When John Downes heard about the chance to pay for a weekend away with the option of having his phone taken from him, he was taken aback by how much excitement it brought. So he decided to try it.
Saturday morning. The smell of coffee is in the air and I´ve just lathered myself in fancy soap. Life is good. I instinctively dip my hand into my pocket to load up Spotify and kickstart the weekend. But, of course, my trusty Xiaomi is nowhere to be seen.
Instead, my phone - and its ability to make calls, text, email, play music, surf the web, take pictures and generally rule my life - has been locked away. And, crucially, I've done this to myself, paying handsomely for the privilege.
'Crucially, I've done this to myself, paying handsomely for the privilege.'
I'm staying at Olive, one of nine off-grid cabins that start-up Unplugged Rest has set up for busy Londoners to switch off from the outside world. The premise is that you are plonked in the glorious British countryside in a cosy, chic cabin, and you are to lock up your phone when you arrive.
As a journalist working from 5.30am one week before toiling until 10pm the next, phones are part and parcel of my job, which requires constant access to work email, and now work Whatsapp groups, as well as countless hours of laptop time pouring over this nonsense you are currently reading.
So when I heard about the opportunity to fully disconnect with the option of having my phone taken out of my hands, I was taken aback by how much excitement it brought me.
'When I heard about the opportunity to fully disconnect with the option of having my phone taken out of my hands, I was taken aback by how much excitement it brought me.'
I'll admit: like so many of us, I pass off my phone addiction as an incurable symptom of the modern technological world. Indeed, the fact that we feel the need to pay to do something we could, in theory, very easily do ourselves is a fairly ridiculous concept.
But in reality, it isn’t easy to do. Anyone who has seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma knows that the websites and apps we browse daily are algorithmically designed to keep us on them for as long as possible. And the sad truth is, my screen time can sometimes hit fourteen hours a day.
According to research from Ipsos this year, six in ten UK adults are in favour of establishing a legal “right to disconnect”, which would allow employees to ignore work-related communications such as emails and texts outside their contracted working hours. With screen time having increased by 76% during the pandemic, it’s no wonder why.
That is why I think Unplugged has hit on something extremely important - being “forced” to do something has a very real value.
'The fact that we feel the need to pay to do something we could, in theory, very easily do ourselves is a fairly ridiculous concept.'
All of Unplugged’s cabins can be reached within an hour’s drive or train journey from the capital. So after getting a swift train to the quaint village of Robertsbridge, my girlfriend and I were delighted to find Olive nestled in the trees, next to a horse paddock, with a magnificent view across the rolling East Sussex hills.
Completely isolated, with not a human in sight, a sense of peace immediately swept through both of us.
The hut itself is a state-of-the-art, cosy haven. With Scandinavian design it merges its structure with the surrounding environment, integrating wood and natural materials with neutral colours. The queen-sized bed is set up with a window wall to the left, overlooking the forest, and a window ahead, looking over the sheep-filled countryside.
With our phones locked away, we switched on the only technology in the hut - the radio. So used to turning my phone on and playing a podcast on Spotify, something as simple as this really took me back to a time before mobile phones.
Making some of the fancy coffee provided while listening to the dulcet tones of Claudia Winkleman was unexpectedly blissful, I think because I was using the technology the way it is supposed to be used: by fully connecting to that single stimulation.
'Making some of the fancy coffee provided while listening to the dulcet tones of Claudia Winkleman was unexpectedly blissful, I think because I was using the technology the way it is supposed to be used: by fully connecting to that single stimulation.'
It occurred to me how overwhelmed I am by technology. I’m rarely just using one device - phones, of course, have a myriad of ways of distracting you, so while you listen to music or watch the TV, you are often engaging with the phone too.
The Jenga, Scrabble and playing cards provided also reminded me of some of the fantastic family holidays I went on with my family to France as a kid. The bond those games can help foster cannot be understated.
As I sat back with my coffee, the sun suddenly came beaming through the window in front of me as Diana Ross belted out Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and the wind gave the cabin the faintest nudge. The feeling of peace was euphoric. My forehead felt lighter, my neck ached less and I could breathe easier. Three different types of bug walked up the windows, but there was no annoyance. We were in their neighbourhood. All was right with the world.
'Three different types of bug walked up the windows, but there was no annoyance. We were in their neighbourhood. All was right with the world.'
With physical map in hand, after walking through the fields, we approached a country road on the way to a local pub. It was at this point the question “why are we so efficient and yet so overwhelmed as a society?” crossed my mind. Surely we should have excess time.
The point is, Unplugged makes you feel wild again. It makes you feel connected to the earth. And it is that connection which is being lost. On a personal level that means better mental health - plenty of studies have ascertained that children brought up with access to nature are less likely to suffer depression in adult life. On a global scale, that disconnection from nature is exacerbating the climate crisis. How do you care for something you’re not connected with?
One of the biggest personal takeaways of the trip, for me, was that my sleep was incredible. I woke up fresh and had very vivid dreams. After doing some research, I found that this is all about melatonin, the chemical that signals to your body it is time to sleep. Using your phone activates photoreceptors, boosting alertness and suppressing melatonin, altering your circadian rhythm.
Ultimately, it was undeniable that my psychological and cognitive wellbeing had improved in just three days. Having no devices and living (partying) like it was 1999 again enlivened my brain.
When pondering why this really was, I came to the conclusion that Unplugged promotes soft fascination: attention held by a less active or stimulating activity that offers the space to reflect.
I took the train home, reinvigorated.
Mozart once said, “"music is the silence between the notes." I now like to think of that as a metaphor for life. Unplugging is the perfect way to experience those silences.
Interested in a retreat? Learn more about Unplugged Rest here.