Gap year @40 — What I learnt from my 21 day phone deprivation experiment?
I am on a gap year in 2021 to explore how I want to spend my 40s and craft my Life 2.0.
In Life 1.0, I worked in the corporate world for ~17 years before starting my gap year from Jan 2021. In my last update, I shared my learnings from doing nothing for the first two weeks of the gap year, my realisation to have presence (versus productivity) as the foundation for life 2.0 and three experiments I kicked off to gain presence.
This update is about my learnings from 21 days of the phone deprivation experiment.
What was the experiment design?
I initially planned to have no phone for one week. But then I realised that I want to stay connected for any family emergencies. Instead of testing something I will not replicate in real life, I decided to convert my smartphone into a basic feature phone for a week (only calls/ SMS). I planned to do it for a week. But intrigued by my initial learnings, I decided to do it for 21 days (with some changes after 1st week).
Day zero night time. Time for the experiment set up.
I message family that I will not be available on Whats App for one week and start to clean up my phone. Should I delete apps or hide them somewhere? How many apps do I have, anyway? I guess 30. It turns out I have 105 apps (including five different meditation apps!). Clutter accumulated unconsciously over time. I start to delete apps. Some are easy (e.g. games that kids made me download a year back). Some are tricky (e.g., banking 2FA log-in authenticator). I resign to no online banking for a week. This experiment is turning out more complicated than I had initially thought. Instead of deciding on each app, I hide them away in folders, away from the home screen. The home screen is now blank except for Call/ SMS icon. Perfect!
Time to sleep. I instinctively reach out to my phone to set the morning alarm before realising I can not use a phone anymore! It takes me some time to search for an alarm clock in the house. As I set the alarm, I realise how the phone sneaks its way on the table next to my bed. It pretends to be my alarm clock. Very innocent yet cunning trick to always stay within an arm’s reach. I would pick it up whenever feeling sleepless to check the news or write thoughts or to-do lists. Time would quickly slip away. I now replace my phone with an alarm clock and a physical diary next to me.
I pick the phone to keep it outside the bedroom. Suddenly, there is a faint vibration & something lits up the phone screen — a notification from a meditation app reminding me to meditate before sleeping. It would be quite rude to knock on someone’s door at 10 PM unless you had something urgent. Why was I okay with a digital knock which claimed attention equally? Time to un-invite the unwanted guests. I go to settings to turn off auto-notifications for each app. I notice how each app’s default setting permits them to disturb me endlessly — the trick of opt-in versus opt-out.
Enough of experiment set-up. Navigating modern life without a phone seems exhausting. Time to sleep.
Day 1. In the morning, the alarm clock fails to go off. But somehow, my body clock wakes me up around a similar time. I decide to trust my mental clock during meditation, as well. The session does not go well. I am distracted as I don’t want to be late to write my morning pages and wake up kids on time for school. I need to buy a proper functioning alarm clock today!
I step out for a little hike in the morning. I am missing my podcast. Sure, I notice the world around me more than usual initially. But soon, the mind gets lost in its own world. Later in the day, I repeat the experience when I step outside for some chores without the usual earphones and music. I do pay more attention to the outside world initially, but soon the monkey mind takes over. I write in my diary, ‘To be truly present in the moment; I need to train my mind versus blaming my phone. Address the root cause, not the symptom”.
I walk into a book store. Notice a few interesting books. I often buy many books, which catch my attention immediately after quickly scanning online reviews. No phone today. I decide to postpone the purchase & instead write the names of those books in my diary. I am getting curious about this little experiment — by introducing a filter of some effort, can it help me distinguish between real versus perceived need? If I want those books, I will need to put in some effort (write down names in the diary, check it later online at home, then buy it online or offline). If not, maybe, I did not need it. It sounds tiresome versus the usual one-click closure, but I am curious. Later, at home, I do not even pause to check the books in my diary. The moment has passed. Attention is elsewhere now. There seems to be something in the idea of positive constraints in a world of easy choices!
I am missing my daily dose of news, share prices, online magazines — my click-happy rabbit hole. I still crave news but want to experiment with the quality and quantity of what I consume. I decide to replace daily news with weekly editions to filter daily noise. I also replace digital subscription with physical copy subscription — finite content packed in selected magazines/ newspapers versus infinite information online. But something at the back of my mind is curious about the insight I learnt in the bookshop — about creating the space for the effort to test whether something is truly needed. Instead of subscribing, I decide to buy them from the newsstand each time — my effort filter to see how much I value it. I rush out and come back armed with my favourites — FT weekend, The Economist, New Yorker. Keen to read them all. It passes the effort filter test the first time. But after a few days, I notice that all of them are still lying around, and I have not touched them. I do not feel the urge to go and buy the new weekly editions as well.
What is going on here?
It turns out the news felt essential to me when it was always in front of me — on my mobile. Its presence created its illusion of importance. But when stripped of auto-attention, it could not claim its way back into my priorities. Out of sight, out of mind. I am curious & decide to kick off an experiment to turn off the news for the next 30 days. Let’s find out what I miss.
It’s a different story, though, when it comes to logistics. I am struggling with substitutes of mobile — having to write address on paper when stepping out, not being able to call an Uber if taxi not available, having to rush home to make it in time for a 4 PM call with a friend over google meet (versus default option of whats app call on the move). Are trade-offs worth it? Unlike news, I do not spend time browsing logistics apps unless I need them. No point treating it the same as a news app.
All needs are not the same. I decide to classify my needs into three areas,
1) The essentials — Needs which mobile can meet better than other substitutes (e.g., logistics, banking, overseas free call-on-the-go with chat apps like whats app).
2) The seduction zone — Needs which both mobile as well as substitutes can meet. (e.g., a diary to write down my thoughts, an alarm clock for timely reminders)
3) Question mark — Needs that are worth investigating further (e.g., news)
1st week is almost over. It is time to wrap up the experiment. But I am curious to find out if this need classification can help me create a new relationship with my phone instead of going back to the old way.
What about a strictly professional relationship (use phone only for ‘the essentials’) versus the earlier personal relationship (use phone as an attention filler in life)?
I decide to extend the phone experiment to 21 days. I admit back ‘the essential’ apps, continue with substitutes in ‘the seduction zone’ and start investigating ‘question mark’ needs starting with the no news experiment.
It has been more than 21 days now.
I love my professional relationship with the phone. It is doing tasks in ‘the essentials’ list very well. In ‘the seduction zone’, I find that substitutes work best when tied to a specific location, format and time. E.g. I like batch processing emails/ social sites/ browsing at home (versus on the go) on iPad/ desktop (versus phone) for a specific duration in morning and night (versus anytime connectivity). The specificity reassures my mind that I will get to these alluring tasks at a reasonable frequency. Then my mind can relax and focus on the moment. I choose not to put these apps on my phone to avoid will power battles every day.
One thing I love the most? Turning off notifications. Now, whenever I look at my phone, the screen is always blank. I can then choose to open only what I need. Else, phone sits quietly by itself. Ignored without malice!
1) I continue my experiments on building presence — morning ritual (meditation and morning pages), serendipity hour, no news.
2) While researching digital distraction, I stumbled across the concept of deep work (Cal Newport). It is an interesting concept that speaks to the sense of fulfilment we get by focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task — a rare treat in our digitally distracted lives. I am curious to experiment with deep work routines that might work for me.
3) In business, I felt confident navigating through complexity across situations. However, when it comes to kids, I don’t feel the same confidence navigating through every situation. Beyond the love and intention of a parent, I am keen to find out what skills I am missing as a parent.
I will continue to report back what I learn.
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