I spent a year living and working without a phone, and it radically improved my life. Here are 6 things I learned.
- Like many of us, Javier Ortega-Araiza found himself addicted to his phone.
- So he tried a two-week experiment without it. He later extended that experiment by an additional year.
For the past fifteen minutes, I had been standing at the agreed intersection, wondering whether my friend was still coming to pick me up before our tennis game. But I can't call or text him —since I no longer have a phone. For the moment, I wait, trust, and read as the clock keeps ticking.
As I ponder whether I should walk back home, a car honks from a distance, flashing its lights. My friend waves.
As we make our way to the courts, my mind backtracks.
A few weeks ago, my phone's charge port stopped functioning, and as an experiment, I decided to see if I could go without a phone for two weeks. When my two weeks were up, I didn't feel ready to have a phone again. Without a particular time frame in mind, I decided to extend the experiment and it ended up lasting an entire year.
Like many of us, I found that I spend too much time on my phone, and was way too reliant on it.
According to research from Insider Intelligence, Americans spend an average of 4 hours and 31 minutes a day on their phones. Research from the tech care company Asurion found that Americans check their phones an average of 96 times a day, or around once every ten minutes.
Even if you manage to avoid looking at your phone 96 times a day, research says that just having a phone around can negatively impact your cognitive abilities. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that "even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention — as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones — the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity."
Given those negative impacts, I wanted to know what would happen if I suddenly gave up my smartphone – whether I'd feel better or worse, more productive or less capable of doing my job. Like so many others, I'd treated my phone as a crutch – there to entertain me when I was bored, or remind me of a fact or event that I'd forgotten. I'd gotten so dependent on it that I wasn't sure who I was without it. But I wanted to find out.
I learned to let go of the anxiety of feeling disconnected
I'm a writer and content creator, and I found that when I sat down to write, not having my phone next to me allowed me to get into a deeper state of flow. I also run a business focused on educational travel. But since travel was halted due to the pandemic, and we had no groups moving around, there was nothing particularly urgent.
I wasn't a very active social media user when it came to Facebook or Instagram, but I relied a lot on WhatsApp and iMessage for my daily communications, and I mostly handled email from my phone. I found that when I checked my emails or messages on the computer after coming back from a tennis game, for example, nothing pressing had happened. It took time, but eventually, the anxiety I felt from being disconnected began to wane.
Suddenly, I could wake up and center myself instead of picking up the phone as my first action of the day. The absence of a phone allowed me to do some much-needed self-examination. What was I feeling anxious about? Why did I feel the need to be instantly available to all people?
I also realized how much I relied on my phone for basic things, like remembering phone numbers.
I knew the phone number of friends I had met over ten years ago — pre-cell phone — but I couldn't recall the contact numbers of anyone I had met recently. I'd been relying more on my phone's memory instead of mine.
I now needed to write down someone's phone number and then wait and call them from my landline if I wanted to reach them, which made my communication more intentional. Instead of sending half-hearted texts and juggling multiple conversations at once I was forced to engage with one person at a time.
I was forced to face my feelings when I found myself alone
With a phone, when I needed instant gratification, I would message someone to gain validation, but I could no longer do this. With no on-demand apps available, my escape routes were blocked. If I was at a bar, sitting by myself, and I started feeling uncomfortable, I could no longer use my phone as a distraction. I had to face my feelings. The same applied to difficult conversations. I noticed how other people looked down at their phones, avoided the topic, and attempted to sort it out later through text. But I didn't have that easy out.
It presented some logistical challenges
There were, of course, also logistical issues that I needed to deal with without a phone.
For example, I couldn't order an Uber unless I borrowed somebody's phone, which I did when I had no other viable option in sight—and overall, things required more logistical planning, at least initially. Some things took longer than originally expected, and I had to do more communicating upfront with people when it came to making plans.
It forced me to learn to be a better communicator
I was forced to learn how to communicate better. I was also forced to undo the default instinct to pull out my phone to get directions. I'd been so used to having a GPS do the work for me, but without a phone or Google Maps, I had to ask for help — to actually talk to other people and ask for directions.
Not always being available made my employees more self-reliant
Needing help, and learning how to ask for help also transformed how I run my businesses. I realized that colleagues might know better than me when it came to certain topics, and it did not make me any less worthy. If we really want to build a team, we need to learn how to be open to receiving help along the way.
I had prided myself on being instantly responsive to everyone at my company. Now that this was not an option, people had to adjust and seek out their own solutions. Even if it was harsh at the beginning — many people around me did not like the change — it led to much-needed shifts because I was no longer always available.
I realized I was more of a micromanager than I thought. I became aware of how many problems could be sorted out by my staff if I trusted them, instead of always trying to be the savior. This helped my business be less dependent on me, and it also opened up the space for other people to step up to the plate.
Gradually, I felt a deeper sense of inner peace, which also allowed me to have greater focus on my work. Instead of waking up being instantly responsive, and interrupting my flow to respond to all the messages on my phone, I could be fully present with whatever I was doing.
I learned that I can have a healthier relationship with my phone
Before this, one of my most phone-intensive activities was my educational travel business, which, as I mentioned, had halted its ground operations. However, as travel returned, I was due to co-lead a program in New York.
I felt I needed a phone to do my job, so a year after my phone-free experiment began, I reactivated my mobile contract.
This would be a test of whether I would use the device or it would use me, but I'm proud to say it's been the former more than the latter.
As of now, I keep a "deep work" approach where I maintain office hours to respond to apps like WhatsApp or Telegram but otherwise try and stay away from my phone.
Of course, it is not always flawless. Sometimes the desire for instant gratification comes, and I turn to my texts. Or there are times when I'm in social groups, and the conversation is boring, and because I don't want to hurt people by leaving, I turn to my phone to check the latest ATP or Premier League scores.
But overall, I feel a lot better, and my anxiety about feeling connected to the world has dwindled over time. My awareness has increased, and so have my communication skills. I have a phone, but it's not my life — it's a tool I use when I need it. One of my proudest achievements is that I now have important conversations in person (or by a video call when the person is not in the same place as me) instead of attempting to escape the situations through vague texts or simply ghosting.
Smartphones aren't good or bad — they simply amplify the consciousness of their users. It can improve our lives or worsen them. Whether we make our phone our ally or our enemy is a choice.
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