A few weeks ago, my editor asked me if I’d be willing to go without my phone — and most computer use (outside of work, of course) — for a week.
I actually pulled it off. I didn’t touch my phone for a whole week, which was a huge accomplishment.
And after a few phoneless days, I felt more relaxed — and less rushed — without that ceaseless buzzing in my hip pocket.
Here’s why this was such a big deal for me: I’m 23, and I’ve been attached to a mobile phone since shortly after I started walking.
That’s an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth: I got my first phone when I was 12. I called my parents with it.
And I’ve been a proud iPhone user since the 3g was a big deal.
What’s more, my phone isn’t just my primary mode of communication.
It provides me with bits of data that make my life easier — the weather, how long it will take me to get places, where I’m going (Brooklyn directions are hard), if my career is on the right track — not the last part, but you get the idea.
I’ll take you through a general day with my phone.
I’m a reporter, so it’s important that I stay on top of the news. I love my Associated Press, New York Times, CNN, Business Insider, and the push alerts that come with them — just ask my girlfriend. The last thing I do before I go to bed (while I’m in bed) is read the news on my phone. It’s also the first thing I do in the morning (while I’m still in bed).
I have Slack — a messaging app for the workplace — open whenever I’m at work. That way, when I’m away from my computer, I can still see what my colleagues are doing. I’m trolling Twitter all day, mostly to see what reporters at other publications are doing and saying.
I’m having 10 different conversations at once, through Facebook chat, Snapchat, group texts. I’m trying to never miss hilarious jokes from my friends. I’m emailing my grandparents (political memes), and my dad is texting me when he’s “stuck in a boring mtng (sic)” a few times daily.
I’m looking at Reddit whenever I have five seconds of downtime, and I’m filling in subway rides and long walks with podcasts and articles from my Longform app. I’m reviewing my steadily declining checking account after I buy drinks, or a latte, or something else I probably didn’t really need.
The NSA probably knows everything about me.
The mission begins
Last Tuesday, I turned off my phone. I was committed.
The next morning was a little frustrating. I had no idea what to wear. Sticking my head out the window is unreliable — like, what if it’s sunny now, but it’s supposed to rain later? That’s why I have a weather app.
I went with my gut, threw on a light jacket, and stepped outside into the city. The jacket sufficed all day. That was my first big win of the week.
That first morning, I felt a little naked without my phone. I even had phantom buzzes in my right hip pocket. When I got onto the train, I instinctively reached into that same pocket, only to pull out a wad of $1 bills in disappointment.
That deep, unsettling phoneless fear aside, I made it to my office in one piece.
Here’s my step-by-step process of how I went without my phone, and some things I learned along the way:
All week, I made a conscious decision to avoid sitting around my apartment with nothing to do. That's when the screens come out.
Sally Andrews, a psychologist who studies smartphone use at Nottingham Trent University in England, agrees.
'People who feel that they are using their phone too much, insofar as it is interfering with their quality of life, should maybe make their smartphone use more conscious, and keep their phone out of the way of idle hands,' she wrote to me in an email.
That first night, on Tuesday, I read 70 or so pages of my book, without getting distracted. That was my first win of the week.
My book -- 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline -- became my new phone. Whenever I left the apartment, I had my book. I sneaked in a few pages waiting in line for coffee, while I was eating lunch, and even sitting in the backseat of an Uber. My focus improved. It's usually difficult for me to read in crowded subways, but that ceased to be a problem.
'Exercise is probably the best way to reduce smartphone use because taking part in moderate exercise means it's almost impossible to use your phone at the same time,' David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster University, told me in an email.
I took his advice.
I love indoor rock climbing, so I went straight to Brooklyn Boulders after work. I spent much more time at the gym than I normally would have, knowing that going back to my apartment with any downtime would jeopardize my experiment.
I couldn't order Seamless (an online food delivery service popular in New York), and I definitely don't cook, so I basically ate spaghetti with tomato sauce all week. But I was actually fine with that because pasta is delicious.
In all seriousness, I do try and eat healthy -- there's my go-to fried rice dish above.
My girlfriend was worried she wouldn't be able to get in touch with me all week. I solved that problem by staying at her apartment for a few nights. And we spent a ton of actual (phoneless) time together, which was awesome.
It was a little difficult staying in touch with my parents (they live in Toronto), but it was still doable -- we talked through my work email. It's 2016, so it's not like I have a landline to call them on.
The most startling thing I noticed the first morning of my experiment was just how many people stare their phones all day. I could never tell before, because I was one of them. The weekday New York footpaths are almost like that scene from 'Wall-E,' a science fiction comedy set in the future.
Nearly everyone on the footpath had their head down and earbuds in. On the train, I felt like an alien, staring straight ahead at a series of bent necks. In the elevator at work, I made small talk. I never do that. My phone is generally more interesting than other people -- or so I thought.
I felt like I didn't have to make plans to see friends on Friday night -- mostly because I couldn't -- and it was actually pretty nice, for a change.
I also didn't feel like I had to fill every second of downtime with intellectual chatter from a podcast, or reading breaking news about captured ISIS operatives and Donald Trump (though I still do find that interesting). I could just be.
But it's important to note that these were just feelings -- there's little evidence that reducing (or increasing) smartphone use actually affects personality.
Here's more from Andrews, the psychologist who emailed me:
There is a lot of research looking at whether there is a relationship between smartphone use and personality traits, however this research is based on self-reported smartphone use (how much people *think* they use their phone - rather than how much they *actually* use their phone). Additionally, because smartphones are so ubiquitous, it would be practically impossible to explore whether smartphone use can affect personality. (as it happens, a lot of researchers think that personality is stable over time regardless! Hence, it might be more sensible to explore whether a person's personality affects their smartphone use.)
Making a few small lifestyle changes helped me breeze through the first five phoneless days. It was a welcome break, and I actively filled my day with more productive activities.
But by day five, the phoneless-ness started to get to me. On the morning of day five, I wrote in my notebook, 'I honestly don't even know where my phone is right now. Uh-oh.'
I went to lunch that day, on Sunday, and I told someone that I was having a tough time because I was 'in a different borough from my phone.'
When I go out, I'm usually on my phone at least 50% of the night trying to figure out where my other groups of friends are partying, and if I should go there instead of stay where I am. I now realise that is stupid.
I did cheat a bit -- when my friends wanted to meet us at a bar on Saturday, they just messaged my girlfriend (we're a package deal) instead of me. So I still went out that night.
But without my phone last weekend, I stayed put at one bar all night, without wondering what else was going on.
I finally understood that ignorance really is bliss.
While I didn't go full digital detox -- I stare at a computer for many hours a day at work -- I actually started to feel a little better about my self-control.
When I asked Andrews -- one of the psychologists -- her tips for reducing smartphone use, she had a particularly interesting response.
'I think that raises an interesting question of whether we need to reduce smartphone use,' she wrote in an email. 'Obviously people use their phones for a variety of reasons (work, productivity, socialising, music, as examples).'
In other words, the science isn't totally clear on whether using your smartphone is actually a bad thing.
And you can always download Moment, as Ellis suggested, if you want to track your smartphone use to consciously reduce it.
I was really worried about being out of touch, but it never became a huge issue. The world didn't stop because I couldn't reply to group chats. And, as it turns out, it's fine to wait a few days to respond to emails and Facebook messages.
By Tuesday morning, I went back to using my phone. But I think I'll start using it differently. I'll try not to whip it out when people are talking to me. I won't freak out if I forget it at my apartment one morning. If I survived a week, I can survive a few hours without it.
It's completely normal to use your phone a lot. Everyone does it. But it's good to take a break once in a while.
You might think I have an addictive personality. This would be false. I'm completely normal.
'It is quite shocking that on average, approaching one third of people's waking hours are spent using them (smartphones), with phones being used on average five times an hour, every waking hour,' Dr. Richard House, a psychologist who studies the impacts of technology on human experience, told The Huffington Post in 2015.
And, in a 2015 study of 29 British students, psychologists found some more startling results.
The researchers asked the students to estimate how many hours they spend on their phones per day. They then installed an app on each participant's phone to track the actual amount they used their phones. The result: The students checked their phones twice as much as they thought.
'On average, people were using their smartphones for an average of 5 hours a day -- and checked them about 85 times a day,' Ellis, one of the psychologists, told me in an email.
So if my smartphone use is largely representative of modern adults, what was it like to give all that up?
As it turns out, it really wasn't so bad, even though I put off starting my mission for week because I was so nervous about it.
It was a little scary at first, but letting go of my phone -- while still going about a pretty normal routine -- is totally doable. And it helped me become way more conscious of my screen use.
Try it some time. You'll thank my editor.
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