What I learned from staying off my phone for a week

Well, mostly off my phone. I ended up averaging 15 minutes on the phone each day for a week.

With a slow week and not much happening in lockdown-ish Cambridge to start this year, I thought I would try to consciously alter my everyday phone habits just to see what — if any change — it might make in my life. I don’t have a grand point to make, but for anyone looking for New Year’s resolution ideas screen time [here’s a link with some tips on that if you’re interested].

First, some baseline to compare. Using Apple Screen Time, here is my phone usage from the previous week:

I would say that was a fairly representative week of phone usage. Some weeks have been much, much higher but with the December holidays, my boredom index was if anything a little higher than it would be in any given week of the past year.

And here is the Screen Time from this week:

Even before this experiment, I tend to set boundaries with my phone and generally do my best to follow my own advice that I’ve shared before ([here are some of my favorite tips that I shared over at the Freedom blog]). I tend to carve out quiet time away from the phone always before bedtime and on a daily basis use the Freedom app and Focus Mode on iOS to limit my emails, social media, and news intake after work hours. I generally turn notifications off for the majority of apps — by most accounts, [we get way too many notifications per day, anyways.]

An important caveat of course that I was still using my laptop for work and my tablet for reading articles — but, I made a few conscious changes with regards to my phone:

1. **Out of Sight, Out of Mind**: Does the sight of your phone’s blank screen ever just make you want to reach out and touch it? I get that often, even if I don’t always consciously register the fact. Habits are terribly hard to break in our digital lives. I stopped keeping my phone within sight or within arm’s reach. The first couple of days were the hardest, when I had to remind myself probably dozens of times about this little experiment by putting my phone face down.

2. **Finding Other Ways to Cope with Boredom and Down Time:** I’m not anti screen time or anti digital distractions by any means. I think we need something to occupy our minds during interminable lockdowns and long winter days. More than anything else, I wanted to think if there were other things I wanted to do rather than skim articles (and save articles that I might nor might not read later) or doom scroll on social media or check the same news sites multiple times a day to see the same content again and again.

And here are a couple of takeaways from my screen time self experiment:

**Walks were much more refreshing:

It’s been pretty cold and dreary lately, which always makes me struggle during the long winter months. I made a habit of walking anytime it was not freezing and could get some much needed sunshine. With no phone to preoccupy me, I found myself enjoying being more observant and not feeling the need to check on anything online. I could listen to my thoughts — even if those thoughts weren’t particularly interesting or useful — and having that extra quiet time during the course of a work day was incredibly refreshing. My work days often involve a lot of jumping between tasks and that extra ten or fifteen minutes to clear my mind helped me shift mental gears a lot easier.

**I became more mindful of what I was actually doing on my phone:** Probably the biggest change to the week was simply asking myself in the moment: _why did I want to be on my phone?_ Most tasksI could do in 30 seconds, if I really had to check something or reply to a text. The problem was often what happened after that initial action: “Well, since it’s open, might as well check email/Twitter/LinkedIn/my reading to do.” Surprisingly, even that simple pause of asking myself was enough to make me change what I would do next. Oftentimes the answer was simply boredom or wanting a distraction to transition from one thing to something I had to do next. Instead, I kept my Kindle or another book within arm’s reach, which I found to be a lot more relaxing.

**I didn’t really miss much:** I hadn’t fully realized how often I was checking social media, usually with the habit of seeing how many engagements a post would get. I can’t even say how long I’ve had that habit or how much it’s grown but it turns out after a week, I found myself not being so anxious about such things. I really like engaging with people on social media, but checking how many views or clicks wasn’t really helping me. Notifications are especially tempting. There’s something unread and I should check it RIGHT NOW. I don’t think a week is long enough to break that automatic reaction, but that makes me think about some things I’d like to address in a future post! Interestingly enough, with 15 minutes of phone time a day, I still posted my usual number of tweets or posts so less FOMO than I expected. If nothing else, this week was kind of a nice reset for how I’ve been engaging on various social media platforms.

**I read more books:** Since I kept my Kindle on hand during off times, I found I had more time for book reading and more importantly was enjoying my leisure reading more. This reminded me of a post from the World Economic Forum comparing reading time to our time on social media: “[Social media is dominating our free time – here’s how you can cut down].” And that isn’t to say that choosing to read a book or choosing to be on social media is some kind of zero sum game; we have plenty of time for both in our waking hours, it’s just a question of what ratio seems to make us happy in our individual routines.

**And**: battery life on an iPhone is amazing when you don’t use it!

Realistically, I probably won’t keep this habit up. But if nothing else, it was kind of a reset on some of my ingrained habits — habits and motivations I wasn’t particularly aware of — and overall felt kind of nice. I think it’s just as easy to unlearn some of these lessons, but this past week has been a healthy reminder that changing our digital habits every once and awhile can do us a lot of good.

What are your own habits or experiences with screen time? Do you have ways that you change your phone/screen time that work for you?


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

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