How to free yourself from the clutches of WeChat, instantly

Kelly Yang reports on the sense of calm, better focus on work, and the meaningful interactions that come from turning off the message notification on her phone

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 7:59pm

I recently made the bold and risky decision to turn off notifications of new messages on my phone in an effort to escape the relentless tentacles of WeChat and WhatsApp. WeChat, in particular, is brutal as it combines instant messaging with the Chinese custom of politeness and always responding punctually to people.

The result is an avalanche of voice messages at all hours of the day. Friends living in mainland China report they wake up to WeChat and fall asleep to WeChat. Here in Hong Kong, it hasn’t got quite that bad yet, but every day we inch a little closer. Recently, I found myself carrying on conversations on WeChat with emojis late into the night because neither party wanted to be rude and end the conversation first. That’s when I thought, “That’s it. The madness must stop!”

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I picked up my phone and turned off the notifications. Then, I stared at the thing, in its bizarre muted state. It felt so strange not to have any bells or whistles that immediately demanded my attention. For a second, I felt a tinge of anxiety – what if someone’s messaging me right now about something important? I shoved my hand in my pocket to keep myself from giving in and tapping open the icon. And then, when I finally believed the thing was truly dormant, and wasn’t going to jump up and bite me, I let out a deep breath, one which felt like I had been holding for years. Calm walked towards me like an old friend.

In the days after turning off notifications, my behaviour changed, not just in terms of work but across the board. I was able to focus more intensely on projects and be more productive. No surprise there, given the recent research by Stanford psychologist Emma Seppala on the perils of constantly engaging with our phones and what it does to our stress levels and cognitive abilities.

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What was surprising was how turning off notifications actually improved my social life. Instead of WhatsApping a friend, I went on a walk with her and had a real conversation. And we actually just walked and talked – we didn’t stop to take selfies to show how we were living an Instagrammable life.

All the while, I held on to my delicious secret of the mini-rebellion I was waging against my phone. Some days, I tricked myself into actually believing there were no messages sitting there waiting for me – hooray!

We actually just walked and talked – we didn’t stop to take selfies to show how we were living an Instagrammable life

Other days, I felt guilty, like a naughty kid refusing to open the door to let her parents into her room. I started imagining what was waiting for me on the other side – Kelly! What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you write back? But when I finally picked up my phone and opened the dreaded app, it was nothing like that. There were no angry messages, just a torrent of voice memos, none of which, I’d say, were particularly important or urgent.

That’s because if it had been particularly important or urgent, they’d email me. Therein lies the irony of instant messaging. It used to be that instant messaging was for communications that were truly urgent – urgent enough to warrant bothering someone instantly, anyway.

But now, in our insatiable thirst for instant gratification and connection, we’ve managed to flip this criterion on its head. Now, instant messaging is for everything from “look what my dog just did” to “yo, I think I just pulled a muscle laughing”. And, as long as that’s the case, I will look at it later, not instantly. I will reserve “instantly” for living life to the fullest.

Instant messaging should be our helper, not our ball and chain. We control it, not the other way around.

Don’t believe me? Try turning off your phone notifications for a few days and see what happens. I guarantee that your life will go on, and probably with more zeal.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.