The Computer-Less Month: How being forced away changed my life

Joe Toscano⚡️
Jul 9, 2016 · 9 min read
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I currently work for R/GA on our Google team. I also write for InVision. I’m not the kind of person you would imagine being away from a computer for more than a couple hours, let alone a whole month.

In late April I made the decision that it was time to move on from the job I was working to something new. This wasn’t due to the team I worked with, the community I was a part of, or any part bitterness. It was simply a natural parting of ways as I grew my career — part of having a career the digital era we’re living in.

In the same motion that signed my exiting documents and shut the door on my previous job, I also left myself computer-less. For a month.

I was set to go from 5/6 to at least 5/26, my start date at R/GA, without a computer of my own. **It ended up being 6/10 before I had one I could call my own.**

Truth be told I was pretty terrified and somewhat unsure of my ability to get through life without a computer. But there was also part of me that was incredibly excited to be forced to get away from a screen, so I took the leap!

This is a look into what life was like without a computer for a month.

Week 1

The first week I was posting daily on Medium and every other social media channel I owned. I couldn’t get over the fact that I had lost my computer. It was like a death in the family — initially, and for a while after, you have trouble believing that person is gone.

Because of this I found myself reaching for my phone constantly. And mostly unconsciously. Below are a few quick notes I took each day as I tried to journal my experience:

-I gave my computer back to work 3 hours ago and I’m noticing that everything I want to do my first reaction is to reach for my computer. Everything in life, in general — not just computer based things. I literally just have no interest in things that aren’t screen based.

-I’m excited for the break but can tell I’m going to learn new habits and probably get really creative with my phone.

-Whenever I need or want to use my computer I still haven’t realized that my only resource is my phone. And for tasks that require multi-task between computer and phone I now have to find a creative way to manage it all on my phone. It’s an interesting experience and it’s making me not want to be connected quite as much because everything is on a small screen.

-I’ve also come to realize I’ve been unconsciously checking social media on my phone for a long time now. I’m not checking to actually engage with anything, it’s purely muscle memory.

-I’m getting more and more used to the fact that everything I’m gonna do is on my phone. Still hate people that don’t make their sites responsive. It’s a fiery hatred. 🔥👺🔥

-Experiences that aren’t properly designed for mobile make me feel like I have fat fingers. 😱

-I’ve been leaving my phone at home when I go out to do things that I wouldn’t need my phone for and it seems to be helping. When do we actually need our phones?

-I feel like I’ve assimilated to life without a computer. Not life without a screen, but life without a computer. My natural reaction for everything is to go to my phone now. I still miss my desktop experiences, but I’m appreciating a high quality mobile experience more and more as I’m forced to use only my phone.

-I’ve found that the best mobile experiences tend to be contextual based, and they actually require quite a bit of clicking around. However every click is meaningful. And because of the meaningfulness clicks don’t feel like extra effort because you’re actually moving very quickly through screens of digestible information. You end up getting where you want to be very quick.

Week 2

I posted on Medium daily during Week 1 thinking to myself about how I was going to take notes and monitor myself daily to see how things changed. But by the end of the week I got to a point where I had to ask myself:

“Am I in this to document myself and the experience or did I do this to get away from the screen? And am I really getting away from the screen when I’m doing the same thing on my phone?”

While Week 1 felt like I was a drug addict recently cut off from his supply Week 2 led me to posting less and less. I could have bought a computer if I had wanted, but I made this choice to see what it was like to be forced away from the screen.

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If you like this, check out the rest of my Instagram.

Part of the reduction in usage during Week 2 was because I was traveling and packing/getting ready to move. Part of it was me consciously trying to avoid screen time to enjoy life in the moment. But, to be honest, a lot of it was because I felt guilty about how much I needed my phone that first week.

My job (as most business people see it) is to design experiences that get people Hooked and keep them coming back so that the interface I’ve created can drive revenue to whatever company is behind it.

But that’s not why I got into this industry. I got in to create experiences that people would want to use, not need to use. There’s a huge difference.

I believe everything should be incredibly simple and useful. So simple and useful, in fact, that using it makes your heart warm because someone thought about you while making it. And because of the thought they put into it you repeatedly use whatever that thing is.

But I don’t believe it should feel like you need anything (besides food, water and other essential needs) to live. While you don’t need any of your social media accounts or whatever else it is you’re unconsciously wasting time on, it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?

Week 3

By Week 3 I had started using my phone more or less as a utility to enhance life rather than a tool to fill my down time. It was really incredible feeling myself habituate away from the social media vacuum and into a more authentic life that was digitally enhanced, not digitally rooted.

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I definitely needed a couple weeks to let the old habits die. When that happened though I noticed myself not only enjoying life more but also learning more. I didn’t have headaches from all the screen time, which meant I had more energy to interact with the people around me. I got more things done that needed to be done, which meant I had more free time to explore and have fun. And then, when I did actually use my phone, I was using it meaningfully.

In general, I was less connected but more engaged

The one thing I did really notice is that when I was out with friends I was usually the only one (or one of few) actually present. Everyone else was mindlessly connected to their phone.

Week 4

The last week of my experiment was on and off. I had a computer but it was a loaner computer. I used it at work, but either turned it in at the end of the day or kept it tucked away when I was home as much as possible.

One thing I did notice was that having a loaner computer felt a lot like crashing on someone else’s couch until you could find a place of your own. It works and it has everything you need to get the job done, but it’s not your own. And you can’t make it your own because you know that very shortly it will no longer be part of your life.

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It’s crazy how much we assimilate ourselves into these machines we essentially live through. Enough that this article probably made you say “No way, that’s insane! Why would he do that to himself?!” when you read the title, huh?

What I Learned

I learned a lot during this time away from the screen, much more than I can write about here, but here are a few key takeaways:

No matter how much I want to believe we’re all up to speed on Mobile First design, there are still many experiences that are still lagging behind. This is something that needs to change considering over 25% of the world is not just mobile first, but is mobile only, according to a recent trends report by UX Magazine.

Users won’t mind clicks as long as they’re meaningful. Make your experiences contextual based and digestible, and no one will notice that it took them a few extra clicks because it felt necessary. This reduction in complexity by way of addition is something you’ll notice across the web and mobile apps if you look close enough at the best experiences.

I think the biggest thing I learned about design through my experience is that I’d rather create something that people come back to over and over as a tool to enhance their lives than something that makes people waste their lives unconsciously staring at a screen just because it drives revenue.

Although we all want to create “sticky” experiences, we should focus on making useful, usable and compelling experiences that enhance our lives. By focusing on the user’s actual needs instead of our business KPIs we’ll see more growth than we could ever predict with analytics.

Be The Change

The next time your boss tells you that you need to create a ‘sticky’ experience, I challenge you to push back. Fight for the person behind the screen. Do the job you’re actually supposed to do. I believe that by taking the human into account and not just doing what drives revenue you’ll see that you end up making more revenue. It’s the inverse of what your analytics driven boss believes, but it’s true.

And when your boss gets upset that you’re pushing back, be patient. Help him or her understand. Show no fear of rejection, because you’re not wrong. Stay calm and explain your thoughts in a way that they can’t say no.
**Hint: Use research and keep your opinions out of it.**

The only way we’ll ever see change in the big picture of experience design is by taking small steps toward that future every day.

I am currently an Experience Designer for R/GA at Google in San Francisco, CA and a guest blogger for InVision.

If you’d like to connect, follow me here on Medium, or you can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn as well. If you want first on my content and things I read, join my email list to get weekly updates from me!

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Joe Toscano⚡️

Written by

Founder, BEACON // Contributor, @smashingmag @adweek @invisionapp // prev XD, @rga @google. Changing the world w/ a smile, design & some code.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning.

Joe Toscano⚡️

Written by

Founder, BEACON // Contributor, @smashingmag @adweek @invisionapp // prev XD, @rga @google. Changing the world w/ a smile, design & some code.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning.

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