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What Happened When We Spent A Week Detoxing From Our Smartphones

Things got a little uncomfortable, but we learned how to lean into the boredom instead of reaching for the phone.

What Happened When We Spent A Week Detoxing From Our Smartphones
[Photo: Flickr user Tuncay]

Boredom gets a bad rap. Not only is it an unpleasant feeling that we try to avoid, but numerous past studies that claimed people with “boredom proneness” became easily frustrated in challenging situations.

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But recent studies are dispelling this myth. Researchers now believe that allowing yourself to be bored is one of the best ways to create the space and time necessary to find deeper meaning and satisfaction.

But most of us occupy our free time with our smartphones, filling that space and time necessary for creative thinking with mindless distraction.

Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s New Tech City podcast, sought to create more phone-free time to space out with her Bored and Brilliant challenge, which several Fast Company staff joined in as last week’s habit challenge.

“My team and I decided to take matters into our own hands with a campaign that would explore a link between spending less time looking at a little screen and more time being creative,” she explained during our live chat about the challenge. “I came up with a week of daily challenges to experiment with what could get us off our phones and spend more time thinking creatively.”

According to Zomorodi, 70% of the more than 300 people who answered New Tech City’s initial survey said they signed up because they just wanted more time to think. They also wanted to stop all the mindless phone checking that we all do as we go throughout our day.

“I started noticing last year that I was spending waaaay too much time on my phone, and it was driving me crazy,” said Co.Design Associate Editor Shaunacy Ferro, who took up the challenge last week. “I wasn’t as focused, I didn’t feel creative, and I felt like I was constantly plugged in, jumping from app to app. I needed a reason to take a break!”

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More than 18,000 people signed up across the country for the Bored and Brilliant challenge, from individuals to families, high school classes, and entire offices.

Before completing our daily challenges, we downloaded apps that would track our phone usage. The aggregated data from these apps indicated that most participants spent just under two hours a day on their phones before the week of challenges began. The average decrease after the challenge was six fewer minutes on the phone and one less pickup each day.

Zomorodi found these statistics to be powerful, even though six minutes may not seem like a lot. One cognitive psychologist she spoke to told her that behavior is really hard to change, so any decline could mean something big.

In fact, overwhelmingly people said they felt better after the challenge. More than 90% of people who filled out New Tech City’s post-challenge survey felt they had cut down on their phone use, either somewhat or a lot.

For more analysis on the numbers, give New Tech City’s Bored and Brilliant podcast a listen.

Here’s how the challenges went here at Fast Company:

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Day 1: “In Your Pocket”

Day 1 was a big hit with all of us. When we kept our phones tucked away while walking down the street or in transit, we felt more free to think, plan the day ahead, and observe what was going on around us.

Most people–88%–told New Tech City in the post-challenge survey they would continue the “in your pocket” challenge in the future, and 45% of people found this challenge to be the most useful. Production Associate Miriam Taylor agrees: “Out of sight, out of mind!”

At the end of the first day I realized just how much I was itching to distract myself from the long workday behind me. Without my phone, I kept repeating certain events and conversations from the day in my mind. In the end I closed my eyes and started to meditate, which did help a lot.

“Looking at your phone is a great distraction from dealing with your shit at the end of a long day,” Zomorodi explains. “But doing nothing and just thinking about what happened is important for building memories and figuring out what you do next.” Neuroscientists call this “autobiographical planning,” she adds.

“As long as you aren’t ruminating and beating yourself up, you might be getting bored and then doing ‘positive constructive daydreaming’ . . . that’s the good stuff.”

Day 2: “Photo Free Day”

We said “no” to Instagram, took no pictures, and you know what, we were just fine. In fact, we loved seeing the world through our own eyes and not through a camera lens or funky filter.

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“This was such a pleasant change from mindlessly scrolling through Instagram that I didn’t pick up Instagram again till the end of the week when I actually had something purposeful to post,” Taylor said.

Day 3: “Delete That App”

However uncomfortable this challenge was, people found deleting the app they are most addicted to and waste the most time on extremely useful. Half of the post-challenge survey respondents said they plan to keep their apps deleted, even though most people said that this was the most difficult challenge.

I usually swipe through Facebook at the end of the day to catch up on all the non-news of the world, which really just means silly listicles, cat pictures, videos of babies doing adorable baby stuff—whatever it takes to let my brain shut down for a while. When I got on the elevator to head home on Wednesday, though, my fingers automatically started swiping left to get to the Facebook app on my phone, which of course was no longer there. I was a little startled at first, but I quickly got over it.

“Delete that App made the most difference in how I felt about my phone. I deleted Instagram and suddenly there was no reason for me to unlock my phone unless someone was actively texting me. I felt so free,” Ferro said.

A fair amount of New Tech City participants also batch deleted apps:

According to New Tech City’s findings, apps with the words “candy,” “crack,” and “farm” in the name were also pretty popular to delete.

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Day 4: “Take a Fauxcation”

Our “fauxcations,” which required us to schedule away messages telling the world we were focusing on off-line projects—were a great way to keep the phone in pocket challenge going. Instead of picking up my phone to check Twitter when I got home from work, I told the Twittersphere I’d be gone for a while and used that time instead to cook a yummy, healthy meal that took longer than the mere 30 minutes I usually like to allot to weekday cooking.

This challenge timed out well for Taylor, since she took an actual vacation to New Orleans. “I’m always way more addicted to my phone during times of transit, but this time I put it away and had an extremely pleasant conversation with the person next to me on my flight, to the point where we exchanged emails and I made a new friend in the city.”

Day 5: “One Small Observation”

During this day we were instructed to take our newfound phone-free time and notice something we would have missed before. Observing people instead of swiping through my phone made me very conscious of just how much other people were using their phones, and many others had similar observations.

I even watched as a man in the grocery story walked straight into a veggie display because he was glued to his phone.

“The worst was at restaurants,” Taylor said. “I’d look around and no one was talking to each other–they were all staring at screens. Across from each other. And shoveling food into their mouths. It was pretty sad.”

But there were also less dramatic observations about worms, butt cracks, lots of birds, babies, old couples, pepper shakers Zomorodi said. “Beautiful stuff. Ethereal.”
Have a listen to some other particpants’ observations here:

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Day 6 and 7: Using Boredom For Creative Inspiration

Nina Katchadourian, an artist who regularly uses boredom as her muse, instructed us to put away our phones, watch a pot of water come to a boil—i.e., be bored—and then use the contents of our wallets to build a dream house—the creative part of the challenge.

People came up with some pretty brilliant stuff. Just check out Ferro’s dream house as proof.

“My dream house kept falling down.”

Overall she says this was her favorite challenge, especially since she found watching water bubble relaxing.

Did It Make Us More Creative?

In the end, some of us have already reinstalled some apps, and we probably won’t be building any more wallet dream houses any time soon. But we’re still taking a lot away from this challenge and have learned a great deal about our habits and ourselves.

I felt more creative in the sense that I was at least more open to alternative thinking. I definitely thought more and was more introspective than usual.

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Without thinking about it all that much, Ferro said she cut her average phone usage in half, leaving her half an hour or so more a day to think. “I felt more relaxed and less harried, which lends itself to more creative thoughts,” Ferro said.

“I think just being aware of how often I was mindlessly on the phone was really eye-opening,” Taylor said.

Zomorodi said some New Tech City participants were inspired to write a book, to find a way to deal with a difficult colleague, to compose their first poem ever, or to make a delicious meal. “Creativity can be quantified in numerous ways.”

“People told us they felt inspired to try coming up with ideas, rather than getting to the next level of Candy Crush.”

How We’re Keeping It Going

Zomorodi suggests that anyone can try the challenge out for themselves whenever they like. For example, the University of New Orleans wants to get their freshman class to try it at the start of each semester.

And even though the challenge week is over for many of us, there are ways to carry the lessons we learned with us each day.

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I’ll be hosting a dinner party with some friends later this month and collecting phones at the door. They’ll be kept at a safe distance so we can fully engage with each other. And if the conversation gets boring . . . well, we’ll just have to deal with it.

Taylor has told her boyfriend that from now on at dinner whoever pulls the phone out first has to pay the check.

And Ferro has started looking for little moments of boredom throughout the day. “I’m working on leaning into it instead of reaching for the phone, and learning to enjoy the free time.”

For the full live chat conversation, check out the transcript from our chat.

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere.

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