Since I first watched Matt Cutts’ video on “30 day challenges”, I have been doing a few of them myself. This practice has added a good range of new interesting experiences to my life (but this is a topic for another article). As September started, I was looking for a new challenge.
The impact of smartphones in our daily live
There are many negative stories about the addiction to smartphones, and the consequences they carry on our daily lives: from the most catastrophic articles, that claims that it destroyed a whole generation; to this TED Talk explaining why spending more time on our phones makes us feel a bit miserable. Other talks focus on the impact of filling every gap of time with phone time and what we could achieve instead.
Wherever you look, you will find some sort of evidence that states that excessive usage of phones is harmful. A lot of this overuse could be attributed to the mechanisms that developers use to keep us attracted to their apps, and our phones. However, the truth is that it is in our hands to control how we use our technology.
Indeed, there are some interesting stories on the positive impact of reducing usage and how to achieve it. For example, these leaders shared their tips to unplug and recharge.
In my case, I decided to try to 30 days with with “no phone”.
The reason: why now, why without phone
I have just described some of the bad consequences of overusing our phones. I, like maybe you, lean towards my phone a bit too much; and many times by pure inertia.
By not using my phone I was expecting to (1) realise how much I relied on the smartphone on a daily basis and (2) measure the consequences that a significant reduction of its usage could have in my overall wellbeing and productivity.
But why now? Android (and other systems) announced their measures on Digital Wellbeing. This felt like the perfect moment to test the idea. Not only I would be able to feel the impact, but also quantify the usage reduction (and who doesn’t like data?). Furthermore, these new features should make my job easier and allow me to achieve the challenge goals.
The setup: what does no phone really mean?
The first confession to make is: I did not fully go without a phone. However, I imposed near to no usage conditions to myself. I was only allowed to use the phone under 4 circumstances:
In the morning, before leaving home for work, I could check WhatsApp and Asana (task manager) for 15 minutes. My family and friends are in Europe, while I sit in Asia; hence a lot of activity happens at night while I sleep. However, I would only be able to reply if there is anything urgent.
In the afternoon, just after leaving work, I could do another 15 minute WhatsApp and Asana check, but usually just as a verification of what is going on, with no intentions to reply.
At night, and only while at home, I would get 1 hour of phone usage. This is the only actual moment of free usage. Weekends would have similar rules for less than 2 hours, if only harder to stick to them.
At any other moment, the phone would only be used in case of “emergencies”. Now, emergencies are not true emergencies. Imagine you are meeting with your friends and can’t find them. Well, first you try without phone. However, if no other resources are available, then you may be able to use it only to solve that issue.
During the rest of the time, the phone would be either completely switched off or using Android’s “Do not disturb” feature, which completely hides all visual notifications. Hence, even if I grabbed my phone to check for the time, I would not get any information (nor temptation!) on what is going on inside.
I am sure more aggressive “no phone” practices can be achieved. However, I felt this was a fair compromise which would allow me to stick to the challenge, without cheating excessively, while achieving the goal behind. In other words, I got a month without phone-dependency.
The numbers: how much phone usage was reduced
Before starting the challenge, my average screen time was over 3 hours. On a normal day, I would unlock my phone 95 times and open 219 apps.
During the challenge, the average screen time was reduced to just over 1 hour. In this time, I would unlock the phone 42 times and open 91 apps.
In broad terms, I got 2 additional hours of no-screen every day by cutting screen time in two thirds and usage to half.
The experience: what it happened during the challenge
It is hard to imagine the omnipresence of our phones, until you try to live without one. It impacts so many small aspects of our daily lives.
The first things you notice are the smallest ones:
When I wake up, the first thing I do is reaching for my phone. Mainly because it is my alarm clock, but also to start the day connected and up to date to my email. I personally failed to completely remove this habit, but I managed to significantly reduce the morning in-bed usage by being consciously aware about it.
When I get my breakfast, I love having my fair read of news and articles on Feedly (blog reader) and Pocket (to-read manager). This was no longer possible. As a result, I was more prone to sit with others at the office cafeteria (where I have my breakfast) and engage in interesting conversations with colleagues. I did not see this use as negative, but it did open for new possibilities.
On my commutes, I used to read more news, engage in Twitter or simply connect with friends and family on WhatsApp. Now, commutes are times for reflection: time to observe and time to think. Having time to think and reflect is not only good for mental wellbeing, but also helps with creativity. It allows you to let your mind free and err wildly with no purpose or destination. Meditation helps you get focus, but sometimes you need to let your mind free to engage in interesting ideas and thoughts. It was a great opportunity.
At night, the phone usage will stop way before sleep time as it was limited. As a result, I felt my sleep quality significantly improved. Mainly, because I was unable to use the phone while already at bed; but possibly also for some of the reasons discovered in recent studies.
While the previous were in general good experiences, there were some positive or productive use cases that I missed during this time:
While I am not be the biggest music fan, I am an avid music listener. I use it on every commute, everyday. No phone also means no Spotify (music player). This made me more aware of my surroundings. I listened to the city in ways I was not doing before. And, yes, sometimes you overhear funny conversations too; but I will not share those :) However, I missed music a lot, and as this does not have screen time. It should not have been a major issue if I decided to add it to the mix.
My whole life is organised using “Getting Things Done” principles. One of these principles implies writing all your TODOs and ideas down to notes. I personally use my phone (Google Keep and Asana) for that. Not being able to use my phone at all times made this process so much harder, and made it feel unproductive because I had to remember all of them at night to write them down.
There are also so many other situations where the phone was required. For example, finding a friend on the place you are supposed to meet. While I did have to use the phone in many circumstances, the trick here is that I forced myself to use methods that I would not normally use. For instance, I used phone calls to be quick, reduce usage and make it feel like something extraordinary (I virtually never use phone calls).
The impact: a view on how I felt during the challenge
Counterintuitively, the first thing I learnt is that with certain types of lifestyles, it is nearly impossible (or counterproductive) to completely live without a phone. There were many circumstances where using the phone was inevitably required (e.g. to coordinate between volunteers during an event).
In general, I discovered three main categories of usage:
- Positive: e.g. managing my TODOs or keep in touch with faraway friends.
- Innocuous: e.g. listen to music or finding directions to a place.
- Negative: impulsive checks (like social media) and overuse of chats.
There is definitely a lot of room for significantly reducing the usage on the last category. This is one of the main energy drainers that we can easily avoid. We can change those moments into opportunities to connect with ourselves, with our surroundings and with people (people around us, that is).
The biggest impact I probably got was getting some additional time to other stuff. I personally achieved more things during this challenge than when I tried the 30 day challenge of waking up at 4:30am! There are probably a few reasons for that:
First because my phone usage was significantly larger than I expected. A few seconds or minutes for every check was amounting to a significantly large number of hours being wasted. This meant a lot of time back to do other stuff.
This time was usually replaced by other activities. For example, I stopped reading Feedly and started progressing faster on the books I was reading. I stopped chatting so intensively and started coding and writing more articles. This felt like a natural replacement for those small tasks, but a way better usage of the time.
Finally, checking the phone less often reduced the interruptions and distractions. I could focus on tasks better instead of losing concentration to check the next tweet or next text message. This made the extra and the old time much more productive.
Conclusions: the take away
All in all, I believe a life without a phone is not fully desirable. I do recognise intrinsic values in many activities that my phone powers and we should embrace technology on those cases.
Nevertheless, this experience helped me discover about where my phone overuse was coming from and learn how to cut it. In general, it is recurrent impulsive checks and excessive use of communication channels what was driving my low value-added screen time.
Thanks to this challenge, I created new habits that helps me to avoid constantly checking my phone and overusing it. As a result, I can do more and focus more.
Definitely, a good learning experience for anyone who is brave enough to try it, and who wants to understand their good and bad phone usage patterns.
Have you done it before? What was your experience? Would you try it?