April 16, 2023

Communication and Constant Contact

Cal Newport's recent Deep Life podcast had the interesting (and somewhat sad) question "How do I convince my husband that the “deep life” isn’t an excuse to ignore me?"

This question got me thinking on communication strategies, and how "hyperactive hive mind" has become a somewhat defacto way of organizing daily life for couples and families.  I can completely understand how a wife would be annoyed that their husband blocks out "deep work" time and doesn't respond.  For so many reasons I think the whole concept of "deep work" is easier for men to attain than women.  Men's time has always been protected in a way women's hasn't (see all work by Eve Rodsky).

Cal Newport often gets accused of being a standard productivity-bro and not understanding how the situation is different for women - accusations which are not entirely unjustified.  However, his answer to the above question basically said "Partners need to agree on a definition of a deep life.  If you're not in agreement, then nothing will work."

This, to me, is very legit advice.

When Andy was on Whatsapp I used it for the general stream of chatter about my day, the kids, the garden.  Pictures of the kids or of things I saw.  If something was urgent, I would text or call.

When Andy left WhatsApp I was in the house one day and wanted to tell him about something weird the neighbors did (please keep in mind, this was when I was on maternity leave during Covid, so there was literally nothing to do and I was bored out of my skull).  When he got home he said "could you please only text me things that are important?"  At first it felt odd being out of communication with my husband for 8 hours a day.  

Now, I can't imagine what we spent all that time messaging about.  I know there is a modern philosophy that random texts throughout the day is supposed to be nice.  A sign your thinking about your partner.  However, what I think is nicer, personally, is that when Andy and I are together he is not getting/reading WhatsApps from groups and people.  When we spend time together, as a a family, we are only together.  There are no bleeps or blips.

There is so much commentary about phone usage rules, alerts, check-in times, etc.  Mostly pushed by the large tech companies and their lackeys.  My rules are simple.  My phone rings when I get calls.  It doesn't ever make any other noise.  

It's hard for me to remember sometimes that people use so many forms of communication equally.  How do you rate the importance of Instagram vs. WhatsApp vs. Text vs. Call vs.... Tik-Tok...? I don't know.  It's been an adjustment for Andy to realize that I don't get texts right away anymore - but I don't miss the sacrifice of constant availability in the name of not missing a potentially important text.  

It turned out, when it came to availability for constant communication, barely anything was as important as I thought it was.  We almost all survived the 90s... we almost all survived landlines.  When we moved to constant contact, we didn't give up "nothing" [landlines] in pursuit of "something better" [constant contact].  We gave up "something" [our own time? disconnection?] in pursuit of "something different" [constant contact].  


  1. I have never heard of 'deep life' or 'deep work', but from your post I assume it means, when I am doing this, I am doing this, please don't interrupt. That makes more sense with work than 'life' if you live in the same household, but maybe I need to understand it better. I try to respect what others are doing and not interrupt them with unimportant things, but I'm not a vocal processor anyway. My husband is more likely to interrupt me to just chat about things that pop into his head. I think of it as he is trying to connect with me, even if it's just to talk about how a song he likes was recorded 30 years ago.

  2. "We almost all survived the 90s... we almost all survived landlines." Love this!

    I've been increasingly inspired by your posts - along with a book I just finished about the "hurried" nature of modern society. I want my phone to primarily function as just that - a phone, like back in the landline days. So I've been leaving it when I go out for a walk. 10 years ago, if I went for a walk, no one would be able to call me. Why do they need to now? I was rationalizing about "What if the school calls about a sick child?" Well...what would have happened 10 years ago if I had left the house and a child got sick at school? They would have left a message, life would have moved on. In an emergency, the school is equipped to handle that sort of thing. It's okay for me to be unreachable for an hour a day!

    Aside from it's function as a literal phone, I also love taking pictures so I want to prioritize that function as well. It brings great joy to me to be able to take pictures out and about. But the rest of the stuff is mostly distraction. For the first time since getting a "smart" phone, I'm NOT charging it by my bed and it seems to be making a huge difference. I also try to leave it on charge most of the day so, again, it is literally just for use as a phone.

  3. I only have notifications on for texts and phone calls, but only on vibrate. I do appreciate our family text chat since our two oldest are now living out of home, but the main way we use this is for organising logistics ... and sending photos of the dog at my daughters request. I never really got into a habit of regularly contacting my husband when he was working, usually only if I needed him to pick up sometihng or, again to confirm logistics, but we would also often go days while he was overseas without contact.

    I am being a lot more mindful about reaching for my phone when I'm waiting for things and I seem to be less inclined to do that kind of thing. ie today waitingh in the supermarket carpark for my husband, I thought about pulling out my phone and then I thought to myself Why? I realised that I didn't really want to and I think my headspace is probably much better just letting my thoughts wander, and observing my surroundings when I'm in those in between times.

    1. That's awesome work thinking about your phone use before defaulting to it. I definitely found it a big shift when I stopped reaching for the phone, and it's weird to me that I did something so habitually for so long without really thinking about it. I bet your headspace is better just letting thoughts wander, but it is definitely a hard habit to cultivate. Sounds like you have a very balanced approach to phones and contacting family.

  4. I feel like texts are for me now what phone calls used to be, which is to say that I use them sporadically as a way to say hello. Actual phone calls, though, seem to be only used in emergencies. Ha. I generally keep my smart phone in another room from me, so I can hear if I get a phone call, but I don't look at it much during the day. I do, however, like to take it with me on walks to listen to podcasts and to have the camera handy.

    I don't think I could quit cold turkey, though. I just don't know what the solution is, but I admire your careful thoughtfulness about this topic.

    1. Yes I never call someone out of the blue! I feel like it would be less weird to knock on someones house door than to call them at this point.

      I do have my non-phone when I want to listen to podcasts or take a photo, but I know that probably is silly and redundant to many people. It works for me for now.

  5. I listened to that episode too, and I liked Cal's answer! I thought it was very fair. I think his suggestion to have "phone check" times, plus the calls for "emergencies" is a good one. That's basically what I attempt to do during the work day. I used to have a lot of issues with my mom calling me just to say hi during the work day (she is retired). I always felt terrible ignoring my mom's calls, but I also knew she usually just wanted to say hi or chit chat or ask a random question. I eventually kind of had to ask her to just not really call during the day unless it was more urgent, and then I try to make sure to call HER either during a work break or non-work hours, so that I'm not cutting off communication. I struggled(struggle) some with guilt over that, because my job is technically flexible and it's not that I flat out CAN'T stop to answer a call. But I would try to do deep work blocks or schedule breaks, etc, which then gets totally derailed if I suddenly have a 10-15 minute phone call I wasn't expecting....

  6. I love your posts, Rachel. They make me think. With most of my family and friends living far away, I rely heavily on technology for regular communication (and honestly, I remember the days during my exchange semester when I had to schedule a phone call at the public phone booth to check in - and I hated it. I don't think I would still be here if it wasn't for the fact that I can talk to/see my family through technology more regularly). However, I think it is so true that we don't and shouldn't ALWAYS be available. I use my phone a lot, but I also have all notifications off (except for calls/text messages), so my phone is not constantly "beeping" with notifications from social media, news, etc.
    It's a conscious effort to "limit" the use of smart phones to only things that are important to you.