Overall, the experiment was a success, leading to dramatically reduced phone usage and clarity around the mindlessness of a “distraction-seeking” habit that needed addressing.
However, some logistical challenges highlighted the practical benefits of a smartphone.
As a result of the experiment, I’ve purchased a limited-capability “Light Phone” for personal use. When its SIM card arrives, my iPhone will almost always remain off on evenings and weekends.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
Earlier in December, I wrote about being inspired to give up my iPhone by the article, Life Really Is Better Without The Internet. But…reality quickly sunk in. The logistical challenges associated with doing so would likely provide significant hassles in my business, both for my clients and for me. I didn’t want that. The point of not having a smartphone was theoretically to enjoy life more by being less distracted, not to increase frustration by imposing unnecessary difficulty upon the lives of myself and others.
So, I decided that an appropriate compromise would be to convert my current iPhone into a “work phone,” (turning it off outside of business hours) and downgrading to a flip phone for personal use. In order to determine whether this was a good idea, I devised a two-week experiment to mimic this change. You can check out the full details here, but this is the short version. For two weeks, I decided to:
- Turn my phone off within 30 minutes of coming home from work each day.
- Turn it on 60 minutes before leaving for work the next morning.
- Keep it turned off all weekend other than a small window on Sunday afternoons to prepare for the coming week.
So, how did it go?
I’ll dive into specific details in the next section, but overall, the experiment went quite well. It was successful enough that I’m definitely going to leave the iPhone behind. But I won’t be going back to a flip phone. In a funny coincidence (or synchronicity), the very same day I wrote the first article about the experiment, two different clients told me about something called the “Light Phone.” And after a little research, I bought one. I had no hesitation in doing so, as the company’s mission and story really resonated with me. An artist and an engineer brought together by Google to design smartphone apps quickly realized that creating yet another attention-sucking distraction was the last thing they wanted to do.
So, they went in the complete opposite direction, designing a minimalist mobile device. The original Light Phone was literally only a phone, while the recently released Light Phone II can also send text messages and has an alarm clock. But that’s about it. It has limited Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, but also a black and white screen designed to give off no blue light and discourage extended use. And it’s tiny. That was the first thing that struck me when I opened the package. Its dimensions are nearly identical to a single-digit stack of credit cards.
The screen type and the phone’s size both matter tremendously. Do you remember what it was like to try to navigate the internet on a pre-2011 “dumb phone?” Not worth it. As for the black and white screen, nearly every “productivity hack” article suggests turning your smartphone to grayscale to discourage prolonged usage. I’m not sure anyone has tried that and not said, “Eff this!” before changing it back after a day or two. So, not having the option to do this will remove that obstacle. With all this in mind, using the Light Phone mindlessly seems like it will be quite difficult, so I’m pretty excited for the reduced opportunity for distraction it will allow. But, back to my findings…
Successes of the Experiment
The first success was that my phone usage went way down. Like, by over 50%. I mentioned in the first piece that I was partially spurred to pursue this experiment by noticing that over the past few months, my average daily screen time steadily crept above the five and even six hour mark. And I’m pleased to report that week one of the experiment yielded an average usage of two hours and forty-two minutes, while week two’s average clocked in at three hours and one minute. Multiple days featured less than two hours of phone usage, and on Saturday, December 9th, it stayed off the entire day. But more on that, later.
This experiment confirmed my suspicion that some apps do indeed count toward your daily total as long as they’re open in the background, regardless of whether you’re using them. In particular, almost all of my phone usage on Tuesday, December 5th was dedicated to the app for The Athletic, the news site I use for all of my soccer needs. On that day, my beloved Arsenal had a midweek game that I was unable to watch due to my in-person client schedule. So, I checked the starting lineup and the score at halftime before repeatedly refreshing the feed during the final few minutes to see if the Gunners could pull off last-ditch victory. And that they did, winning 4-3 with a goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Wild!
Less wild was the realization that keeping the app running during the match counted just over two hours towards my screen time total that day, despite the phone being in my hands for less than five minutes. In a similar vein, listening to podcasts and GPS usage also count as “screen time” in exactly the same way as scrolling through social media, which doesn’t seem quite right. Oh well. Most importantly, I was pleased to see my phone usage drop so significantly, especially in light of the realization that even these diminished numbers were somewhat inflated.
To that end, the experiment accomplished pretty much exactly what I’d wished it would, leading me to spend much less idle time on my phone during evenings and weekends. It did so by bringing awareness to just how mindless my phone usage had become. On the first day of the experiment, on two separate occasions, I reached for the phone to pull up something to look at while I was eating dinner. So what? Well, I’d already turned the phone off by then. I reached for a blank device without even knowing what I was looking for. It had simply become habitual to distract myself with a screen while eating.
After that “unconscious reaching” happened for the second time that Monday night, I immediately moved my phone into the bathroom to charge it until morning. As an aside, don’t keep your phone near you when you sleep! This experiment about plant growth and prolonged Wi-Fi exposure aptly demonstrates why. Anyway, I felt simultaneously vindicated in my decision to pursue this experiment and grateful for such a clear window into the mindless nature of this distraction-seeking habit. Clearly, it was something I needed to examine. After that realization, I spent more time in the evenings chatting with Tess, reading books, and improving my abilities in the slow, mindful eating practice I detailed in last week’s piece.
But it’s not like everything was perfect.
Challenges of the Experiment
There were a few logistical difficulties. The first night, not only did I mindlessly reach for the phone a couple times, I turned it back on after the thirty minute post-work cooldown period had ended. Tess wasn’t home yet, so the thought, “What if she needs me for something and can’t get ahold of me because of this arbitrary rule?” became a compelling one.
She arrived maybe fifteen minutes later, absolutely no worse for the wear, but this still seemed a valid concern. It’s probably best to be reachable by your partner, just in case. Obviously, this won’t be a problem once the Light Phone is up and running, but it did make me tweak my experiment slightly.
Next, only turning my phone on an hour before my first client session ended up more stressful than helpful. On multiple mornings during the first week, there were a few tasks for which I needed my phone. Adhering to my experiment’s rules turned completing them into a scramble rather than a simple, easy endeavor. It was also a bit of a pain to have to rely on Tess’s phone for both our morning alarms, since I usually sleep in a bit longer than she does.
It didn’t seem fair to ask her to set a second alarm and interrupt her work to come wake me up. So on week two, I started leaving my phone on overnight so I could set my own alarm. However…after shutting the alarm off and bringing my phone back into the bedroom, on at least two separate occasions I lay back down and started reading articles. The automatic nature of this habit became crystal clear, as any time I felt the need to check my phone but it was already off, the urge almost instantly dissipated. The slight bit of friction and time delay required by the need to turn the phone back on removed all temptation.
So, it seems like the best course of action may be to treat a powered-up, Wi-Fi enabled phone during “off hours” the same way I handle Tostitos Hint of Lime Tortilla chips. Just don’t keep either in the house. To clarify, identically to how I probably won’t go to the grocery store purely for the purpose of buying these salty treats if a craving hits, I find it highly unlikely that I’ll fire up my phone just to scroll if it’s already turned off.
As for the final challenge, I had originally intended to keep my powered down for the majority of the weekends, but that didn’t end up being realistic. I used it minimally both Fridays of the experiment and not at all the first Saturday, but a fair bit more on the second Saturday and on both Sundays.
The primary culprits were friends, soccer, and driving.
Importantly, nearly every problem described in the previous section will be eliminated by the Light Phone. So will challenges with planning friend get-togethers. I mentioned in the previous piece that Tess had graciously offered to act as my de-facto weekend flip phone during this experiment, but that ended up feeling like I was imposing too much hassle on others for no real reason.
So, my phone ended up on (and used) a fair bit more on weekends than I’d originally intended. Still, as I said earlier, my overall usage dropped significantly, so I wasn’t too worried. But, that brings me to the biggest challenge.
In this clip from Parks & Rec, self-reliant Ron reprimands technology-addicted Tom for being 90 minutes late to work. The reason? A court-enforced ban on using his phone meant Tom couldn’t use his GPS to find his way to the office…even though he only lives 3.4 miles away.
I laughed pretty hard the first time I saw this clip, because I could instantly relate. Tess and my brother are both blessed with an incredible sense of direction and internal navigation. I am not. Maybe it’s a little sibling thing. Anyway, I’ve found that knowing I have the ability to use satellites to guide myself anywhere has meant that my brain devotes very little storage space to learning directions.
So in general, if a place is more than ten minutes away or I haven’t been there over 100 times, I’ll use Google Maps to reach it. Despite that, let the record show that on Saturday, December 9th, I successfully completed the 23-minute journey to my friend John’s house, totally unassisted. But I couldn’t repeat the trick on either Sunday. Between the two weekends, I had three soccer games, all at different locations, none of which I’d visited enough times to memorize the necessary routes.
By driving to those spots and enjoying a post-game meal with my teammates after each match, I racked up nearly four hours of driving (and thus, phone usage) between the two Sundays. As I doubt the Light Phone will ever be equipped with a user-friendly navigation software, this is a challenge I’ll need to overcome. The best solution is probably trying to pre-plan routes to wherever I may go and bringing my (turned off) iPhone with me in case I become truly lost. That way, I’ll increase my navigation skills without any unnecessary hardship in the event of a mistake. We’ll see how it goes!
So, what next?
Well, I plan to continue a modified version of this experiment until I integrate the Light Phone. It arrived ahead of schedule on Friday, December 22nd. I’m simply waiting for a SIM card from Mint Mobile so that I can activate it and import my contacts. By then, the experiment will basically become permanent. Turning the iPhone off upon returning from work provided a wonderful level of relaxation, lightness, and freedom, so I certainly plan to continue doing this.
However, I plan to turn it on around 8:00 a.m. each weekday morning, regardless of when my first appointment or call may be. As for weekends, I’m going to play those by ear, based on the plans I have. On days when I don’t have any, I’ll try to keep my iPhone off the entire time. My ultimate goal will be to handle making all plans through the Light Phone, but iPhone-only group texts may make that more challenging.
Regardless, I’ll take the next few weeks to observe whether or not any quality of life changes result from making this switch permanent. I expect that they will, and that’s all I can ask for. Unlike the authors of the article that inspired this two-week experiment, I’m not yet convinced that life is better without the internet entirely. However, I’ve seen definitively that it’s better with a lot less smartphone-enabled distraction.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your relationship currently like with your mobile devices? How do you think your life would be different if you used them less? Reply to this email and let me know!