It feels almost impossible to exist without our phones — they’ve become somewhat of an external hard drive for our brains. And there are plenty of benefits to carrying a phone around 24/7: It’s easier to keep in touch with friends and family, it’s a must-have in an emergency, and it’s loaded with useful apps that can organize every little detail of our lives.
But sometimes, it can feel like we’re losing our ability to connect with people face to face. Or our productivity suffers while we’re mindlessly scrolling.
“Phones have become an additional appendage and something we can’t live without — we’re constantly checking email, texts, searching the internet, and so forth,” says time management expert Kate Zabriskie of Business Training Works. “To stay balanced, phone-free time is a good option.”
As an experiment, I decided to spend eight hours on a Saturday completely phone-free. And to be honest, I had so much anxiety about leaving my phone at home, it was actually comical. What if someone needed to get ahold of me? What if there was an emergency? What if I missed out on a fun impromptu hangout? What if my sister got engaged and I was the last one in the family to find out?
But, I reminded myself, it was only a few hours. And if I wanted to get a real sense of how dependent I am on my phone, I had to spend some time without it. So, after wrapping up a few last-minute texts and tasks in the morning, I put my phone on my nightstand and left the house. Here’s what I learned.
1. Getting distracted has become a reflex.
First stop: I headed to a coffee shop to catch up on some work. Not wanting to cheat on my phone-free challenge, I shut off messaging notifications on my laptop and closed all social media tabs. The result? Boring! I realized my brain has been trained to get distracted — I reached for my phone, purely out of habit, at least 10 different times.
Without my phone to distract me, I found myself looking for other ways to procrastinate — people watching, getting more snacks, making eyes with the hot bearded guy in the corner. But as you might suspect, once I ran out of distraction options, I was forced to focus on my work. So that was a definite win.
2. Phones do serve a purpose.
I’d be lying if I said this challenge was eight hours of pure, living-in-the-moment, digital-detox bliss. Case in point: When it was time to drive across town to get drinks for a friend’s birthday, I hopped in the car, buckled my seat belt, and reached for my phone to input the directions. Crap, no Google Maps! How does anyone navigate without a map app? Do they even sell paper maps anymore? And if I got lost, it’s not like I could text them to say I was running late.
After about ten attempts to ask actual humans for directions — all of whom were about as directionally challenged as I was — I caved and asked someone to look up directions on their phone. What can I say? I’m a millennial and have zero sense of direction without a robot guiding me, turn by turn, to my destination.
And when I arrived at the party, I was told I needed a code word to get to the outdoor patio where the “private event” was happening. The hostess assured me the code word was posted in the Facebook event, so all I had to do was pull it up… on my phone. Sigh.
Luckily, I ran into someone I knew, who gave me the code word. But while I managed to fumble my way through the afternoon, I realized there are some occasions where my phone actually makes life less stressful.
3. Connecting face to face is underrated.
As I said my hellos, I was suddenly very keyed in to everyone’s phone usage. I’d figured the party would be a perfect way to connect with people IRL — and maybe make the challenge go by a little faster — but there was one problem. Everyone else was on their phones.
People were checking their text messages, taking photos, posting Instagram Stories — I even saw one person FaceTiming with another guest at the party. As cliche as it may sound, it baffled me how non-present we are for major moments in our lives. And I’ll admit it: I missed being able to document the party on social media. But why? Why couldn’t I just enjoy my time without recording it? Why did I feel the urge to let all my friends know I was at a party… with all my friends?
4. Balance is key.
There were some obvious benefits to leaving my phone at home: I looked into more eyeballs. I reduced the amount of time I spent procrastinating. I wasn’t constantly getting bombarded with app notifications or caught up in social media drama.
But did this challenge inspire me to ditch my phone more often? No — #sorrynotsorry. I might rely on my phone for mindless distraction a little too often, but there are times when it really is an invaluable tool. (Never again will I try to get on the freeway without my trusty smartphone copilot!) As with most things, “everything in moderation” seems to be the best rule of thumb.