A Minimalist Experiment: The Phone is Just a Tool


One of my favorite things about The Minimalists, Josh and Ryan, is that they use experiments to figure out what adds value to their life or how to use (but not abuse) the tools in their life. I’ve taken up that trend myself, taking on some of their own experiments, yes, but also altering some of their experiments and personalizing them. I did this recently, beginning a new experiment on January 24, 2016, which I’m about to tell you about at length. I hope you’ll stick with me.

In one of his more notable experiments, Joshua Fields Millburn “locked his cellphone in a drawer for a few months”, which he discusses in one of his essays at www.theminimalists.com. This particular experiment has always been attractive to me, for whatever reason, and though it has probably been over a year since I read this essay for the first time, I didn’t begin my own experiment until last month.

I altered the experiment quite a bit. On Sunday, January 24th, 2016, I challenged myself to a 30-day experiment. I decided that when I was with my wife and daughter—every single time all three of us were together—I would turn my phone off entirely. Not just on vibrate, not even just on silent, but completely, 100% off. No matter how long we were all planning to be together, that phone would be off. This meant that if my family went stark raving mad at some point during the month and decided to lock ourselves in the house together for seven straight days, then the phone would have to stay off for those seven days…even if it meant no one would even know if I was alive.

It seems fairly simple when you lay it out like this, but as my good friend Amy said when I did finally give up (details coming), “That’s a pretty difficult challenge.” Yes, it was.

Day one was tough. I’ve heard people say, mostly about New Years Resolutions, that it doesn’t make sense to wait until the first day of a week, a month, or a year to start a new habit or go after a goal. I think this is good advice to apply to your life in general. So day one was January 24th because I realized that waiting until February 1st (like I originally intended) just didn’t add anything to the experiment—it was only putting it off.

So day one went a bit like this: I powered my iPhone off, sat it on the end table next to our daughter’s playpen, and sat down on the couch just five or so feet away. And I’m glancing at the thing like I’ve been forcefully separated from my most important possession (which it is not). Looking back, it feels ridiculous. I must have looked at the phone 162 times in three minutes. How I miss you, how my fingers long to caress you. It was like I was bloody detoxing.

Day two brought more frustration, but I am relieved to say, all of the frustration wasn’t superficial. As I knew going in, there were apps on my phone I use regularly throughout the day—real apps that add real value to my life. I use my MyFitnessPal religiously (I lost 100 pounds in 2014) and I depend on my Notes function in my iPhone for remembering tasks and logging ideas. When I needed to use one of these apps, I turned the phone on long enough to log a food or jot a note, turning it back off immediately after.

This was part of the frustration, though. I thought, “I need these apps! These apps are valuable!” And yes, they are valuable. I considered giving up on the experiment day two because I find these apps so valuable. However, turning the phone on and off to use them was only going to last thirty days, so I decided using these apps (as valuable as they were and still are) as a reason to give up the experiment two days in was just a crutch. It was only thirty days of inconvenience, after all. Thirty days of inconvenience to learn more about my phone habits and what it really does for me as a tool, and nothing more.

Day three brought on a resentment I wasn’t quite expecting (but maybe I was and just was shocked to encounter it so soon). A big part of my reason for undertaking this experiment was to improve my life with my family. My wife and daughter are the two most important people in my life, and half the time—more than half—I’ve been spending on my phone. The majority of that time is not spent on apps like MyFitnessPal or Notes, either. No, most of that wasted time is spent mindlessly cruising apps like Facebook and Twitter.

I realized that even when we all sat down to watch television together—another sometimes mindless activity, I know—I hardly ever engaged with the show as a singular task. More often than not, I spent that time staring at my phone, looking up only to say something to my wife or ask a question about the show (a question I wouldn’t have needed to ask if I’d been actually watching). I think a multi-tasking sabbatical is in my future, as well, as an experiment, but more on that later.

Also, when I would sit with my daughter, I found I was sometimes cruising these apps then. When I am sitting with my daughter. I have the most adorable, loving, life-changing bundle of joy in my arms, and I’m cruising Facebook and Twitter! I knew this was a red flag.

So where does the resentment come into day three? Well, even though I took on this experiment, my wife and daughter never agreed to. Granted, I never asked my wife and my daughter is only ten-months-old (so she is blissfully cellphone-free). But the fact of the matter is this experiment was for me: to learn about my phone as a tool, to learn about my habits (and bad habits), and to learn what changes I could make once the experiment ended.

I found myself irritated that my wife was still mindlessly cruising her phone. Don’t mind me over here, family. Continue your mindless phone activity while I sit here unable to even turn mine on. You know, I’m doing this to improve my life and our relationships and what are YOU doing? Scrolling through Facebook, probably. Psssssh. Could I have entertained a more judgmental thought process in that moment?

Then it hit me: this was never about them making changes. It was about me making changes.

This is about my bad habits and the changes I need to make in my life. And yes, while it will improve my relationships with these two wonderful people, their bad habits aren’t the ones I’m dealing with—I’m dealing with my own. This was also the day I realized I needed to look for changes I could make that would not only benefit my relationships, but benefit me personally. I told myself to keep calm and focus on the experiment. It wasn’t fair to let resentment toward them creep into the fold.

Day four (don’t worry, we’re not as far from done as you think) is when the detox itself started to fade a bit. I know this because day four is when I began to think about the changes I could make once the experiment was over. Now that I wasn’t ready to tear my eyes out, I thought about what apps I could delete when the experiment ended. It is obvious to me now that by paring down to the most useful apps, it is impossible to get stuck on the mindless apps that get in the way.

As I considered what to delete, I even had a dumb thought about the people I play games with on gaming apps—won’t they miss me, these people I’ve never even met in real life?—but then I realized how ridiculous this line of thought actually was. Then I thought that the thought was so dumb I hope no one ever knows it happened. And of course, no one ever would have, if I hadn’t gone and put it on my blog here.

I spent several days thinking over apps to keep and chuck. Day eight, I realized I’d been doing quite a lot of rationalizing. I spent that time trying to justify keeping frivolous apps once the experiment was over, trying to convince myself there was absolutely no way to get rid of them. I was still hung up on the game apps, especially. Not all of them. I realized quickly I only enjoyed and played two of the over thirty game apps on my phone (that’s startling). It was those two that I actually enjoyed that had me stumped.

But then I had an idea, which happens when you stop rationalizing and actually try to problem-solve.

I only had to delete the 42 versions of Angry Birds I had on my phone. That part was easy. For the last two games, though, I decided I could (and would) keep them—in a more limited capacity. One of the games links to my Facebook account. This means I can play it online, when I am actually sitting down in front of the computer and have time to be less productive, cruising my Facebook account. This isn’t something I do terribly often, either. I’d delete that app and only use it when I was online and had the time to spend on a little frivolous gaming—problem solved.

The other game did not have this option because it is not one you can play online. So I decided to ask the only two friends I have that I ever play this game with—friends I know in the real world, at least—if they’d switch to a different app with an almost identical game. This one could be played online, which meant I could delete the app itself from my phone. Of course, they both agreed. I play less often, now, and I might yet decide to jettison even these last two games completely, but at this time, I’m happy with where I’m at.

For the next eight days, I didn’t think much about the experiment. I realize now this is because it only took about four days to understand the most important revelations the experiment had to offer: my phone is a tool, my phone is overly full of apps, my phone is a distraction from the important things, my phone is an excuse to always be multi-tasking, etc.

I did have one final revelation before the experiment ended, though.

On day sixteen, I realized something…unexpected. I was using my phone to avoid facing difficult emotions. This sounds silly, initially, but it is 100% true. I won’t go into the details of this private emotional moment, but at the time I can tell you I was feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and a touch heartbroken. And what did I do? I reached for my phone—in fact, I cheated—and turned it on. I turned it on because I needed to scroll Facebook, Twitter, anything, to avoid what I was feeling. I needed to get away from the feelings and hide in my mindless apps so it didn’t hurt so much.

And I realized this was doing far more damage than the moment was. As difficult as it may be, I need to fully be in those moments dealing with those tough emotions. I need to think about what I’m feeling and how I can handle the source of those feelings—whether it is a situation, a person, or something else entirely.

On February 9th, 2016, just one day after my last and most unexpected revelation, I quit my experiment early. Thirteen days early. By this time, I was missing one of my good friends (mentioned earlier) who doesn’t live in the same city as me anymore and relies on text messaging to communicate with me regularly. We speak daily, and while this experiment was going on, that valuable interaction wasn’t happening daily anymore. I missed it.

I was also still frustrated with the absence of the important apps, like the Notes function and MyFitnessPal. I had learned quite a few lessons, and I didn’t feel a whole lot of guilt about quitting at that point. My wife understood my frustration, she knew how much I missed my friend, and even she encouraged me to quit early.

I don’t know if I should call my experiment a failure or a success. I learned so much, and in that way, I’m tempted to label it a success. I did quit early, though. From here, I’ve decided that my phone needs to go back to being a tool and only a tool. When I’m with my family, I’m now making a conscious effort to stay off of my phone unless I’m using it to log a meal or take a note. I deleted all my gaming apps. I also deleted all my extra apps and social media apps—except Facebook and Twitter. I think those two apps will probably get chucked later on (even as I type this now, I feel a twinge of guilt for still having them on my phone), but right now, they’re still there. I just make sure not to use them when I’m with my family or out with friends.

I think we misuse a lot of the primary objects, experiences, and people in our lives. Our cell phones become our friends. Our experiences become the background to the superficial distractions. Our loved ones become an afterthought, a “Let me just tweet this and then I’ll listen to what you have to say.” I’m not trying to be judgmental or uppity because I still have such a long way to go myself. I’m just as guilty of these things as the next person. I have so much to learn still. Even as I close, I realize just four days after the experiment’s end, I’ve lapsed back into some of those bad phone habits here and there.

I’ll keep trying to be better. I’ll keep experimenting. I’ll keep chasing after value and leaving the rest behind.

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