Four years ago, I was addicted to my phone. I recognize this doesn’t make me very unique. I would scan through my contacts and wonder who to message without even having a reason to message them. While trying to get work done, I’d constantly get pulled back into the phone, check my messages, mindlessly browse social media, and that simple moment of distraction turned into 20 minutes or more. At this point, I set a simple ground rule for myself: turn it off before sleep. That provided me with at least one guardrail in a daily route loaded with turns. Over time, my phone had more messaging apps (WhatsApp, WeChat) and was linked to more social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat), and I was able to message and connect even more people across more platforms.
Now, up to three hours of each day was spent managing social media. In a meeting, that familiar vibration pulsed in my pocket, and my focus would shift away from the people in the room and instead imagine who was messaging me or liking that deserving photo I uploaded to Instagram that hadn’t gotten its due until now. I’d finally check, and the result was mood altering based on whether I was happy with the result, or disappointed by the mental buildup. Either way, the anticipation was intoxicating.
I’ve always been able to read books from cover to cover in a single weekend or two without coming up for air. But now, my phone demanded my attention and I could barely get through 10 pages without thinking about social media instead of the text on the page in front of me, and then finally giving in to check what others were doing, posting, and then wondering what to post next.
At home, the same patterns occurred and I’d shift between the two worlds of my close friends or partner, and this vivid digital overlay off photos, videos, likes, posts, comments, and messages that moved at a pace the slow-paced real world couldn’t match. The line between the two was growing more and less distinct in equal measure.
The Surprise Awakening
Not tearing through books at my normal pace, and becoming more obsessed with impression management and its resulting loss of brainpower and presence is not the direction I wanted for my life. It had become crystal clear that I was optimizing myself for the phone, the apps were optimized for my phone, and my dopamine receptors were becoming optimized to the apps. And, like any drug, it started taking longer sessions of clicking around to maintain the same high that used to feel better, arrives quicker, and last longer. This was a true illusion. After dropping my phone without its case, it became very difficult to use. I couldn’t write messages as smoothly and the cracks on the screen made it hard to view messages. I was now constantly frustrated since I couldn’t use my phone as I once did. So I looked online and found a screen replacement store and they told me they’d replace it at a discount. So I had decided that I was going to pay for it until a thought occurred to me; maybe this was a moment that I could use to wean myself off my cellphone. Or perhaps something more radical.
Throwing away my phone
After jumping into the neuroscience research and reading countless papers on social media and phone usage (internet communication disorder), it seemed clear that the verdict was in on what I had been experiencing, many studies found that messaging and social media apps are correlated with brain volume differences in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (those with higher social media use have less grey matter in the ACC), and usage also being correlated with negative mental states such as depression and anxiety. So instead of using sheer willpower to monitor and shift my usage (which other studies show to fail at best, and to further reinforce old habits at worst), Rather than pick between two bad paths, I decided on a third: to see if I could live without a phone. To let its absence reveal my co-dependent relationship rather than try to manually shift my decision making. So, I removed the chip and threw both it and my phone out. If I wanted to start over, I would need to buy a new phone and new service. I was ready to commit to 60 days without a phone.
I felt sick to my stomach multiple times over the next 10 days. It was like losing a pet. It really hit me on public transit and being forced to watch everyone with their head down and eyes glued to that magical device. I had a deep fear of missing out (FOMO). I wanted to be glued in. I couldn’t stand the silence. All-day without a text message? Without an Instagram like? Without a phone call? I’d hurry to email connections and colleagues and feel heightened anxiety that I was missing their messages and disappointing them by not instantly responding.
Why was I doing this? Why was I opting into suffering? Why was I making life so inconvenient? It took a month until I started seeing any reason to continue this self-imposed torture. As my inbox slowed from 50–200 messages a day to now just 10 or so emails. There was an emptiness to my day that was only made more painful with the occasional false positive feeling of an imagined vibration in my pocket, the feeling of an incoming message, that someone cared. Only 30 more days to go.
Sometime later, I started to notice that I was more present and aware of my current setting. I observed a mental sharpness come back to my thinking that I hadn’t felt for years. I was no longer in 20 different places at once, but instead, my presence was in one place with most of my attention available to the task at hand. I also began noticing how much other people were constantly distracted, constantly scrolling through their apps to past the time or fill in free time. The time they could be staying with themselves. Had I been avoiding being with myself? Had I become afraid of hearing my own thoughts? How had this technology become so gripping? So persuasive? All for a few likes for having a staged conversation? As I meditated on my use and others around me, I started to listen to my thoughts closely. My mind had truly been reshaped by this technology in ways that didn’t match my life goals. Thoughts I was once familiar were now distant but I could still feel them, I could almost see the hedonic treadmill happening in my own being. I was surely addicted and if I slipped back in my mind would thank me. knowing this, I knew I had to learn how to be with myself again.
I gained so much of my time back; without the constant buzz of updated news feeds, messages, and push notifications, I now had time to reflect and figure out how I should spend my new found time. I planned the next 6 months with my partner, focused on what we wanted to deliver, who we wanted to be, and how best to get there. That turned into a daily plan and system that revolves around daily reading, meditating, writing, programming, and taking open courses. At work, things had gone from how am I going to survive without a phone at work to how did I ever survive with this constant source of distraction? I worked and still work at a consultancy where travelling and constant client contact is often the norm. Originally this amplified my fears of not being workable at first but eventually, after much experience and meditation, I learned to work with it and my early successes hardened my resolve. I was going to finish my 60-day commitment.
When I finally made it to the 60th day my partner and I knew that in terms of my experience, the self-reported data I captured around my productivity and mental health, there wasn’t anything other than a few inconveniences that could forecast a better future with my phone and specifically social media and message apps. The outcome was unanimous. I had been more productive and present then I’d ever been. My meditations allowed me to see what these mobile apps and the always-on phone were optimising for; messaging/social media apps provide you with the near-constant illusion of connection and anticipated rewards in the form of a daily cortisol and dopamine infused aperitif, that would make you feel good in anticipation but utterly lacked true nourishment. These apps exploit us in the same way processed foods do, attracting us with the promise of something good, but ultimately failing to deliver anything deeply meaningful and staying. And worst of all, one of their key metrics is sustained engagement. Which pushes these algorithms towards optimising at a local minimum which uses neurobiological bugs such as the hedonic treadmill and the resultant addictive behaviour that comes with it to deliver on these metrics. No wonder why so many studies have shown negative differences in social media usage and brain volume in the anterior cingulate (which has been shown to be key in impulse control and decision maing). My short-term suffering was absolutely worth losing the parasite.
60 Days Too Little
With my early success, 60 days became 6 months, 6 months became a year, and I am now almost 2 years in. I assure you, these have been the most productive years of my life. Deep self-discovery and mastery are back on my agenda first and foremost.
I and my partner are a vital data point that we don’t need what these platforms have to offer if the relationship is in fact parasitic. We are more compassionate and productive than we have ever been. It turns out that I wasn’t missing anything by not being wired in all the time. That my well-being is not tied to other people’s impressions of me converted into emojis promoted by engagement algorithms. It turns out that these platforms make it impossible for us to ever be by ourselves while playing on neurobiological bugs instead of finding true value alignment. Many of us have low self-esteem, and these platforms are likely to play a bigger role then we give them credit for in the near future. Our life metrics should never be the number of likes we got on a post last week. This makes us overly sensitive to local changes that mean very little in the long term. We are, in a sense, stressing ourselves out, by believing that we have to be wired in. Your social media account doesn’t have to be a major part of how you define yourself. We are social animals but it turns out that we can be semi-solitary. That we grow immensely when we learn to sit with our own thoughts and feelings. These platforms care very little about self-mastery and how resilient you become. If you are pushing towards your potential or if you need to take some time offline. So I will be logged off until further notice. Until these systems put human flourishing over the long term into their optimisation algorithms without hand waving. We have to become aware that we are currently in aggressive symbiosis with our technology and we have a choice, albeit a diminished one. We have to act against our tuned feelings because they are less reliable in this new regime. We need so much more than the cheap addictive dopamine excitation than they offer. We must consider the fitness landscape.
The Fitness Landscape
We can imagine we are hillclimbing and we’d like to climb and be on top of the hill that maximises beings flourishing. We can also imagine that since the invention of social media and messaging apps along with similar agricultural age algorithms (i.e. processed foods) we have been sitting on the top of a small hill. Let’s call this hill, the hill of the cheapest pleasures. The analogue and digital algorithms have been in symbiosis to help us get here. We, like the algorithms, like the feeling that we are going up, making progress, but as it turns out, we are at a local maximum, filled with unlimited cheap pleasures and any step away will feel like we are going down; a digression. We are inundated with a constant flow of targeted activity in our mesolimbic pathway and have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are being with a personality and preferences rather than bugs we need to overcome. But one day, maybe today, we finally get a glimpse of the rest of the landscape, a small awakening. We see that there are other hills much much higher, farther than our eyes can see. They are beautiful. Not in a cheap, I bought this red lipstick and suit from some place expensive type of beautiful. But this kind of deep ambiguity of what I might be like if I took off on this journey and unplugged myself from these shackles. When we lower our heads away from the sky we then look down. It’s quite a long way down. And like our algorithms, going down means something bad. In algorithmic language, it means increasing our error. Experientially it means feeling bad, second-guessing ourselves and feeling ourselves with the fear of missing out. It means opting-in to a very different type of suffering that would surely last until we felt we were climbing up again. We might tell ourselves that at least the dopamine rushes keep the pain at bay. But should we really ask for suffering or just stay here? In all of us, there seems to be this small little outpost located somewhere in our prefrontal cortex telling us that this is the right thing to do. Because the history of good has always been the product of doing the right thing when it was, in fact, the hard thing to do. Clearly, we must choose. We must act in a way that these algorithms no longer delude us with the amplification of illusions of well-being and flourishing. Stop them from creating a society of common fools. Because we are more than the anticipation of a reward that we know won’t pay off. There’s so much we can strive to improve. So what might you be like if you tried? Let’s begin again.
the method of jian-fa
Throwing away my phone was a first step in becoming a better more present being. It wasn’t only me who tried this but my partner, Haohan Wang ( she took the plunge and will be writing about it soon). Soon after this early experiment we began looking at various dimensions of our lives and began to challenge many aspects through the lens of this new method that we now call, jian fa. jian fa means subtraction in Mandarin. A brief definition could be “Committing fully to subtracting a technology/app/product then meditating on it’s passing to reveal our relationship to it”. The goal is to awaken us to our questionable relationships with tech by letting the product go and meditating on the spectre of its existence. To provide some evidence that this is working I can report that Haohan and I have used the jian fa method for at least 1 year on the following parts of our life all of which are still active and share some similarities in their ability to provide insight and inch closer to self-mastery.
- 0% TV/movies — we no longer watch movies or any tv (including shows/news) — this has freed up our time and mental space because like William James says, emotion without action was never intended.
- 0% social media / messaging — we post our daily life on our social media but don’t actually spend time on social media — this freed up our time and psychological effort of “impression management” which we have overcompensated for as a society
- 0% mirrors (tape your mirrors and write something meaningful on the tape ) — mirrors have helped perpetuate consumerism’s need for you to keep chasing new and upgraded forms of you and the lie that there is a deep ontic self — we’ve started to chip away with this by noticing how much the mirror keeps us in the self
- 0% Comfort based birthdays — after letting go of birthdays for 1 year we decided to redesign the birthday to be more challenging and improve our trust.
- 0% Sugar — we did this before moving towards our new diet (raw sea and land vegetables, roots, nut, mushrooms, and seaweeds), letting go of foods with added sugars shocked our systems and helped us off the hedonic treadmill
- 0% Processed foods — we are now on a new diet (raw sea and land vegetables, roots, nut, mushrooms, and seaweeds) and there are no cheat days, we make our own food using meal prep strategies so we never eat out or eat any fast/cooked food so this has helped us avoid food that deludes into thinking it’s good for us because it only tastes good, now we choose food based on nutrition, challenge level, and taste is always last by our metrics.
- 0% Late nights — Up at 4:30 AM down by 8:30 PM — this has created stability in our lives and gives us time (it’s 5:07 AM now) before all of the emails come in to sit quietly and study or write. There were a total of 3 nights in the last year where we broke on this but have since improved
- 0% Fashion — we have multiple sets of the same clothing, for now, it’s grey pants, shirt, and shoes. The colour has meaning to us; it helps us let go of chasing this more ‘fashionable’ you that is a product of unmindful consumerism, I haven’t shopped for clothing for at least a year now and if I do, I know exactly what to reorder.
To summarise the above commitments.
After giving up the phone we would go on to give up all processed foods, movies and shows (except podcasts and lectures), meat, late nights(past 8:30), added sugar, mirrors, and unhealthy social media usage as creative ways to approach modern life’s biggest threats. We are focused on challenging consumption norms, living ecologically, and improving mental health while trying to avoid a life of “impression management” and more towards human flourishing. Many of these cheap pleasures are addicting illusions that don’t provide us with enough of the profound pleasures we actually seek. For instance, last year, we watched a total of one film to kick off the new year called Brave New World. This took us over 3 weeks to finish and we still meditate on the insights from watching that film. We have done everything from creating an online course on deep learning to committing to meditation, writing, creating the huise de system, publishing papers, and deepening our knowledge and skills so we can make an impact in the space of ecology/sustainability and mental health. Our goal is to experiment with our lives to become people we would be inspired by. We believe that this method might help you overcome some of the modern worlds most parasitic algorithms and provide you with a way to move towards what’s most important.
How do I apply this method to my life?
Here is an outline of the general steps that my partner and I have taken
- discovering your relationships with technology and pinpoint the questionable ones
- set a period of time (start with 30 days) to let go of the technology
- commit to the period and keep a journal to capture your learnings
- meditating on the spectre of existence, meditate on your thoughts, feelings, and perception as well as on other people’s usage
- reflection — after the period is over, review what has been revealed to you and create concrete next steps on how you’d like to return or modify your relationship
This method is very powerful but only is useful if you are fully committed to yourself and the promises you make. When you first do it, you may feel negative feelings but use the method of meditation and detach yourselves from those negative thoughts and feelings and observe them. Let it be your teacher, helping guide you towards healthier relationships with technology.