This Friday to Saturday, March 9–10, was National Day of Unplugging — an event meant to inspire you to put down your phone for a full 24 hours and spend more time with loved ones. While I don’t normally publish around specific events, after spending the last few months working with the team at RescueTime, this one hit home.
I believe that when used in the right way, technology empowers us to do our best work. But I also know firsthand that it can be a massive distraction and focus killer.
Our smartphones, especially, have been designed to pull at our attention and are constantly rated as something we would like to spend less time using.
According to the 2017 edition of the American Psychological Association’s yearly Stress in America report, nearly two-thirds of American adults agree that periodically “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” would be good for their mental health.
But when was the last time you spent more than a few hours (at most) without yours?
By most accounts, the average American spends 70 hours per month on their phone, with young adults (18–24) spending upwards of 94 hours!
I don’t consider myself a power phone user, yet after just a week of tracking my time, I discovered I was spending 20+ hours a week on my phone.
Worst of all, I discovered I’d spent more time on my phone than on my core work of writing.
Our phones have a chokehold on our attention. But we don’t have to let them. Channeling the words of Nir Eyal from my recent interview:
“Despair is the first step to defeat.”
Instead, this weekend — and any other day you choose to consciously separate from your phone — is a chance to take back control. To take away the constant availability of distraction and experience the day in a more concentrated manner.
In advance of National Day of Unplugging, I locked away my own phone for 48 hours and then compared my experiences to others who have done the same.
So, if you’re on the fence about taking a step back from your phone, here’s what actually happens when you give it up for 24 hours (or more):
I became bored much more easily (Which wasn’t a bad thing)
The first thing I noticed, was my brain constantly drifting towards my phone. I craved social media, email, and news during any even slightly dull moment.
For writer Natalie Holmes, she discovered this own feeling of craving interruption during her own 3-day digital detox:
“Being constantly connected means we never, ever have to follow our thoughts to their endpoint.”
There’s always something else out there that can take our attention away if we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or bored. Our phones act as an escape, yet that raises an important question: Why are we so keen to distance ourselves from our own thoughts?
“Scientists will say it’s about dopamine. Chemical reactions that serve up a fleeting feelgood factor, leaving us craving the next,” explains Holmes. Which is probably partly true. But from my own experience, it felt like part of it was simply habit. I’d forgotten how to be bored.
I had become dependant on a constant stream of content. Yet once I was separated from it, I realized how trivial the things were that I was missing and started to enjoy the space.
My mind wandered. Strange songs popped into my head without any sort of prompt. I’d catch myself thinking about a story I was writing or a project I wanted to work on.
And almost unexpectedly, that boredom allowed me to focus much better on the content I did consume.
When journalist Joel Stein checked himself into a $550-day tech rehab facility, one of the participants commented how he’d noticed his ability to sit through long movies diminishing.
“We’re not talking Tolstoy. We’re talking Star Wars: Episode IV. We have a generation unable to sit through popcorn movies.”
For myself, without the constant tug of “easy” content like Instagram or Twitter, I was able to focus more on and enjoy the movies and books I chose to take in.
I was more relaxed and happier
In a widely shared essay, called You Are the Product, John Lancaster highlights a study that found for every 1% increase in clicks and likes on Facebook, researchers recorded a 5–8% decrease in mental health.
In another study by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge, she bluntly states that when studying the happiness of teens over the past decade:
“Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness.”
In a recent NPR article, Bay Area couple Ken Goldberg and Tiffany Shlain and their teenage daughter, Odessa, explained how they’ve been practicing a 24-hour “Tech Shabbat” every Friday to Saturday evening for the better part of a decade.
They say the days feel longer, more purposeful, and they’re more relaxed.
“You’re making your time sacred again — reclaiming it,” Shlain says. “You stop all the noise.”
Even a small separation from my phone led me to feel more in touch with the people I was spending time with and in a way, happier. I did feel anxiety that I was missing messages or texts and was worried that someone might be trying to get in touch with me and couldn’t. However, those worries didn’t last for long.
I slept (a lot) better
Multiple studies have shown that having your phone in your bedroom is a terrible idea.
The blue light most digital devices emit causes our brains to get out of “sleep” mode and can ruin our natural rest cycles. Looking at your phone first thing in the morning starts your day off with a hit of social envy and stress.
And having a source of distraction in your bedroom can even ruin other night-time activities. As Kelton Wright writes on the Headspace blog:
“There’s nothing sexy about watching someone Gollum over their Instagram feed.”
I’ve developed similarly terrible “phone hygiene” over the years.
I use my phone as an alarm, which means it’s usually the last thing I look at before bed and the first thing I check in the morning. This often means I get sucked into looking at notifications as soon as I wake up (or feeling stressed out if I don’t).
Without that pull, I found myself sleeping more soundly, feeling less tired in the morning, and generally being less anxious around sleep.
My thoughts became clearer and more creative
“Your smartphone usage… can really deprive you of a kind of seamless flow of creative thought that generates from your own brain,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction.
As a writer, this point hit home hard. Creativity depends on a form of thinking called incubation, where our ideas, inspirations, and thoughts sift around in our subconscious, knocking against each other until something sticks.
It may feel like a Eureka! moment. But in reality, it’s your brain working without your knowledge. However, for this to happen, you can’t be constantly filling your head with content and notifications.
As Dr. Tchiki Davis wrote in Psychology Today:
“Although it feels a little scary at first, an electronics fast forces you to connect with others and with yourself, which turns out to be a pretty amazing experience.”
After a bit of time without my phone, I started to feel that form of thinking return. The stream of consciousness we silence through consumption came back after just a few days without it.
I realized how much I rely on my phone for basic things
My 48-hours without my phone had a lot of eye-opening benefits. But I also quickly realized just how much a part of my life it had become.
I never knew what time it was.
Catching the bus was a nightmare.
And I wandered around for half an hour looking for a store I hadn’t written down the address for.
Psychologists call this cognitive offloading.
“When you offload, you free up some mental resources,” explains Evan Risko, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
“Now, if you devote that mental effort to some productive task there should be a net benefit.”
It’s a great idea. But in practice, it seemed like I had taken for granted my phone’s ability to act as a “second brain” and not necessarily used those extra resources in a positive way.
You don’t need to give up your phone forever to see these benefits
If you read any of this and say, “yeah, sounds good. But I can’t live without my phone!” That’s still OK.
It’s not the long-term separation that brings benefits, but simply a better relationship with your phone.
In Professor Twenge’s study on happiness and screen use, she found that an hour or two of device time was actually more likely to correlate with higher levels of happiness.
Everything in moderation.
Giving up your phone for any period of time isn’t just about seeing benefits. It’s about understanding your relationship with it.
Being aware of my own usage made it painfully clear how much I was missing out. And not just in interactions, but in giving my mind space to wander and relax.
So why not take your own break this weekend? Unplug for a day, get bored, and see how it feels.