For 30 days, when business hours are over at 5 p.m. and on the weekends too, I’m turning off my phone.
Why would I do such a thing?
My lite version of unplugging has three goals.
#1: Practice what I preach. Emphasizing the importance of reducing screen time, I regularly deny my kids their screen time, yet I'm using my phone all the time.
#2: Spend more attention to the people I’m with so I’m more "present" in social situations.
#3: Spend less time receiving upsetting news or exposing myself to toxic behavior on social media platforms (that shall not be named).
What this unplugging is not about
I don’t plan to get rid of screens entirely. I still use my computer and iPad—although eliminating the iPad may be part of phase 2. However, both these devices are only used at work and at home respectively, never when I'm out and about, and only in designated areas of the house for the iPad.
Day 1 of unplugging lite
#1: I bought a dumbphone and pre-paid plan; unplugging does require an investment. The phone, some candybar-style Kyocera, was about $60 plus tax. A pre-paid plan is $15/month plus the one-time activation fee of $30. If you do this, you’ll also find you need a wristwatch. I already had one. If you don’t, a $20 Casio with a stopwatch and alarm will do the trick.
#2: Uninstall “addicting” apps – anything social media, anything with an infinite scroll.
#3: Turn off all notifications on my smartphone.
Turn smartphone on when I start the workday around 7 a.m.
Turn smartphone off when I leave the office around 5 p.m.
Keep smartphone off but take it with me if I might need it for something critical, such as the maps app.
If I will likely not need my smartphone, leave it at home.
Biggest problem: texting with the wife
Now, with one of two phones in my pocket, which number is my wife going to call or text—the smartphone or the dumbphone? My unplugging shouldn’t make things more complicated for her.
Workaround: My wife uses my free Google Voice number to text or call me. I set up the number to ring and text both my smartphone and dumbphone. I answer whichever one is on.
In general, though, people text differently today than we did back when texting first became popular. People expect you to see emojis, click on GPS coordinates, view links… Whenever this happened, I had to remember to check for more information at a computer.
Things I miss but can live without
Uber, Lyft, Lime, and other transportation apps. Workaround: I’m not using them. I only use Uber and Lyft for work these days. I’m taking the bus now, a method that’s worked for decades.
Shazam. Workaround: If I want to know the artist, I write down the lyrics and search later.
Not being bored. Workaround: Being bored is actually better. I’m reading more.
Spotify. Workaround: I burned a CD! Going old-school required actually buying an MP3 on Amazon, digging through the IT closet at a client’s server room to find an external CD burner (my laptop doesn’t have a CD drive), and remembering what program to use to burn the CD. Skills. Of course, this only helps when I’m in the car. On foot, I just have to listen to whatever the kind soul next to me decided to blast on their speaker.
A good-enough camera. Workaround: I’m using the not-good-enough camera in the dumbphone, and just taking fewer photos. Disconnecting from social media in general has had a bigger impact on this though. It appears I’ve adopted the attitude of “why bother taking pictures if I don’t post them on Facebook?” so… I just don’t take pictures.
Multifactor authentication. I transitioned what I could to YubiKey but some services still need SMS notification or an authenticator app. Another workaround is using 1Password’s time-based one-time passwords that are synced to my desktop. (By the way, you should NOT use SMS for MFA).
Timers. Workaround: my wristwatch.
Feeling safe. It’s hard to admit, but the first few days without a smartphone I actually felt unsafe. What if I get lost? I don’t have my GPS! What if my kids get lost and they didn’t memorize my new phone number? What if I get abandoned in the middle of the desert and I can’t call an Uber?! It took me a while to remember that I miraculously survived most of my life without these tools (and even without a cell phone, period). I did it before, I can do it again!
When I still "need" a smartphone
Mobile check deposit. The workaround of going to a bank is crazy in 2019. I refuse to do this. Of course, using checks in general is crazier still, but when I get one, I still deposit it! 😊
Maps. My car has GPS, but when I’m walking or on public transit, I still need maps. A workaround may be printing directions in advance, but that seems ridiculous.
Notetaking. If I need to do something, I have to write it down with pen and paper. But, this doesn’t allow me to do things important for work, like set due dates and reminder notifications. Plus, my handwriting is terrible. I should’ve been a doctor.
Secure messaging. End-to-end-encryption messaging apps (like Signal, iMessage, WhatsApp, and others), are not available on a dumbphone. That means all messages are sent via insecure SMS.
The results of unplugging
I’m reading the print newspaper more often. My usual news sources were websites (Washington Post) or text.npr.org (the best news website ever). But, the other day I was reading the Sunday paper and I said to my wife, “Did you hear about so-and-so.” She said, “Yes, Dan, I read that article on FRIDAY!”
With website journalism, when an article is ready to “print,” they just put it online. But the print edition needs to wait until they have the columns available, so my print newspaper isn’t just a few hours late, it’s several days late. On the upside, I end up reading more news that I wouldn’t normally.
Sending more email instead of texting. It’s not good or bad, it’s just an adjustment.
Feel happier? I don’t know, I feel like I SHOULD be happier, right?
Goals for Month 2
Try a week at work without my smartphone. As long as I have my laptop with me, this should be possible. I can make and receive calls, texts, video, and everything else with the laptop. We used to say the smartphone is a small computer, well now the laptop is just a big smartphone.
I’m considering using parental controls to lock down my smartphone, for example, disabling app installation, email, and the web browser. Basically, I would cripple the phone. Still deciding.
What does my boss think?
You’re probably wondering how this is going over at work. I gave my boss my alternate cell number, the Google Voice one. However, she rarely calls me on my cell. We communicate primarily through chat and I’m available on chat during my workday. So, this hasn’t affected my work or my relationship with my boss.
Will Unplugged Lite fly in your office?
You’re intrigued by this experiment, but your boss, teammates, and/or members are used to emailing, texting, or Slacking you after hours. Here’s a question: Does your job require you to be available on Slack and email 24x7? If so, this isn’t for you.
However, if your job only requires you to be available for emergencies, this can work for you. You have to set expectations with your team: if it’s an emergency, you call. If it’s not an emergency, I’ll get back to you during business hours. That’s why this is unplugged “lite”—you’re still available.
The final verdict
Despite all the upsides, I don’t think I’ll continue with the experiment. I’ll probably stop the prepaid plan for the dumbphone after this month.
However, I’ve accepted the following changes to my smartphone as “permanent:”
- Notifications are off by default. No notifications for texting – I check my texting apps manually when I have downtime. Phone, calendar, and reminder apps are the only ones that can beep me.
- Social media remains uninstalled. The DMs can wait until I’m at a desktop!
I have changed my behavior. For example, if I’m out with my family, I leave my phone in the glove compartment or at home. I am more present and I’m practicing what I preach.