Study Hacks Blog

On the Surprising Benefits of an Un-Mobile Phone

September 3rd, 2019 · 22 comments
Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel.

A college senior I’ll call Brady recently sent me a description of his creative experiments with digital minimalism. What caught my attention about his story was that his changes centered on a radical idea: making his mobile phone much less mobile.

In more detail, Brady leaves behind his phone each day when he heads off to campus to take classes and study, allowing him to complete his academic work without distraction. As Brady reports, on returning home, usually around 6:00 pm, “I [will spend] 20 minutes or so responding to emails, texts, and the like.”

Then comes the important part of his plan: after this check, he leaves his phone plugged into the outlet — rendering it literally tethered to the wall.

His goal was to reclaim the evening leisure hours he used to lose to “mindlessly browsing the internet.” Here’s Brady’s description of his life before he detached himself from his phone:

“I would just rotate between Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube for hours. I was never even looking for anything in particular, I was just hooked on endless low-quality novel stimuli. I felt like there was so much wasted potential…I didn’t want to get old and realize that my life was spent scrolling on a backlit screen for 4 hours a day.”

Like many new digital minimalists, after Brady got more intentional about his technology, he was confronted with a sudden influx of free time. Fortunately, having read my book, he was prepared for this change, and responded by aggressively filling in these newly open hours with carefully-selected activity.

Here’s his summary:

“I did careful weekly and daily planning to find events to go to on campus and to plan out hobbies to explore. As a result of this planning, I was able to go to tons of random events at [my college] like free concerts, musicals, comedy shows and more. I also improved my attendance on my improv comedy team…Additionally, cooking and mixing drinks became a big hobby of mine and I would make multiple new dinner recipes and new cocktails every week.”

Not surprisingly, Brady also became more productive (“I’ve been able to get much more work done”). Perhaps more surprising, this increased disconnection unexpectedly improved his connection with others:

“I’ve become much better at simply talking to people and meeting new people because I can’t just pull my phone out to get through periods of boredom or awkwardness. Instead I just talk to people more, and as a result, I’ve grown closer to my friends…and I’ve made new friends by talking to random people throughout the day.”

Everyone’s experience with digital minimalism is different. What I like about Brady’s story is that he didn’t abandon the benefits of the smartphone, he just rejected the behavioral addendum that specifies you have to access these benefits constantly. For him, this subtle shift in his engagement made all the difference.

“The biggest change is that I no longer feel like I’m wasting my life away,” he told me. “I feel like I’m experiencing the world and living the human experience.”

######

On an unrelated note, as part of the research for an article I’m writing for a major national publication, I’m trying to get in touch with someone who worked with the Apollo program (or Mercury/Gemini). Given how long ago we’re talking about, I know this is a long shot, but if this describes you, or you know someone this describes who might be willing to chat, please send me an email at author@calnewport.com.

22 thoughts on “On the Surprising Benefits of an Un-Mobile Phone

  1. Deb Atisto says:

    The biggest change is that I no longer feel like I’m wasting my life away,” he told me. “I feel like I’m experiencing the world and living the human experience.”

    That’s something I’d really like to experience again, I’m missing out the right stuff. Declutter journey commences!

  2. runbei says:

    I learned an interesting principle that, I believe, applies. Never give up anything until you know, WITH A SURE INNER KNOWING, that you want something else more. For me, it means taking a risk and shutting down the browser, opening a Word doc of one of two books I’m working on, and editing “just one paragraph.” An hour later… yeah, I’m feeling great.

  3. Aurelie says:

    Love this technique. I do something similar where I’ve combined my ‘shallow work’ aka admin, emails… with ‘social media’ time, so time to check my phone too. And I have 2 hours of admin time each day (I don’t go on my phone for those two hours, it’s just within those blocks I do check it). So, so much more freeing. And all of this I only truly implemented in my life after doing a full digital detox for 2 weeks (I know Cal recommends 30 days, but even 2 weeks has a powerful effect!)

  4. My smartphone has three purposes, it’s my GPS when I have to drive to an unfamiliar location and its my running monitor for my morning jog. On the few occasions I need to make a call , I TURN IT ON to make the call then turn it off when done. This way I don’t get distracting marketing calls or texts.

  5. C.M. Mayo says:

    “Everyone’s experience with digital minimalism is different.” Indeed. I love the idea of keeping the phone plugged into the wall… I find this post so encouraging. Last year I managed to make my own smartphone definitively distraction free, but I am still working out arrangements for the laptop… so far experiments with the Freedom app have been helpful.

  6. More often I heard that people try to disconnect from phones(internet) to connect to real life. Nowadays internet and phone got our life stuck and slowed taking our time to really live. In the metro or anywhere public like concert people are on their mobile phones. People can’t enjoy in concert that must record to post on social networks because if you havent ppicutre it is like you were not there. It is so sad.

  7. Nice write up. Inspiring story!

  8. rehan says:

    Wow. “I didn’t want to get old and realize that my life was spent scrolling on a back-lit screen for 4 hours a day.” Printed, framed, hung!

  9. Austin says:

    Treating a mobile phone like a wall-mounted phone has worked for me, too. I think Cal previously mentioned the idea in another post about making a wall-mounted phone box/holder into which the mobile phone is deposited upon arriving home. This way the phone doesn’t follow the owner around the house.

    These stories point out to me just how massive the paradigm shift has been in the past 30-40 years, from people heading out into the world every day with no real means of instant and reliable communication to people literally never being two feet from a mobile phone from the time they wake up until they fall asleep again.

    It’ll be an even sadder day when children, asked to draw a stick figure picture of their family during a class activity, draw their parents and siblings and maybe even self as people all with phones in their hands.

  10. L.R. Laggy says:

    It’s crazy the extent many of us rely on our phones, as I’m sure anyone reading on this site understands.

    I had such an intense problem with having my phone in bed that I developed a meditation timer + alarm clock to help myself and others take a nightly disconnect. It’s been a total game-changer. Just like Brady’s experience, diconnecting makes me more present when I’m out and about. Even if I have my phone with me.

    Again, preaching to the choir on this site, but felt compelled to share.

    Cheers,
    L.R.

  11. Samuel Wright says:

    I carry a flip phone because it’s not connected to the internet & I can silence/turn off if I dont want to be disturbed. If I have need for any internet supported apps, I have a tablet. Depending on my needs, I can carry it with me, leave it in the car or leave it at home. This arrangement cost me a little more, but it leaves me with several options depending on my needs.

    1. Paul says:

      I’ve been using only a dumb phone for the past two years. I have thought about getting a tablet, but am concerned it will be just as overly accessible and addictive as a smart device. I am exploring the option of getting a sim card for my laptop, which is significantly less accessible than a smart phone or tablet. Having to unpack and pack back up the laptop creates a significant barrier to addictive use, but would provide internet connectivity while on the go. Still, I am pretty content with just the dumb phone, and am insanely productive even without constant internet connection.

  12. For me, it comes down to the 80/20 principle. Since I derive 80 percent of a smart phone’s value from talking, text, and mp3 functions, it became clear I don’t need a smart device for that. Hence I use a dumb phone. It maximises my mobile device value and helps me stay distraction free.

    Even if you don’t want to get rid of your smart phone, the 80/20 principle can still be applied. Two options:

    1. Only keep the top 20 value producing apps on your phone, delete the remaining 80 percent.

    2. Only leave your phone turned on the top 20 percent of the time its most useful (which in principle is what our friend Brady is doing).

  13. Anand says:

    Nice message with the article. Un-mobile will connect again to the real life we had in our childhood. Remember, it was just awesome.

  14. Laura says:

    I work in technology and I’m on a PC most of the day to perform my work. I’ve made it a practice to leave my phone in my bag and on silent. I check it once when I get to work and again at the end of the day. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend with managers who can’t seem to leave their phone/device in the office when they go to meetings. They are constantly checking messages and using the device. They give the impression of being 1/2 there (are they really listening?). Its a bad look and a bad message. I’m glad you are talking about this, and I hope it spills over into our work lives.

  15. David says:

    Great article!
    My concern with making the move to leave my mobile phone at home during a shopping trip or other errands, or in bag on silent at work, is my worry that someone (my wife or a school teacher) needs to get hold of me urgently because something has happened to my daughter. Or a similar urgent communication requirement. Is this irrational? Or is it the utility fallacy?

  16. Smartphones can make people zombies so it’s natural that using a smartphone less can make people feel alive again, great article Cal.

  17. mara chery says:

    I too feel like I am wasting my life away. I spend endless hours every evening scrolling through Instagram and watching vlogs YouTube. It gets to a point where I feel as though I am living life derivatively. I like the idea of leaving my phone behind during the day. But my mind inevitably worries and thinks what if I run into a situation where I NEED my phone? What if I miss out on an urgent text or phone call during the day?

  18. Mona says:

    Love your articles, Cal.
    Another reason why I should really buy your book even if I’m on a shopping ban. =)

  19. Micheal says:

    For me this is going to be a motivational article. I spend most of the time with mobile phone. Brady did well and using phone just for benefits. But most people are just hooked on with phones only. You can see while travelling, driving and eating, they use phones. This article can help them to get rid of this habit. When we were not having mobile phones, we were happy, and meet people. Now we can see them but can’t feel them.

  20. Willy says:

    I’ve never been disappointed reading the latest Cal Newport insight. There are definitely two parts to this, one being leaving his phone at home, and the other being filling that time by getting out of his comfort zone. Personally, I deleted my social media and used my phone much less, but what I’ve found is that I use my computer much more since I never consciously decided what to make of the newfound time.

  21. Lavender says:

    I really want to minimize my phone usage but unfortunately, at Uni, important communication happens via text or email, therefore, I can never really turn off my phone or leave it at home. I don’t know what to do..

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