Experiment: “Breaking Up With My Phone”

It is 1981. I’m in grade 6 and my neighbour’s mom is going to give us a ride home from school. But not right away. I’m going to meet him and his two brothers on the high school side of the school. I find them in Mister Hubbard’s room. The second I get in I’m excited. There are computers! I’ve only seen them on television. I start by watching over their shoulder but soon I’m joining them as they show me how to do simple programming on TRS-80 Model I Computers.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Soon the screen is dancing with “Todd is Great!” and I’m creating number guessing games. It is the first time I’ve felt successful at being creative and soon I’m spending most afternoons in Mr. Hubbard’s room. On weekends I sometimes take a computer home along with a manual or sometimes a Compute! magazine which often had BASIC code for games and other programs I could type in. I ended the year competing in a programming contest and teaching a woman in her late 30’s how to use a computer as she was about to take over her parents’ business.

The next year my dad is transferred and I am sent on scholarship to a private school where everyone was far more wealthy than me and I completely didn’t fit in. However, there is a computer there in the lab of my biology teacher. That year turns out to be particularly bad – arguably the worst of my life. Socially it is awful. I’m made fun of for being different than everyone – not having the right clothes, not knowing how to interact with everyone, not being as wealthy as the others. At home my parents alcoholism is getting out of hand with lots of loud arguments waking me many nights. And then in the spring, my mom is hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. But through all this the computer is there for me. Sometimes I play games, but my teacher also gives problems to solve including setting up a program to track the statistics for our school’s basketball team. Before long, if I am in school and not in a class, I can be found in front of this computer. There may be bad things going on in my outside life, but in this computer room all is well. I am succeeding in games, and solving problems in my programming.

Six years later I am in university and once again things aren’t going well. I started at age sixteen and I’m not ready for it socially or academically. Socially, I feel completely awkward and unsuccessful. But a roommate has a computer and I start playing games there when he isn’t busy with it. A year later, in 1989, I get a mainframe account connected to the Internet and discover online chat. I go to the computer lab after classes and sometimes stay there until dawn, meeting and chatting with people from around the world. I’ve found a happy social life inside this little box – one that distracts me from my academic and social performance. I do online chat for a couple years after and in 1991, I meet Sage online and on our first in-person visit we resolve to be together forever. I may have wasted a lot of time with computers, but they don’t just give me an escape when things are difficult, they have given me a family. Could technology be any better?

I continue to adopt all the new technology I can. After all, it’s been my constant companion since Ronald Reagan was president. It makes me feel better when I’m sad, and brings great things to me. Soon I have a smart phone too and I’m excited with all it can do. With that and social media I’m connected to people all around the world wherever I am. There’s almost always someone to interact with any time day or night.

But lately I’ve noticed a few things that are not so good. Social media isn’t making me feel that great. In fact, after returning from India and leaving all that excitement behind, it did the opposite. My feed seemed quiet and my cravings for attention in the form of comments and ‘likes’ made me sad and disturbed. Why did I even care?

And then Sage sent me on an adventure. If you had asked me before my weekend in 1987, whether anything would change afterward, I would have said no. However, since then I have been proven wrong.

The observations I made about how it felt to be unplugged – specifically how much happier and calmer I feel as a result of my time away from my phone and social media and how much more time I seem to have found as a result – stuck in my mind. And so, when I found the book How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life I thought I’d at least give it a read. In the end I decided to try the plan and see how it goes.

The first half of the book talks about the specific effects of phone use. Aside from direct social impacts like “phubbing” (interrupting a real-world social interaction to check your phone for a more interesting thing), there’s evidence of phone and social media use impacting happiness, creating anxiety and depression and impacting attention span and retention.

The rest of the book is a day by day plan with a section devoted to each day. Week one was pretty basic – and some of the things I’d already done so I did it all in a little less than a week. One of the first things was to install tracking software to see how you’re using your phone. I’d actually done this some time ago but never looked at it so I moved on to actually looking at it. I saw that I vastly underestimated how much I was using and looking at my phone. If you’d asked me I’d say I spent 30-40 minutes/day on my phone and maybe looked at it 20-30 times.

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Some days I used it even longer, and some days I unlocked it (read: looked at it) over 100 times. Thinking about it, I can see how it could be possible. In line waiting for something? Look at the phone. On the bus? Look at Facebook, then follow a link, play a word game, send an email. These little things add up just as we are finding in another experiment we’re doing related to watching our spending. Just as a $2 coffee several times a week adds up, so too does a 2 minute phone check. And of course with social media it builds over time. Post or comment on one visit, and you will get a notification (or just go back) to see if there are reactions.

By mid-week I had followed some of the other directives and some of my own, turning off data at work (I don’t need notifications there – anyone who needs me can call or text), uninstalling social media apps (note that for 52 Adventures we temporarily re-installed Instagram then deleted it when the adventure was done). Eventually I stopped using my phone at home, period. Instead of waking up and checking for messages and notifications, I made coffee and got ready. When I went out I’d turn on data to check messages and then turn it off when I get to work, turning it back on on the way home to allow for messages from home for things to pick up and to connect to a few apps I still use including a meditation app.

Some of the exercises have been really interesting as well. The first thing it started with was asking you to describe what you like about your phone: For me I like the connection with other humans not in Toronto, useful maps and info, music, my camera, sharing good things (e.g. positive news stories) with a mostly negative internet, and also all of the tracking and stats of my life – things like Google Timeline telling me where I was at any given point on my day.

The next point is what I don’t love. I dislike that it makes me feel like an approval junkie, posting things and getting excited for reactions. If the reactions are negative (e.g. an annoying political discussion) it sticks with me far too long. And if there are no reactions? It feels sad and lonely – worse than if I’d never posted anything.

It also has a bit of a magnetic feeling to it. In line and bored? It automatically comes out. And of course it’s a time sink. If I’m spending 2 hours/day that’s 14 hours/week. What could you do with 14 hours/week? And after spending that time I almost always feel unproductive and like I’ve wasted time.

I also do notice the memory and attention span impact. I’m not moved to check my phone while reading a book or watching TV. More disturbingly, Sage notices that I appear to be paying better attention, not getting distracted in mid-conversation.

I love her next question because it relates to something I love about the book. She doesn’t simply condemn phones as evil and suggest we only use dumb phones or throw them away. She acknowledges that there are lots of good things about them. So she asks: After this month, what will your use of your phone be like? I want to see myself using it much less, and more mindfully. Not posting as often unless there’s value I’m bringing to others as a result. I’d also like to see myself use it less as a “tool to pass time” or to distract myself when feeling bad and instead use its positive communication and information-related features. And of course the end result would hopefully include having more in-person interactions.

So how has it been?

90% of the time it is great. I am feeling so much more productive. More startling is the fact that I can feel my focus and attention span increasing. This is probably made most evident in how much I have read since getting rid of social media and minimizing phone use. I’ve gone from maybe 100 pages a month on a good month to several hundred pages a week. I started reading a 250 page book on Monday morning and finished it on the bus home Wednesday night. It makes sense, though, when you estimate just how many words I read scrolling endlessly down a screen.

And something even more striking: I notice that somewhere in the past ten years or so since getting a smart phone, I found myself completely falling in to books – being so absorbed in a book that the real-world recedes from one’s attention – less and less often until it stopped happening entirely. But now it’s happening again. Just last week I was reading on a streetcar. Five minutes after arriving at my destination – the subway station, I looked up to see we’d been there for some time and were actually about to leave again. I had left Toronto for the plague-ridden world of Stephen King’s “The Stand”. I jumped up and ran to the door, getting through it just before they were closed, the streetcar heading back to the place I had already come from.

10% of the time, it’s difficult. With all of the travel I’ve done over the years, I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing lots of interaction with local people. I made up the difference with social media and it seems to have become a bit of a habit. Other friends I met while traveling and I only connected to them via the Internet – mostly Facebook. And so it’s been quite lonely being disconnected. When Sage, Daegan and I are hanging out or when I’m at work I feel good but otherwise the world feels noticeably quieter and empty.

Another really interesting exercise the book suggested was to pay really close attention to how you feel when you feel like using your phone or social media. What gives you the impulse? Boredom / waiting is of course the obvious one. Waiting in line? Let’s see what’s happening online. But the other one I was surprised to note – particularly once I’d removed all social media apps from my phone was this one: Having the least negative emotion? Dive in to the phone and find something exciting and fun there! That same impulse that sent me to the computer lab when I was feeling sad, or to Internet Chat when I was lonely sent me to my phone. And I noticed that without that button to push – the slot machine that might deliver a like or a comment, life feels a little unfiltered lately. In both good and bad ways. There have been some wonderful moments but I also find my negative emotions amplified a little bit also. Happy things feel great, but sad things feel sadder, and sadly for others, when I’m grumpy I feel grumpier also. This is already improving but without the easy escape hatch of opening my phone and finding social media distraction, there’s definitely an adjustment period.

The interesting thing is that the author predicts this too and several anecdotes from others note the same thing. And they all suggest something that seems to be spot on in my limited experience: DO things in the real world, meet real people and have real interactions with them. I can vouch for this being true. Whether it’s volunteering at the food bank or meeting a new person on the subway (something way easier to do when my headphones aren’t constantly on), I feel a happy glow for sometimes hours afterward. It’s a retraining exercise and it’s being challenging and exciting at the same time. It’s led me to do more volunteer work, get back on the improv stage and improv classes, and join a cycling club (our first ride is next week).

It hasn’t been 100% successful. A few days ago I briefly visited Facebook to try to find improv drop-in jam events in Toronto and got sucked back in to the newsfeed for 5-6 minutes. It was easy to do but it didn’t actually make me feel less lonely in the end. Instead, it felt worse – I saw lots of activity happening but it felt like looking from the outside in. I think by design the only way to get that (likely illusory) feeling is to keep coming back over and over – just as they want you to.

But overall, I’m happy with the direction this experiment is going. Regardless of what happens, I think my phone is likely to go back to being a simple set of tools. And meanwhile, I’ve gained back several hours every week of free time.

Sage made this for me last week. Today I used my phone for five minutes. Twice to look up when a bus was due, once to look up a book on Goodreads

How about you all? How are your phone and/or social media habits? Have you changed them radically before? Are you thinking you want to in the future?

Meanwhile, watch for more updates as the experiment progresses!

15 thoughts on “Experiment: “Breaking Up With My Phone”

  1. I got out of the habit of bringing a book with me to appointments (of which there have been a LOT over the last year), relying on distracting myself with my phone. In the last couple of months, I decided to go back to bringing a book along, and putting my phone in my bag while I’m in an office waiting. I’m getting more reading done, and the lovely distractions of the phone are still there when I’m done 🙂

    1. Oh definitely! What I was beginning to see was that the distractions of the phone were negative as well for me. But most importantly, I noticed how prone to diving in to a phone to distract me under all circumstances I am. Maybe I’m doing the same with books now but if that means I now read 500+ pages/week then I think it might be a positive thing! 🙂

  2. Eye opening post Todd. It’s easy to get addicted to our devices, not even realizing how much we use them. Even though technology brought you solace in your earlier days. Good to know you recognize the downside of it. It’s all about balance. I say that as I’m typing on my computer and looking at the notifications on my phone. Ugh!

    1. It is totally easy! And of course part of why we get addicted is because they *are* pretty great in many ways. The challenge for me going forward is to get enough of the good without falling back in!

      Nice to meet you – thanks for the comment!

  3. I find your whole discussion fascinating. Because I never had one of these phones until lately, I have never really got in the habit of using it. I read a lot. I also am quite comfortable sitting and doing nothing but thinking. I learned a lot from your description of how you were using it and it helps me understand what I see around me wherever I go–people staring at screens.

    1. Those are my reasons – I’m sure others have different reasons. In the end, from what I’m reading, it all comes down to the same thing: the neurotransmitter dopamine. The same anticipation of potentially (but not always) good things that makes some people gravitate toward alcohol, others toward toxic relationships, and others toward gambling. There’s a reason, after all, that our phones are designed the way they are – pull down the screen and see if there are any interesting new posts. It mimics the same thing that draws people to slot machines.

      Of course this neurobiological quirk of ours isn’t only to cause us to overdo things. It’s the same thing that made our ancestors get up and go hunting or gathering every day or work toward discovering something new. “Maybe something cool will happen. Something did once before. Let me try again!”

      1. Oh definitely! They spend a lot of money on psychologists and marketers to keep us scrolling by the ads they are charging so much money for. And we willingly watch them!

  4. That’s a great adventure and a wonderful analysis of the same based on real examples and feelings. I often disassociate from Social media and use my phone selectively. One is during my travels when I am completely out of Social Media. Second, sometimes a day during the week (usually a Saturday or a Sunday) I turn off social media from the phone. I don’t switch off data completely as I need certain apps, like to book a cab or to meditate. The best part is I have never missed it one bit whenever I am out.

    1. That is so smart – I like how you do it – sharing your travels after the fact. I did really enjoy sharing my last trip real-time, though.. It’s a balance for me, I think. I really like your idea of unplugging once a week. The ‘1987 weekend’ showed me the same thing you said – I really don’t miss it. And I miss it even less when I fill that newly freed up time with even better things to do.

      But that said, when it comes to balance – I’m not the best at moderation and balance so for some things like Facebook I’m just not equipped for it so it’s best for me to avoid it. Oddly enough, I don’t find Instagram nearly as compelling. I might post a thing, comment a little bit but I’m not compelled to always go there in the same way.

      1. Many people have said the same thing about Instagram and that they don’t find it engaging. For me, Instagram works as its subtle socialization unlike Facebook, which is more on the face. I hardly ever visit Facebook, it makes a more negative than positive. I agree with you about the balancing thing, which again is true for all aspects of life.

      2. Exactly! You described it so well. Generally speaking I find more positivity in Instagram – at least with those I follow. Sure, if you follow the wrong people you end up with lots of boring self-promotion but I tend to avoid that.

  5. Reading your words…at least with respect to some of the ‘social’ things mentioned like how other people treat or mistreat us, I can absolutely relate. Then the idea of finding your ‘escape’ the ‘computer’ and then ‘books’ – I like as well. I think I will have to re-read this article. I’m sure I will be able to relate to other things you mention as well. Then as I am browsing your other comments here, I see a comment about which is more ‘engaging’ – FB or IG. Well, personally I feel that both are a platform where those who are already ‘stuck on themselves’ and thus have the ‘700+ – 10G+” of followers and then always follow ‘less amount’ of those who follow them. purposely set it up this way, just so to always keep it about ‘them’! And by no means, these people will not give a hoot about any other human!…. (i hate people who do that! It’s a form of nariccisim – sorry my autospell isn’t working) just goes to show that both platforms are more for those who have huge egos! Otherwise, if being someone like me as I say; where I have both FB & IG, I have more people who unfollow, and unfriend me – in fact, I keep a list of those who unfriend me. I just never have ‘fit in’. Thus, your point about ‘unplugging’ from social media, IS a good idea. Anyway – sorry to write so much – hey, where you from? usa or uk? To me, for some reason you have a brit look! One last question: how do you feel others treat you today, compared to how you were treated in your younger years?? As for me, Its no different. I’m 51 almost 52 (come may) and the same ‘kids’ in school who treated me like **** in my prep school years,…. today, still treat me like **** or isolate and or deem me as lower than thou! Guess its the ‘social media rule of engagement’ today. Sadly, only to worsen as times passes us by. *Oh yeah – I will also say, I agree with you on Instagram -I enjoy it more so – due to the pictures and those who I choose to follow! 🙂 Cheers!

    1. Hey there! Thanks for commenting. The interesting thing for me is that books were the original ‘escape’ for me, happening years before computers were even an option.

      Funny you should say I look British – I grew up in the US – mostly in Vermont but for the past 16 years we’ve lived in Canada.

      Nice to meet you!

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