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10 Days Without a Smartphone

Observations on a technology detox

Bleary-eyed, I watched until my phone died…

It wasn’t anything special or particularly something I was even aware of, but, at approximately 12.55 a.m., it slipped away. At the time I was lying in bed, eyes barely open, rapidly spiralling out of control watching YouTube.

It had started off innocently enough by clicking on Homer Designs a Car – 4 minutes, 13 seconds of mildly amusing comedy. I looked up at the top right hand corner of my phone: six percent.

“Let’s run this baby into the ground,” I thought.

After a long Saturday that I had begun by thinking it was Friday, my brain was hot enough to fry an egg, but instead chose to scramble enough energy for one last question: why aren’t you already asleep?

A question which is regularly ignored or rather asphyxiated by the information pollution emanating from the screen of your smartphone. This often results in what followed and can only be described as a good old frolic down the rabbit hole.

Then, in a blinding flash of white my phone cried out before snuffing to black and falling into the abyss of death.

In a blinding flash of white my phone cried out before snuffing to black and falling into the abyss of death.

I woke the next morning and jumped in the shower, where I began to toy with the idea of not turning my phone back on again.

This idea and last night’s kaleidoscopic barrage of information was preceded by another experiment, one conducted over the past several weeks. I was in the habit of switching my phone to airplane mode right before going to sleep, then turning it off again in the morning. On several occasions I had altogether forgotten my phone was still on airplane mode and found myself contemplating an afternoon of eerie silence.

So there you have it, I’m not really going into this experiment cold turkey. Why 10 days, you might ask. Perhaps you’re aware, perhaps not, but there’s been a bit of noise about these 10-day Silent Meditation Retreats, which I’ve wanted to try myself, but given the natural direction of things, have decided to adapt it to my own purposes.

Thus began Day 1 of my 10 days without a smartphone.

Day 1: Time to think

Sunday morning more or less flew by as I spent most of my day writing/learning about writing. I work in a home office, so I’m on the internet anyway and mostly using Facebook messenger to keep in touch with people.

I have replaced my smartphone with a trusty old Nokia which I dug up from my bottom draw and was surprised to find had run out of battery. So I could still make and receive calls, which is the important feature for my purposes.

By far the biggest difference is found in the small things. Those little ticks you tend to develop from constantly being on.

  • While leaving the house, I thought for a moment as to why I didn’t have my phone on me, as I decided to leave it at home like a wall phone in the days of old.
  • Later that day I fumbled in my pockets purely as a reflex to check if I had my phone in possession.
  • While working at my desk, I saw a flash notification where my phone usually is, however upon looking found my phone wasn’t even there. Not sure how normal that is.

Another thing I noticed was the vast amounts of time I had between tasks which allowed me to just think. The upshot of this is that I felt like I was more present in my day-to-day activities.

The day ended after I decided there was nothing left to do and I went to bed at 10.30 p.m., the earliest I had been to bed in weeks.

Day 2: Memory, observation and introspection

The day blew past in a blur due to my working pretty hard on a writing project, spending close to 10 hours consumed by it.

There were, however, a couple of times when I felt like my smartphone could have come in handy.

Firstly, while I was at the supermarket I had some fairly specific things to get, so I could have saved them as note in my phone, but instead was forced to remember them.

Secondly, I needed to use internet banking and was just going to do it on my phone, but instead had to think ahead and just make transfers from my office.

One thing I’m beginning to see is that, for the most part, I use my phone for very little…other than to waste time.

Most of my time is spent on YouTube, watching videos over lunch and while I’m having breaks, etc. I’ll also jump in and out of Facebook, Reddit and Instagram.

This disposition has largely evolved from my tendency to consume rather than create. A behavior which has been learned given that I’ve grown up in a consumerist society and it’s generally accepted. On top of this, I’m beginning to believe that the current environment disincentivises us to create and that it is instead often actively discouraged.

I will note that during the day the videos I’m consuming are mostly educational (TED Talks/Writing/Gary Vaynerchuk) and even though this may be the case you can also develop a problem with binge watching videos of this type.

I’ve observed that there are certain times of day which influence your behavior and/or consumption levels while on your phone. For example, after dinner when I’m beginning to wind down, my level of self-control and ability to think has significantly decreased.

This is why I think many of us feel that all they want to do when they get home from work/school is play around on their phones or watch TV. The overwhelming benefit of just taking the entire device out of the picture is that I give myself time to actually think about what I’m doing on it.

At this stage I’m not really creating on any of the major platforms except here on Medium, so given that the only other option is to consume on them, this hiatus is proving beneficial.

You could categorize the promoted behavior into three types:

  • Information Consumption
  • Creation and Interaction
  • Observation

Using myself as the archetype these categories could also be correlated with time spent engaged in each. The last being least likely and in a lot of cases overwhelmed by the first two.

Bed-time: 11 p.m.

Day 3: Explorations of Time

Okay, this is nice. I’m getting used to this. I find it interesting to live a life where you’re almost observing yourself living it, and this experiment has created the looking glass.

Something I tried to do a couple of months ago was eliminate all reminders of time. Sounds a bit strange to begin with, but let me explain.

When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you do is usually to reach for your phone, immediately becoming aware of the time. Like everyone, I’ve struggled with developing a morning routine and to be confronted with the failure of not getting up on time didn’t encourage a positive frame of mind when starting the day.

To solve this, I decided to try taking the time off my phone, which is actually an impossible thing to do – go ahead, try it for yourself. What I was trying to do was just take the appearance of the time off my phone, but there’s no setting for that and doing it would require hacking into your own phone and reprogramming it.

After discovering this I decided to employ some good, old-fashioned will power and just try to avoid looking at my phone at the start of each day – a difficult challenge considering the constant notifications yelling at me. That’s when I called for backup and switched on airplane mode as a way to support my efforts.

This takes us to the current experiment, which in the view of some, has probably been taken too far.

The third day ended when I finished my writing at 9 p.m. and went to bed exhausted at 10.15 p.m.

Day 4: Addiction and moderation

Come to think of it, this piece could have done with a little preface.

Although the experiment may so far have appeared relatively easy, I will say that I think the level of dependency one has on one’s smartphone can vary greatly from person to person.

I’m someone who’s very comfortable in solitude and finds little joy in social media in general. Yes, I dabble here and there, but for the most part, if you take it away, I won’t have drug-like withdrawal symptoms.

And smartphones are very much a drug, as you’re no doubt well aware. If you’re interested you can find some great videos out there which outline the roles our dopamine/serotonin play in this and how the reward centers work in the brain.

An experiment such as this is, for me, interesting, but on top of that I hope it provokes curiosity and questions in the reader. Although innocent at first, one quickly stumbles on the question of addiction and you can’t help wonder if we’re all just like heroin addicts, mindlessly scrolling for our next hit.

Let me take a moment to reassure you, in case you think I’m just a tech-hating arsehole. I’m not. I love technology. And I love to find out about the latest advancements. But there’s interest and then there’s obsession, which can quickly turn into addiction.

Moderation, my friends, is truly a tenet of good living.

Day 4 ended on the couch reading a book, which is a habit I had been thinking about and trying to start, and now, without a phone to distract me, I was able to.

I probably read for a bit over half an hour, and then went to bed – no idea what time it was, but it was definitely before 11 p.m. It could have even been before 10 p.m., I’m not sure.

Day 5: Narratives and the Smart Question

Okay, halfway point.

I think it’s fair to say far from this being an exhaustive exercise, it’s actually been a welcome relief. I think by day five you’re completely relaxed and can really absorb what the experience has to offer.

While this experiment may not be replicable for many, given our technology-centric culture and internet-based lives, it’s worth trying for the benefits I’m experiencing.

You’re definitely more present and also focused on what you’re doing. I mean, small things like my cooking growing in both variety and creativity. Also making sure I do a good job while washing dishes. I’m even enjoying my meals more because I’m consciously tasting the food, instead of watching Pewdiepie You Laugh, You Lose videos.

Although I don’t talk about my work a whole lot, it’s actually in this part of my life that I’m seeing the greatest change.

Funnily enough, it’s when you’re not at your desk that you notice the most impactful differences. When you don’t have a phone toward which attention and focus is directed, you’re instead faced with your own thoughts – which is itself quite challenging at times.

Being a writer, a title I’m still somewhat uncomfortable decorating myself with, you spend a great deal of time in your head. There are times you actually catch yourself narrating day-to-day life and/or a series of imaginary events. It’s like being Karen Eiffel to your own Harold Crick and sometimes vice versa.

It’s like being Karen Eiffel to your own Harold Crick and sometimes vice versa.

Anyway, the point is, these little narrations aren’t possible to hear when your phone randomly pipes up in the middle of the TED Talk you’re giving…

This smartphone hiatus has prompted a question regarding what it means to be smart in the first place. Is it smarter to question the way we use smartphones, rather than their use at all?

Moderation in all things, including moderation. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’re all human. Sometimes it’s nice to dance, drink some wine and quite literally rage into the dying of the night, but have you ever wondered what it feels like to have a smartphone hangover?

Perhaps not.

And not for the lack of one either. I feel as though I’m beginning to sober up in a sense. I feel less foggy. I feel part of a real world and not just 10-second snaps of it.

The day ended a little later than usual, but I was still in bed by 12 a.m.

Day 6: Direct Effects and Responding vs Reaction

This was a largely uneventful day and was spent writing about a drawing I had done yesterday. It was while doing that drawing that I wanted to take some pictures and since I didn’t have a smartphone, couldn’t.

This had resulted in me pulling out my old printer and scanning my drawing into my computer – which I may or may not have done otherwise as the knee-jerk response to use my phone would have satisfied my desire to share my drawing.

After scanning it into my computer, I thought I may as well write something about what I was drawing and now it’s here on Medium, as an experimental character.

This little experience takes a look at the effects of instant gratification or instantly being able to do what comes into your head. The slight delay allowed me to think of other ways I could share it, which lead to a whole other idea of what I could do with my drawing.

I guess the revelation is that sometimes it’s good to have restrictions which force you to think for a moment longer. This could encourage response-driven behavior instead of reactive behavior.

Day 7: Escapism and the Mediation of Reality

A week into this experiment and I can honestly say the hardest days for me have been Saturday and Sunday. When you’re not working or aren’t consumed in something, it’s incredibly hard to not look for an escape.

Where are you escaping from?, you might ask? Well, from the nothing, is as best as I can put it. A feeling that you’ve been with yourself for that little bit too long. Also, where you go isn’t very exciting, nor does it need to be… it’s simply a place where you can focus your attention on the other.

Although I work on Saturdays it’s a lot more relaxed than during the week and lacks the equivalent structure. It’s also a time when most other normal people come out of their hobbit holes to say hello.

This was the case on Saturday night and so it was that we went to watch the new Blade Runner movie.

Going to the cinema is, I think, a very hypnagogic experience. If I’m lucky, I can completely submerge myself within the story, and after what feels like days, I re-emerge into the real world.

One of the first things I do upon return is check my phone. I find that your phone can actually feel quite weird to use in the moments after coming out of a session, depending of course on the time and place in which the film was set.

The movie finished and realizing I didn’t even have my phone with me, was thrust upon the sharp edge of reality without the mediation of my phone to filter it.

This is reminiscent of the feeling of waking after a good dream, and instead of embracing the realness, you try to fall back to sleep and again return to the dream.

The curious thing about smartphones is that you never see them in your dreams. Okay, there was this one time for me, except the screen on the phone was smashed and behind the screen you could see these over sized machine cogs grinding.

This made me think that perhaps smartphones are more like windows and that behind those windows are actually the inner workings of our own minds.

Anyway, let’s not get carried away.

Day 8: Behavior and the Abstraction of Time

Sunday, beautiful Sunday. You can read here what I like to do for Sunday. Suffice to say it’s not a day where a lot of time is spent on my phone.

On Sundays I try to fly free from the gravity of my work. It’s a difficult thing to do and sometimes not completely achievable, but I have managed to cut it down to the bare minimum.

Following on from what I hinted at on Saturday, it’s a day that forces me to be with myself. And without a smartphone, the weight of this experience and the present moment has been emphasized.

To be quite honest with you -and this is partly the reason for this experiment I’ve found social media and phone apps are becoming rather wearisome.

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Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit…

Of less importance is how these apps are used and of more is the behavior which they promote. I have a routine. I’m not sure if anyone else does this, but it’s generally how I use social media when in consumption mode.

Facebook: I’ve deleted the app, so I open it in my web browser. Largely an automatic behavior that involves little to no thought. The next 10 to 15 minutes are then spent scrolling the news feed for no particular reason at all, other than for the activity itself. In an act of self-intervention, I downloaded Facebook Eradicator – a Chrome extension that replaces your news feed with famous quotes.

Instagram: I still use the app, sometimes. Its initiation is less reactive than Facebook and pictures are nice to look at. I have found though that after a while all photos tend to look the same and I can consume information for over an hour without remembering anything of note.

Twitter: I’ll be honest, I don’t use twitter at all, although I have used Periscope and it’s probably one of the more addicting apps I’ve ever downloaded. It’s almost like Snapchat-little insights into random people’s lives. I actually deleted Periscope because I was spending too much time on it. Being up at 2 or 3 a.m. isn’t necessarily good for you.

Snapchat: I was never very into Snapchat. It was the nature of the app I didn’t like, although the filters were a hilarious feature that I loved. Out of all the apps, I think Snapchat is the most dangerous in terms of promoted behavior and side effects. For starters, the 10-second time limit on videos is contributing to a growing trend in social media.

Time Abstraction

To understand this, think about Vine and how it used a six-second time limit for its videos. Now if you go to YouTube and search ‘Vine compilations’ what you find are 10 to 15 minute videos of six-second clips which you can spend hours watching without remembering anything much of significance.

Snapchat was founded in 2011 so this could be seen as where the behavior was originally learned. Vine, founded in 2013, took the concept, shortened the video time-frame which then emphasized its effects.

Today I’m noticing that people who use Snapchat are never really here and never really there, and I’m not sure how healthy that state of mind is.

Reddit: After only being on this platform for about a year, it’s one of the more interesting apps I’ve engaged with. It’s one of the better apps in that it’s so completely random that you can never lull yourself into a sense of sleepiness. I think more people should invest time in Reddit and that’s all I’ll say about it.

Summary: All of the above makes me think that social media apps in general have been built on fairly shaky ground. I mean, say everyone stopped to think about what they were doing and came to the same conclusion I have – that unchecked consumption of information through your smartphone is equivalent to having a Dementor suck your face off.

So what’s the alternative to this? I think it’s fairly simple, really: spend more time creating. But make sure your creations are expressed out in the real world for everyone to experience.

Day 9: The Ecology of Decisions

It’s on the second last day of this experiment that I’m going to wrap up my thoughts and put forward a somewhat radical idea.

Not having a smartphone makes you smarter.

The average amount of conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000. One of the more famous decisions within the tech world involves what Mark Zuckerberg is likely to wear on any given day.

I’ll give you a hint. There‘s no gray area when it comes to his decision.

How many decisions do we make involving our smartphones? I’m not about to hazard a guess but it’s probably quite a high number. This device promotes a very inefficient lifestyle.

My life currently places a high importance on efficiency and prioritization. For me, the use of a smartphone just doesn’t cut it and I consider the omission of it from my life to be a necessity (subject to reconsideration).

I would go beyond actually saying this is an isolated decision and instead hold the opinion that it represents a master decision. You see, I’m beginning to think that decisions themselves are binary. Yes/No, On/Off – blinking lights which dictate the direction in which we travel.

The decision to discard a smartphone turns off an entire group of decision-making possibilities. You could see this, or the study of it, as an Ecology of Decisions whereby the most efficient organization of your day would be to find these master decisions and make them according to your current priority.

Mark eliminates the decision of what to wear by instead deciding to wear a gray t-shirt every single day. That is a master decision. But how does he know that decision is more efficient than the former?

Answer: Observation and Learning

It’s our lack of observation that results in poor decision making. Perhaps you’re thinking that you don’t have time to make observations? That’s okay, but it’s also a decision.

I could tell you that I’ve decided not to use a smartphone and without the experience of the last 10 days that decision would appear reckless and baseless.

However, by observing myself and my behavior I think it’s fair to say I’ve gathered enough empirical data to make an informed decision.

The main factor in this decision? Time.

How we use smartphones in the future will change along with our behaviors. It’s increasingly obvious, to me at least, that time is something that we’re all experimenting with – how to use it and how that effects our experience of it.

“Wouldn’t we all like a little more time?,” is something that is often said. Well I’m here to tell you that you can have that time, but in order to do so you have to experiment with designing your own experience of time.

Day 10: Learnings and Attention Integrators

Let’s spend the day summarizing what we’ve learned so far.

The main reason for this experiment is that I felt as though I had reached a point where I was showing signs of addiction in the use of my smartphone and I wanted to explore whether and to what extent this was the case.

Addiction is defined as the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity. Similar descriptive words include; habit, compulsion and enslavement.

The word addiction is quite a strong one and can be overused and often misused, however in the context of this experiment, I think it’s fitting. Although I wouldn’t call my addiction a dependency, I would say that my smartphone use was reaching the point of compulsion.

The only mastery associated with my phone is the mastery it has over me.

In my opinion, when you reach the point where your behavior becomes automatic and thoughtless, you’re no better than a puppet on a string. Also, I’m not talking about skills either or when you become masterful at an activity so much so that you are one with it and perform it without thought, but instead through feeling. The only mastery associated with my phone is the mastery it has over me.

Day 1 revealed that this addiction had blinded me to the vast amounts of time being wasted on my phone.

Day 2 revealed that this wasted time was the result of my consumption programming. I find it ironic that the disease Tuberculosis was historically called Consumption due to the weight loss and is also referred to as a wasting disease. Imagine the link between the two except that instead of being a physical disease this is a mental disease; consuming so much information you become mentally emaciated.

Day 3 explored the idea of time and initiated the thought process of whether this was what I was actually wasting.

Day 4 explored addiction and touched on moderation as a method for managing this.

Day 5 revealed evidence of change and effects of moderated smartphone use and the emergence of questions regarding behavior.

Day 6 presented a real life example of altered behavior and the direct effects resulting from a change of environmental inputs.

Day 7 presented an altered experience through which insights were gained and analysed, raising questions about what our smartphones are.

Day 8 took an in-depth look at smartphone use, promoted behavior and again built on conceptions of time.

Day 9 explored decisions and the possible effects our smartphones have over our ability to make them.

Day 10 is an attempt to gather the information together and create ideas and questions around the role of smartphones in our lives.

During Day 9 and my explorations around decisions I came across a paper written by Phil Salin entitled The Ecology of Decisions, or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Kitchens. It’s a fascinating read albeit longer than this piece so perhaps not for everyone.

In it, I discovered what Phil calls Attention Integrators:

An Attention Integrator can be viewed as any information handling method or device or regularity which serves the function of focusing or structuring our thoughts and actions.

He goes on to say that any given Attention Integrator will always be both more and less than a perfect representation of our actual desired actions. Another way in which I applied this idea was to recognize that our smartphones will always be more than we can handle but also less than we desire for our full expression.

Speaking to the evolution of these tools and our relationship with them, he continues:

Our recipes, maps and models of what we are doing or what we mean to be doing are never either comprehensive, representing all the important kinds of information we are using, or accurate, representing exactly how any one kind of information is being used or unbiased nor would we want them to be. Rather, like all good tools, they have evolved subject to the constraints that they fit snugly both into our minds, and into the external environments within which they have ordinarily been used in the past. Tools of all kinds co-evolve with their users and with the environments in which they are ordinarily used. Tools are not primarily representations of problems or solutions; rather they represent our relationship with problems and solutions, our interpretation of them. We use tools to solve problems, not to model them. A hammer doesn’t look like a nail or like the process of hitting. Nor do words look like their meanings, or the ideas they are used to convey. The designs of tools convey information about the actual processes and constraints on their use far more than about how we think we use them.

This presents an interesting perspective on what our smartphones actually are and raises the question of which relationship they could represent regarding a problem and/or solution. We’re living in the Information Age and it seems only natural that we’ve developed a tool for disseminating this information more effectively.

It’s also interesting that this tool appears to have captured our attention with such intensity that we are glued to it in fear of missing out on what we seek, perhaps blinding ourselves to what we have become.

Phil goes on to explore why we need these tools, the effects they have on us and how they ultimately define us:

There is something common to all processes of paying attention – to acting, feeling, thinking, deciding, formulating problems, solving problems, setting goals, pursuing goals, loafing, doing “nothing,” searching for errors, or correcting errors – our minds, and bodies require tools to pay attention with. But the tools we pay attention with also impose regularities on our thoughts and actions other than those explicitly recognized or intended. Frequent users of any tool commonly note that the tool has come to feel like an extension of themselves. It is less common to hear that the users become extensions of their tools, but this appears to happen also. We come to identify ourselves with our methods as well as our goals; with our assumptions as well as our conclusions; with our modus operandi as well as our raison d’etre. We have all heard that, “You are what you eat.” But this observation holds quite generally: we are what we do, what we strive for, what we love, even what we hate; indeed, we are whatever we pay attention to, and whatever we pay attention with.

With the experiment drawing to a close we’ve finally come to my conclusion.

I’ve learned a lot in these past 10 days, however I find myself unable to decisively advocate or protest the use of smartphones. They’re simply tools that can be either used to one’s advantage or detriment. One thing I can say with confidence is that this experience has enlightened me to the downside of smartphones, increased my self-awareness and encouraged a more mindful way of living.

It turns out that prior to this experience, the level of self-awareness I did have was enough for me to recognize that this tool was being misused. This has naturally led to my examination of it and how I use it, asking questions as to how it can be altered so as to better fit into my local needs and circumstances.

With regard to whether an alteration can be measured as better, Phil says:

The effects of all these piecemeal improvements will normally be indirect; they will be hard to foresee or even to notice as they are occurring. Things will just somehow seem to function a little more smoothly, and perhaps more cheerfully.

And so what, if anything, can we take away from all of this? Well, it’s my opinion that I’ve learned a lot more than you have, quite simply because I’ve directly experienced what it is I’m imparting. Therefore, the only advice I can really give you is to endeavor to examine and learn more about the various Attention Integrators within your own internal and external environments.

For me, doing so has proven to be a more rewarding decision than simply snorting lines of attention off my smartphone.