Your Phone Might be Killing You

Some thoughts after 30 days without a smart phone

A month ago I left my technology job of 10 years. It was a great job with a great company, but it was time to move on. Instead of jumping into a new job right away, I took the opportunity to take some time off to focus on the things that were dragging me down. There were a lot of them.

Every day I was feeling more and more distressed, unfocused, and compulsive. I couldn’t focus on a single task for more than 15 minutes without checking my email, reading an article on Medium, chatting on hangouts, browsing Quora, or checking a notification on my phone. I had 30 browser tabs open at any given time. It was deeply affecting the quality and satisfaction of my work. At the end of every day, I felt exhausted and unfulfilled.

I needed to make a change.

Although my unhealthy relationship with technology probably extended beyond just my mobile device, I felt that my beloved iPhone was a good place to start. More specifically, I no longer felt like I was in control of my relationship with my iPhone. On some level, I had to accept that my smart phone was controlling me. It was rewiring my brain and changing the way I interacted with the world.

I decided to challenge myself. I was going to put my iPhone in a drawer for an entire month. I found the cheapest, dumbest flip-phone I could on eBay and swapped out the sim-card.

Welcome back 2002, It was time to take control of my brain.

On Being Present and Multi-Tasking

You know when you’re sitting at a table with a friend or co-worker and they place their phone face-up on the table right in front of you? I fucking hate that. Every little message, ding and notification steals their attention for a microsecond (not including the time they actually engage with the device), diluting the amount of focus they are able to invest in the moment they are sharing with you.

Next time you’re in a situation like this, take notice. That 15-second glazed look in their eyes as they try to re-engage in the conversation with you: that is called context-switching. It turns out, the human brain is really bad at it. People have been writing about this for a long time. In fact, recent studies show that people who engage in constant multi-tasking behaviors (i.e. checking your phone constantly in social situations) have rewired their brains, resulting in lower IQ’s, decreased cognitive performance, and lower capacity for emotional empathy. Our phones have turned us into chronic multi-taskers and it is deeply impacting our real-world relationships.

Being present is a critical component to happiness. In my first few weeks without a phone, I was forced to completely focus on the real life situation I was experiencing. No escape routes. No button to click to make me feel temporarily better. No pointless notification to distract me. Just the ordinary things that were unfolding in front of me. I can’t tell you how refreshing this felt.

Conversations felt more engaging. I felt more relaxed. It actually felt like things around me began to slow down. The speed of my speech became slower. I could think more clearly. The compulsive habit of reaching for my phone every time I had a burning question began to fade. The constant buzzing in my pocket and subsequent desire to check disappeared. The low-level stress of being constantly connected evaporated.

Is this what real life is like?

Your Phone is a Drug and You Are an Addict

I was addicted to my phone. I might still be actually, although going without for a month has definitely lessened the gravitational pull. Have you ever compulsively pulled out your phone without any real intention? Just to browse through your apps like you would search for a midnight snack in your refrigerator? Have you pretended to go to the bathroom so you could use your phone for a bit? Browsed the internet at a stop-light? Texted a friend while driving? Used your phone in bed instead of engaging with your loved ones? Does forgetting your phone at home make you feel lost and anxious? I did all those things, all the time. Deep down I knew it was bad for me, but I couldn’t stop.

Our technology has become incredibly good at stimulating the dopamine systems in our brain. Just like cocaine, sex, or chocolate, technology has a deep connection with our brain’s reward circuitry. Checking your email releases dopamine. Shopping online releases dopamine. Looking at pictures of barely clothed women (or men)… lots of dopamine! There is a whole world of online pleasure now at our fingertips, we just have to press a button.

The other day I hiked to the top of Camelback Mountain. At the summit, surrounded by a stunning 360-degree panorama spanning hundreds of miles in every direction, a group of girls sat huddled around their phones, admiring the selfies they just took of themselves at the top. They didn’t talk to each other. They preferred the experience of viewing themselves through a screen than to actually be present in the moment to take in the amazing views with their friends. This is pretty dumb, and not at all the first example of such behavior I’ve witnessed since disconnecting.

It seems we’re no longer able to go even a few minutes without some sort of artificial stimulation. We’ve become uncomfortable with our own thoughts. We’ve stifled our own creativity with a constant barrage of external information. We don’t reflect and process information effectively anymore. We’re overstimulated and exhausted and we’ve lost the willpower to stop.

In my month without my phone my thoughts became deeper. I could day-dream and get lost in my thoughts more easily. New ideas would appear effortlessly. My memory was starting to get better. I fell asleep quickly and my sleep felt more restorative. I talked to my wife more in bed, had better conversations. I could focus on a single task for much longer, enabling myself to get more deeply engaged in what I was doing. Even mundane things felt more meaningful.

It turns out that constantly over-stimulating your dopamine system can turn you into a compulsive, desensitized jerk-face. A lot of the same behavior you see in drug-addicts and alcoholics. Taking that constant stimulation away allows you to experience pleasure and reward in much healthier ways, the way evolution intended.

How Much Time Have We Wasted?

I used to get lost in my phone every night from 8pm to 10:30pm, right before I would attempt to fall asleep. Those hours and minutes would disappear in a blink of an eye. Nothing I was doing on that phone was even remotely important. Looking at Facebook, reading random articles, playing fantasy sports, searching for things to buy — what exactly was I getting out of this? It felt like an endless loop with no conclusion.

Since I put my phone in a drawer, I’ve suddenly found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. Amazingly, I started using that time to be incredibly productive in real-life. Here is just a small sampling of the things I suddenly found myself doing without my phone to occupy my free thoughts:

  • I taught myself how to play the Navajo Flute
  • I tuned up my bike
  • I fixed everything that was broken on my Jeep
  • I started practicing Yoga
  • I re-strung and tuned up my guitar
  • I started running and hiking a lot more
  • I sold and discarded a huge amount of stuff I had accumulated
  • I read a lot of books
  • I oiled my bait-casting reel
  • I learned how to fly-fish
  • I strung up a hammock (and used it extensively)

Turns out all of that energy you direct into your phone or computer can actually be redirected into a laser beam of soul enriching productivity!

Back On the Grid

I don’t think everyone is addicted. I’ve seen lots of people with smart phones live normal, happy lives. Our brain has taken millions of years to evolve to it’s current state. Technology is evolving much faster. My worry is that we’re approaching a point in history where technology is eventually going to overwhelm all of us. I hope that isn’t true, but it seems to be heading in that direction. I see examples of this everyday.

I did miss some things about having a smart phone. I missed having a really good camera in my pocket that I could use to share moments with friends and family. I missed being able to go anywhere and never be lost using Google Maps. I missed listening to podcasts in my car. I missed listening to music while working out. The iPhone is truly a magical piece of technology and I’m glad it exists.

You know what I didn’t miss? Shopping, social media, playing video games, and mindlessly surfing the internet.

After 30 days, I plugged the sim card back into my iPhone. The warm glow of the screen was intoxicating. My experience going without it has definitely changed my perspective. I plan on being a lot more aware of my usage patterns and focusing on not letting it take control of me anymore. And who knows? I may end up switching to the flip-phone for good.

And you know what? Turns out it’s actually getting pretty trendy to ditch your smart phone and go back to the stone ages. Even celebrities like Rhianna are doing it.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, frazzled, anxious, unfulfilled, or depressed, take a close look at that device in your hand. Ask yourself this question: “Are you using it, or is it using you?”

If it’s the latter, you’re just $25 and 30 days from freedom.


For more ideas on beating smart-phone addiction, read my article “Taming The Beast: Five practical ways to take control of your smart phone addiction”.