget for money. You know that your finances are finite. Our attention is also finite. We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. If you think about your day’s attention, twenty-four hours of attention -- one of the other first things I recommend people do is ask yourself what do you want to pay attention to? If we don't decide that proactively, our devices and other people in our lives and other forces are going to make that decision for you. If you decide, for example, you want to spend time and attention reading the book or playing with your kids or doing work, whatever it is, then that's a zero sum. By definition, you're going to have to take that attention away from something else, if that makes any sense. I really recommend people thinking about their attention as this pie chart and then figuring out what the big pieces are. You're going to recognize that then you cannot spend as much time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram if you want to also have the time to read a book, for example. Really thinking about it as a budget with limited resources can be helpful.
Zibby: I also like your suggestion of doing what you call the digital sabbath where you take a set amount of time, maybe Saturdays or something, and put the phones away and spend the time with your partner or your kids and see how that goes.
Catherine: This is something that my husband and I tried right at the beginning of this project. Once I had my little late-night revelation, then I was talking to my husband about it. We realized we both have pretty mindless relationships with our phones, which was particularly ironic given that he and I have gone to mindfulness training courses. I wrote a mindful journal, really try to be aware of stuff. When we recognized that we wanted to work on our own habits, we thought one idea we could start with is just to try to take twenty-four hours away from our devices. It shouldn't be that radical of an idea. Probably, some people listening to this have already thought to themselves, I could never do that. Good for her, but I could never do that. I've got suggestions for how you can do that. What we did is turned our phones entirely off for twenty-four hours from Friday to Saturday.
I've since heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of people who've tried this for themselves. Universally, it’s so interesting. The first reaction is this intense twitchiness and cravings where you start to notice that every thirty seconds, if not more frequently, you want to look something up. You want to buy something. You want to check something. Then when you wake up the next morning, time seems to slow down. Some of that twitchiness subsides, which is so interesting. It’s a real psychological thing. Screens make time speed up. If you want to gain time in your life, the easiest thing to do is take a break from your phone. Also, people felt a sense of calm that was really surprising and unexpected. I've since hypothesized that's actually because when you're constantly tethered to your phone and checking notifications and getting interrupted, it’s actually increasing our stress levels in the form of increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol. When you take that constant stimulation away, it actually does change us physiologically in a way that feels really pleasant.
What I've experienced myself and heard from a lot of other people too is that what starts out as this totally anxiety-producing or provoking idea ends up being an experiment that people want to continue. In some cases, they don't even want to turn their phone back on after the twenty-four hours. I often recommend it as a way to jump-start if you really want to dive in and get started. Especially if there’s someone in your life who’s resistant, say, “I heard this crazy woman talking on a podcast. She suggested we take a twenty-four-hour break. It’s only twenty-four hours. Let's just do that and notice what happens.” It might provoke a fight. I don't know. It might be pretty dramatic results. That's all really interesting input that you can then talk about. “Why was it so hard for everybody to do that? Now that we have taken a break...” Again, I always like to emphasize that you should find positive things to fill the time with. You want to make sure you've got plans. Otherwise, you're going to all end up sitting around being like, “What are we going to do with ourselves?” People end up having really nice experiences with their families or their partners and friends. How can we take what we learned during those twenty-four hours and apply it to our normal lives as well? What can we learn from this we can take going forward? My point is never that people should have a total abstinence from their phones because that’s completely unrealistic for 99.99 percent of people. It’s really about being more mindful about how and when we’re using them.
Zibby: Totally. This is also dovetails so well with finding more time to read, which is my whole thing. Reading has so many benefits. Yet it’s so hard to fit in. If you could take some of the time away from the phone and devote it to reading, that's it’s right there. I think that's what takes up so much -- not that's the only thing. There are eight zillion things that take up moms’ time, but this is a big chunk of it. If you can go through your thirty-day program and then see how many books could you read while you're going through this detox plan...?
Catherine: That was the crazy thing with the New York Times reporter. He read twelve books. He also is an exceptional person. He read twelve books in three weeks or four weeks. Several things about that, reading is such a perfect example to use in this case. First of all, the average person’s spending four hours a day on their phone. A lot of that is in little chunks of time like five minutes. It adds up. If you do the math, that's sixty full days a year, which is a sixth of our time alive, which itself is existentially terrifying. If you think about that amount of time, you could definitely read more books there. It’s about what we’re actually prioritizing. Again, phones are designed to fill up our time unless we proactively create boundaries for ourselves.
One thing I would suggest to people is that if you know you want to read more, you need to get your phone out of your bedroom and get an alarm clock. Set up a consistent charging station that's not in your bedroom. If you're worried about missing a call, just turn the ringer on. I always forget it myself. I have it on silent all the time. I forget it actually is a phone with a ring function. If you turn that up at night, then you don't have to worry about missing an emergency call, or you could set your do not disturb setting to just allow the people that you care about. In any case, get it out of your bedroom. Then very importantly, put on a book on your bedside table that you want to read. When you're trying to change a habit, you want to make it hard to engage in the habits that you want to change and then as easy as possible to engage in the ones that you're trying to pick up. In the case of reading, it’s an easy way to set up your environment. It’s an easy one to help prime yourself to do more. All you need to do is put that on your bedside table so that when you're going to bed and you instinctively reach for your phone because it probably normally is there and you encounter the book, you're like, “Right. I said I wanted to read. I’d have to get up out of my bed and walk out of the bedroom to get the phone. I might as well just read the book.” That's a good way to start for people who want to experiment. Also, just carry a book around with you, is another idea.
In terms of why it’s really important, our phones are definitely affecting our attention spans. When you're on your phone, you're essentially flitting between multiple things very quickly. You're going between apps. Even within an app, you're looking at multiple posts on social media or multiple emails, each of which takes your brain in a slightly different direction and has a different emotional tone to it. That really is training our brains to be better at flitting quickly between things. Evolutionarily, that's actually what they prefer to do because that little rustle in the leaves in your peripheral vision which now we might call a distraction, that actually could indicate a physical threat to you. One example I always use is I was actually mugged while I was on my phone. I wasn’t even looking at it. I was talking to my husband, but I was distracting from my surroundings, didn't see a guy walking towards me with a gun, and got mugged for it.
Catherine: Yeah, which is an extreme example. My point being that our brains are actually designed to be more primed to distractions, so it’s truly amazing that we are able to read. Everyone listening, give ourselves a pat on the back. That's crazy that we’re able to concentrate on one thing at a time, ignore everything else in our environment, and then make sense out of symbols on a page. That's crazy. Our brains don't really want to do that. When you're on your phone and you're flitting between all these things, you're essentially undoing all this hard work that you've put in over the course of your life to make yourself able to do that. If you feel like you haven't read a book in a long time, you feel like you can't even read more than a page without getting distracted, and you think it’s your kids, it might partially be your kids and being a mom, but I can assure that it is also partially because we’re training our brains on our phones to be that way.
The good news is you actually can reverse that. It does take conscious effort. I always recommend people set a timer, not on their phone, and read uninterrupted for that amount of time to show yourself, A, that's it’s bizarrely hard, and then, B, that you can do it. It doesn't take too long to build up the ability to do it again. It’s like getting in shape at the gym. It’s much easier to get out of shape than it is to get in shape, especially if you had a personal trainer who's basically telling you to eat junk food on a couch. Reading, for so many reasons, is actually an excellent way to readjust your relationship with your phone and begin to truly make physical changes to your brain that will have effects in all sorts of other areas of your life as well and making you be more present. You'll be able to actually maintain your attention on one thing at a time in a way that right now, most of us really can't.
Zibby: I used the same analogy talking to another mom at pickup yesterday about how it’s like the gym. She was like, “It used to be so easy for me to read. Now I only read a page here or there. Then I give up.” You have to get back in the habit and back in the practice before you feel some of the benefits. Now that I'm reading so much, which I've convinced myself to do now that I've tried to make this something I have to do -- [laughs] I have to do something I love -- the benefits from reading for me right now are enormous. I am so into it. It helps my life in so many ways. When I was so scattered before, it was hard to access that. You have to really give it a little time. It will pay off in huge ways.
Catherine: I'd be interested in what kind of benefits have you found in unexpected areas of your life from picking up reading again?
Zibby: I am even more in tune with other people, like the empathy quotient. It’s part of myself, but now that I'm reading so much and I'm constantly in other people's heads, I am primed to, not peak into people's minds, but I feel so connected to other people. That sounds ridiculous.
Catherine: No. I don't think it does.
Zibby: Also just getting the peace for myself and the escape from own crazy stuff in my own head -- I'm a pretty anxious person. When I'm reading, it’s the only time that I don't think about anything. I don't pick up my phone. That is the only thing I'm doing. I get such a charge. It gives me energy to do everything else I need to do.
Catherine: It’s so interesting to compare that with some of the other things we do supposedly for entertainment or to soothe ourselves. I would argue we definitely use our phones like drugs. You use a drug to either stimulate yourself or calm something, avoid unpleasant emotions. When you turn to your phone for that, how do you end up feeling afterwards versus turning to a book like you're saying? It’s so interesting. There's such a nourishing feeling that comes after you finish reading. I think it’s partially because you get into a state of flow in your brain. Also, it’s really relaxing and rejuvenating to just do one thing at a time. A lot of our modern stress comes from the fact that we’re trying to put too many things into our working memories, which is basically the part of your brain that's able to remember names of people at a cocktail party.
There's a really famous experiment called “Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” which is basically the idea that we can hold between five and nine things in our working memory at any time. Then we totally get overwhelmed. More recent estimates are more like two or four, which you can see if you meet people at a cocktail party. You're like, two and four people, probably will remember their names for the conversation. Anything more than that, then you start to have that little panic. I think personally, much of our stress of daily life is trying to put too much stuff into that working memory. Our phones are compounding that problem to ridiculous degrees where there's so much information that we get anytime we open the phone, even just looking at the home screen because it’s got all those apps on it. That's really overstimulating to our working memory. When you read a book and you get lost in a book and you're allowing to brain to get totally absorbed in one thing, it really is very restorative in our brains themselves.
Zibby: Totally. Thank you for that public service announcement on reading as well.
Catherine: Read more. [laughs]
Zibby: Yes. That was so helpful. We’re almost out of time. I had so much more I wanted to ask. Thank you so much for coming on. I just want to know what advice would you have to someone attempting to write a book like this?
Catherine: To write a book like this in particular, or just in general writing?
Zibby: Let's say writing in general.
Catherine: I would say, tying this to the phone, that creativity, as anyone who's tried to do anything creative which probably is everybody listening to this knows, it’s such a fickle, difficult -- it comes in little spurts. You never know when it’s going to strike. You have to make sure you take advantage of it when it’s there. If you've got something that's constantly dragging your attention and your time from you such as your phone, you're basically letting it steal your creativity from you in little dribs but drabs. I don't know if that's an expression. My husband always said that, dribs and drabs. When you're posting stuff on Instagram and you're thinking about a clever caption, that's your creativity that you're spending on something that's totally ephemeral. You're doing it just so can get a pixelated “like” from someone on the internet, which is fine if you actually want to do that.
If you're trying to write a book, I would say that one important thing to do would be to guard your attention. One thing to do would be to really watch out for the way that your phone is interfering with it. Frankly, you're never going to get it done if you're also sitting next to your phone. I personally use things like app blockers. Freedom is a really great one that works on both Android and iOS and Windows products that allows you to block certain websites across devices for particular periods of time so that you actually can't indulge in your natural desire to switch over and check something “for just a second.” I really recommend using technology tools to help protect yourself from technology so that you have any chance of giving your brain the space it needs to be able to produce a creative work. I sat down to write something yesterday. I've been writing shorter things recently. I sat down to write something like a would-be blog post. Writing is hard. [laughs] Does anyone know that?
Things like structuring your environment both on and offline to really protect mental space. Frankly, cage yourself in so that you can't. Your mind is going to want to go for those distractions. You've got to figure out a way to block yourself from that. Another tool I use that is really helpful for anyone out there with email issues is called Inbox When Ready. It works for Gmail and I think Outlook. It hides your inbox from you and hides the number of new messages from you so that you can go in an email and write an email without seeing everything else waiting for you. You can search for an email without seeing everything else waiting for you. It sounds like such a simple idea that wouldn't be profound. There's no way I could've written my book without this plugin. I didn't realize how just seeing the number of messages in the tab on my browser was actually extremely distracting. I recommend people check out Inbox When Ready and Freedom in terms of technological tools to give yourself a bit more mental space so that you can focus on creating something like a book.
Zibby: Love it. Thank you. Super helpful in every way. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for everything you've done to help so many of us.
Catherine: Thank you so much for having me. It was really a pleasure.
Zibby: Good. Take care.