This post is part of Thrive’s “We Tried It” series, where Thrive employees experiment with strategies to improve their work and home lives, perform better and boost their well-being. Up this week: a five-day phone cleanse.
Working at a company like Thrive that encourages a healthy relationship with technology, I’ve become particularly aware of the amount of time, energy, and attention I devote to my phone. Every day I read an article or research study commenting on our culture's electronic addictions, and the conversations around how technology hijacks our minds or how checking likes is the new smoking never become less jarring.
My phone habits are, I’d like to think, better than most. I seldom take my phone out in company and it’s a rare site to see me scrolling through social media. But when I’m walking to or from work, standing in an elevator, or eating by myself, I’ll often be checking emails, texting friends, or reading articles. Sometimes it feels more productive than the alternative of just waiting around, but I think the real reason I do it is because the habit of being constantly stimulated is a hard one to break. It’s a dangerous game when our brains grow accustomed to unhealthy habits. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand that when our brains get used to something—whether cigarettes or likes—they start expecting the next hit. We can get stuck in those habits for years unless we actively pursue change.
With all the research I've been reading on what our phones are doing to our mental health, I’ve begun to resent the time I spend with my clingy handheld friend. So I decided to leave my phone at home for a week when I went off to work. I know your chest is probably tightening with anxiety just imagining this. And so was mine, but that’s why I needed to do it.
The rules were straightforward: I would leave my phone at home when I went to the office in the morning, and whenever I got home I was free to use it or take it with me.
Here’s a recap of my days:
Monday, June 26
I won’t lie. I was pretty apprehensive walking out the door without my phone this morning. The night before, I texted my family and my three closest friends to inform them of my impending phonelessness, so at least no one would be worried. But what if someone needs me or I miss out on plans? Do I have alarms or meetings set that I’ll forget about without my phone? What if I get hopelessly lost on my way to work?
During my walk to work I usually listen to music or a podcast, so the commute was a bit different. I decided to use the 30 minute trip to practice a little informal walking meditation. It wasn't as enjoyable as EDM in the morning (thank you, Steve James) or learning the secrets of the universe (thank you, On Being), but it was a great opportunity to "choose mindfulness," as my teacher puts it. Just noticing the feeling of my body—that constant tingling we often tune out—and where I was moving in relation to the buildings around me allowed me to tune into my senses. I could feel the gravity of the present moment just a little more as I noticed the colors, the movement, the stillness around me. For a few seconds, I was walking through “the country of the present moment,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it.
Throughout the day I experienced phantom buzzes, and when I heard someone’s phone beep, I would instinctively reach for mine. I had the urge to check my phone a couple times, but just noticing where and when that impulse surfaced was illuminating.
I was a little anxious during the day. More shocking, though, was the massive shift in my state of mind when I was back with my phone that night. Feeling much more distracted and less productive, I decided to maintain the phone cleanse to the best of my ability when I was home. Most of my phone time consisted of responding to texts, but I realized that a quicker alternative was calling or using audio message, so I opted for one of those most of the week.
Tuesday, June 27th
Already feeling the attentional burden of my phone after a night and morning back together, I was excited to leave it behind today, although still slightly uneasy about it. The commute to work was a bit boring, but I practiced walking meditation again. It’s not an easy practice to keep up, but seeing the subtle shift in all my senses when I tap into observation mode never really gets old.
My work day was more productive than normal. Without my attention being pulled away by my phone every few minutes, I was much more focused on whatever was in front of me. I also felt particularly centered and energized. I guess what they say about multitasking is true.
After work I went for drinks with two friends (who met me at my office so I wouldn’t get lost). The three of us watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline from a rooftop in Brooklyn. It was a stunning sight. With no choice but to take in the scene, I enjoyed a rare moment of pure presence. It’s not often we stare at something beautiful with no attempt to hold onto it, share it, or even say a word about it. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, June 28th
Getting into the rhythm now: happily left the phone at home, then did the same walking meditation on my walking commute. While I had the occasional urge to check my phone throughout the day, I was getting used to being phoneless. My day felt longer and fuller.
The following evening was an exciting test of my phoneless survival skills. I navigated the subway, gripping the directions I’d scribbled down before leaving work, and met my mom uptown for a dinner party. Finding the event and my mom was surprisingly easy and I was quite proud of myself by the time I got there. I sat through a long speech, and there were points where I would have appreciated a digital distraction. Weirdly, it was a little refreshing to feel bored.
Thursday June 29th
I left my phone on my kitchen counter, meditated to work, and spent the day generally focused and productive. I was really comfortable without my phone. By this point, anyone that I didn’t inform about my experiment was accustomed to my late responses, and I was accustomed to the peace and quiet of being off the smartphone grid.
Friday, June 30th
This morning I met a coworker for breakfast. He was a couple minutes late, and rather than checking my phone I just sat, waited and focused on being present. Perched outside under the shade of an umbrella, I watched the morning light fill the buildings, witnessing the subtleties of New York that are so often left unnoticed. It’s not often we see someone just sitting and doing nothing. I might be making this up, but I do think I got a few weird looks for just sitting there, doing nothing in particular.
By then, the withdrawal symptoms were gone. No more phantom buzzes, no strong urge to check any notifications or texts. As the little discomforts of being phoneless fell away towards the end of the week, I realized that I felt calmer and more centered than I have in long time.
All these peaceful moments in my day seemed to emerge out of nowhere. Just by using the in-between moments—the elevator rides, the red lights, the many little moments of waiting throughout the day—to take a breath and look around rather than check my phone, I could experience a sense of presence that normally feels so out of reach in the busyness of daily life. There are a million little opportunities throughout the day where we can appreciate our lives— “Wow, I’m young still,” “It’s summer,” “I’m healthy,” “I don’t have anything to worry about this second.” Not looking at my phone—and instead paying attention to New York as it unfolded around me—allowed me to pull off a bit of a magic trick: just like that, summertime stretched out a little more.
I tried it. Should you?
Realizing how much happier and calmer I was all week, I’ve made a serious effort to maintain a healthy relationship with my phone. I’ve been much more conscious of when and where I take it. I try to be even more careful about keeping it out of sight when I’m in conversation. I never have it out during meals, even if I’m eating alone. When I’m waiting for someone or something I actively choose to just wait rather than scroll. I also leave my phone on silent pretty much all the time and I keep it out of sight as often as I can. These are little things any of us can try.
Maybe it’s not practical to leave your phone at home all week, but creating a little distance is definitely doable. To start, you could choose three activities a day that will be phoneless: three small moments of boredom or waiting where it’s all too easy to reach for your phone, like in the elevator, in line, or at alone at a meal. See what happens when you don’t. There’s a whole world that we forget to experience when we delve into our phones at the first sign of having nothing to do. In the busyness of our daily lives, we’re already stripped of so many opportunities to appreciate what’s around us, but there’s so much to gain back in few quiet moments with our phones in our pockets.