On the Surprising Benefits of an Un-Mobile Phone

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.”

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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 [email protected]