Do you remember when you got your first smartphone? I do. Having instant access to all the internet offers, right there in my pocket, a quickdraw from my eyes, felt magical. Now more than a decade later, most phones are “smart,” yet maybe they’re making us dumber, or at least less brilliant, as we’ve become ever more glued to our tiny digital overlords.
Manoush Zomorodi, host of the Note to Self podcast, spoke recently at Mozilla about the downside to our digital devotion. It starts like this. You have a few minutes, so you reach for you phone. When you’re waiting for a dental appointment. Riding the bus. Having coffee. Watching your kid play soccer. Waiting for a movie to start. In between meetings. And what do you do? You check your email. Scan the headlines. Connect a dot or two. Watch some cat videos. Scroll through social. Slay a dragon. Order light bulbs.
Tap. Scroll. Swipe. Zone out. Time passes.
All the formerly unoccupied in-between time is now is booked by our phones. We like to think we’re being efficient and getting stuff done, but in fact, we’re denying our brains something critical — boredom.
The demographics most likely to have a screen problem are teens, college students and middle age parents, so as a middle age parent of a teen and a ‘tween, Manoush’s talk (you can watch it all here) hit me hard. I took stock of our household patterns. Frequent double-taps and checks for likes. Incessant BBC News, NPR and New York Times alerts. Snapchat streaks of 200+ days. Needy games burbling. Emails chiming. Texts buzzing. Are we stuck in a technology loop?
As Manoush says, let’s get bored
With daylight savings time just passing and the crocuses smiling, spring seemed like a good time to reset my digital clock by trying Manoush’s Bored and Brilliant Boot Camp. Here’s how it works.
Challenge 1: Keep it in your pocket
Challenge week ramps up, seemingly easy, but not so much. When you’re on the go, keep your phone in your bag or your pocket. Walk without checking your phone. Turn off notifications! Set yourself free from the alerts, and just be.
My take: Two things. 1) I always have phone in my pocket, so I went for the bag option. You know that panicky feeling when you think you’ve lost your phone? That’s what this feels like. All. The. Time. 2) Turning off the notifications is easy. Keeping them off is hard.
Challenge 2: Go photo free
In our relentless quest to document life through filtered photography, we forget to just be present and see the world around us. Try going photo-free for a day, and take in what you see through your own eyes instead of your screen.
My take: I don’t have a problem not taking photos for a day, so I upped the ante for myself and said no for the week. Starting right… after I take a shot of those sweet crocuses out front…
Challenge 3: Delete that app
When Manoush mentioned her favorite game, Two Dots, I felt instantly twitchy. I kicked Two Dots a year ago, stuck on an infuriating level. I sulked for a few weeks, then moved on to Clash Royale, joining a clan with my kids. It was fun talking elixir levels and deck strategy, and sharing tales of epic battles. During the weekend quests, however, I noticed a handful of clan members played for hours upon hours to score the Clan Chest. It made me sad. Games are fun, but they’re also addicting by design, which doesn’t feel good.
As Manoush and her guest Nir Eyal noted in the episode, the upside of data collection by app makers is that they know who is using and abusing apps. They can see who is spending an unhealthy amount of time on their products, and they can help people, but only if they choose.
My take: I removed a particular blue social media icon from my phone, and I have FOMO. At the same time, I don’t want to give up five years of my life to this monkey in my back pocket. Ugh!
Challenge 4: Take a fauxcation
As a remote worker, being plugged in and digitally available is equivalent to being at one’s desk. And yet, perpetual connectivity is debilitating to creativity and flow. The group I work with at Mozilla holds a wonderful cultural norm to keep Fridays meeting-free, which frees my colleagues to change locations, go for walks, have lunch away, think, ideate, write, talk, draw and generally reconnect with creativity without being tethered to meetings. Many (all?) of us find Fridays liberating and rejuvenating.
My take: I closed email and switched my Slack status to “In Flow/Not Avail.” Uninterrupted focus feels good and is much more productive.
Challenge 5: Make a small observation
Permission to kick back and observe granted. Tap your imagination. Let your mind wander. You know how you come up with great ideas in the shower? Mind wandering away from a screen is when you come up with your most interesting and novel ideas. Don’t cheat yourself of that! Look up from your phone and notice things. As Rita J. Kane, a futurist, told Manoush: Be radically present.
My take: Taking this challenge reminded me that people watching was a favorite pastime that I’ve dropped because of my phone.
At the start of the challenge, I did suffer a bout of FOMO, and I can’t say I’ve completely shaken that feeling. Being disconnected from news alerts makes me feel out of touch. But I do look up more, make better eye contact, and have more attentive conversations. I found surprises, glimmers and ideas in the cracks of my day, and I kinda liked that.
Are you in?
How about you? How are your screen habits? Are you concerned about digital addiction? And if so, what are you doing about it? Post a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
More ways to reconnect with your brilliance
- Take a tech shabbat.
- Turn your phone to grayscale.
- Read Manoush’s book mindfully instead of scrolling mindlessly.
- Listen to the IRL podcast episode about digital addiction.
- Try Catherine Price’s 30-day plan to break up with your phone.
- Check out the new Center for Human Technology, which is looking to reverse our mounting digital attention crisis.