I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Looking back at the last ten years of my life, it felt like it passed by with a disappointing sameness to it.
Every bored moment would be on my phone. Every sleepless night would turn into a Youtube binge. When I was feeling down, I’d tear through so many self-help articles and videos and wouldn’t actually get anything done.
My wife and I tried so many ways to curb our addiction to the internet; putting our phones in a box every night at 9pm. Turning off data when we were out. Changing the settings so that I’d be virtually internet-free on weekends.
But inevitably, it would infiltrate itself back. Suddenly it would be 2am and we’d both be on our phones in bed. How the hell did we get here again?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in moderation in all things. But over the years it dawned on me that I just wasn’t strong enough to control this.
Imagine for every app that you use, there’s thousands of employees at the tech companies behind them trying to figure out how to keep you on it as long as humanly possible. I couldn’t compete against them.
I had goals in life; I wanted to grow my youtube channel, exercise more, get up earlier, eat healthier…and despite periods of productivity it would all drain away again uselessly into my phone.
And what’s even worse was that I felt like everything was boring unless I was on a device. Life became what I had to do in between reading amazing articles and videos online.
There were highlights that would ground me in reality though: our daughter being born. Getting married. Traveling. And more experiences, both amazing and tragic. But still, in general I was feeling more and more like a spectator to my life — not actually living my life.
I looked at the next 10 years ahead of me. How much faster would I progress in my goals if I wasn’t so distracted all of the time? How much would things stay the same if I just kept trying to do the status quo?
I could sense that something was off because I remembered when I was younger I had so much more energy! I remember living in the moment, and whenever I was bored I’d just look around me and find ways to stay entertained. My days seemed longer, and in retrospect life felt more…alive. And I had a nagging feeling I just couldn’t ignore anymore: How much of this is a rose-colored nostalgic view of my childhood, and how much of it is actually because I lived fully and happily at a time without the internet?
I decided to give it a test. I turned off my data plan for one month.
It was hard at first, wanting to go on Facebook at a lineup to pay or check a notification when there’d be a lull in conversation at a get-together (you know the drill).
I decided to bring my brain back to a childhood state of mind, so I would have a meditation session where I’d imagine myself back in those days. I’d think of the type of music I listened to, the clothes I’d wear, the things I’d think about while going to school. Back when the internet didn’t exist, at least not to me or my friends.
After putting myself in this mindset, I would feel more alive and in the moment for the minutes afterward. I felt like I was in my own skin, in that room and Present.
I realized that for me, it wasn’t enough to limit my data. I needed my brain to have the stress-free experience of not believing that the internet existed in the first place. I know this is starting to sound a little crazy. But have you ever stopped to consider that it’s even crazier to believe that it’s normal for our brains that have evolved over millions of years and built to survive in the wild to suddenly have unlimited amounts of images, videos, and articles accessible to it just by moving our thumbs?
Instead of a trip to the library to find out something, just move your thumbs while you’re sitting on the couch. Instead of listening to the radio or reading a book, just watch endless videos of interesting things by — again — moving your thumbs. Don’t worry about talking to your friend and hearing their voice, just text them — you certainly don’t want to bother them with a call in case they’re in the middle of something.
Now obviously our neolithic ancestors couldn’t call people or go to libraries…but I’m pointing out the difference between tangible, real-world experiences being replaced by digital consumption accessible by the smallest amount of effort needed. The examples are endless.
I read up on people talking about this — writers, philosophers, psychologists. And everyone agreed: This isn’t normal. Our brains weren’t built to handle this amount of stimulation. And the more we keep on these devices, the more that real-life seems boring in comparison.
This intellectual breakthrough, along with my meditations, had a few incredible effects on me during the days I implemented this practice more:
(1) I had more energy throughout the day
(2) I became happier
(3) I felt more alive and in the moment
After another month, having had a taste of freedom, I knew it was time.
I’d gone through the pros and cons of switching to a flip phone (What if I got lost and needed GPS? What if I needed to check my email? What if I needed to transfer funds into my account at the checkout?). For every single question that popped up, I thought of non-digital solutions and made plans to assuage my fears.
Finally, on August 17th on a Friday afternoon, I went to my provider and switched to a flip phone.
The employee that helped me said I was the first person he’d ever met that did this. It made me feel like I was more weird than I already was.
Did I ever mention that I had a stint working in the programmatic ad space? You know those annoying ads in boxes on websites? Yeah, I worked behind the scenes on those things. I’d see the spreadsheets on how advertisers tracked you and valued you based on your behaviour & demographic. I saw how website publishers made data-based decisions to try to keep you on their website as long as possible — so they could make more money. I talked to them almost every day as part of my job. So yeah…I saw how the sausage was made. This also helped make my decision.
After that, I turned off most everything on my iPhone with a restriction (I don’t know the passcode) so that it’s essentially just a camera.
It was still a struggle, but it didn’t take long to feel immensely freeing. In fact, something happened after a few weeks that hadn’t happened for around 10 years: I got bored waiting around for something, so I grabbed a pencil and started to draw on a scrap piece of paper.
I didn’t do this intentionally, it just came naturally. Years of my childhood came back to me, sketching out drawings on the edges of my binders and papers during class. And suddenly it hit me: I haven’t done this in years.
I’ve had some other epiphanies during this crazy experiment, which I’ll share another time. But for now, I’ll just close out and say that this is one of the best decisions I’d made in my life. And it’s ironic given that my focus right now is to build up something online (a youtube channel about music in media). But I’m not saying that I think everyone should do it — I know people that have a lot more willpower than I do, and less interest in the online world.
But it was the right decision for me. And for the first time in years, I felt completely alive and present during the mundane moments that will continue to make up the majority of my life.
This change has been a permanent software upgrade for me. Just like exercise and a good diet trickle down to benefit so many aspects of our lives, this has raised the plateau of my experience.
And I’ve yet to want a smartphone back. I’ll write an update in a year to see how things are then. But given how it’s going now, I don’t see myself looking back anytime soon.
- Frederic Limon