How To Put Down Your Phone

Listen to this episode

S1: Well I just want to say like I haven’t had a TV since high school. I read a paper book every two days. You know I walk my dog in the park without a phone. Like I’ve I’ve been so thoughtful about this for so long and yet I’m strapped to the internet for hours and hours a day 75 percent out of requirement 25 percent out of fun.

S2: Or maybe it’s the other way around. This is how. I’m Charles Dubik.

S3: And I have a confession to make.

S4: I look at my phone the way too much. Just this week in fact these are all the times that I’ve looked at my phone when I should not have done it. There is a time that I was conducting an interview and I got momentarily bored and I glanced down on my phone and then I came home that night and my wife was telling me about her day and I was in the other room and I was checking my email on my phone instead of paying attention to her. And then the next day I had dinner with my kids but they were fighting with each other and I was just like done with it. And so instead of redirecting the conversation back to something pleasant I glanced at my phone under the table. I didn’t even have any e-mail. I think I looked at Instagram. I am not proud of these moments at all. And I bet a lot of you feel the same way.

S5: And so this week we’ve got two experts to help us solve what is a relatively recent problem in the annals of human problems. How to put down your phone.

S6: First up is one of the sharpest writers about the Internet and our digital lives.

S1: My name’s G Atlanta now I’m a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the essay collection trick mirror just came out a couple months ago.

S7: How much how much screen time did you have last week.

S8: I have. Let’s see.

S9: So I have I have a daily average of two hours 42 minutes. What have you got. Five hours a day five hours a day.

S1: So yeah I wish I looked at my phone less but I’m have to write about the Internet right. It’s for better or worse. That’s my beat.

S9: And do you feel like when you say you wish you looked at your phone less why because I think that generally I’m having a better time when I’m not looking at my phone. He brain feels better when you find yourself picking up your phone and you don’t intend to. Yeah like what. What does that. What are you feeling right before you do.

S10: I think it’s a conditioned reflex and the fulfillment of that conditioned reflex. That’s it. Like the mark of like a really good night out is like no one took any pictures and like you forget you don’t you found about and you miss like the e-mail that you like. You should have answered but you don’t.

S11: I totally get where G is coming from because I wish I had more dinners where I never thought about pulling out my phone and after this quick break. Gia and Cal Newport this guy who’s known for thinking about deep work and how he can be focused on what really matters.

S12: We’ll talk about some of the ways to control our phones rather than our phones controlling us.

S13: No it’s fine. Let’s just do it. In fact I got to send them just fine. OK.

S14: We’re back. OK.

S12: Does that my phone. That was my phone. Ok I’m turning it off now. I thought I was hoping it was your phone. OK. We’re back. So in addition to g Atlanta you know we also reached out to Cal Newport who is a computer science professor at Georgetown University.

S15: My most recent book is titled digital minimalism choosing a focused life in a noisy world Carol’s written a lot about how to concentrate when we’re surrounded by technology.

S12: But even he finds himself often distracted by his phone. And so he decided to look into why.

S15: The biggest issue people seem to have was this this notion of lost autonomy that they they knew they did not want to be looking at the screen as much as they were looking at it. And in the situations they are looking at it that I’m here with my kid or I’m sitting across from a good friend at dinner or watching a movie that I’ve been excited to watch and yet I can’t help but look down at the screen that really distresses people that almost helpless sense of. I didn’t sign up to look at this thing all the time and now I can’t stop myself from doing it.

S12: It’s hard to remember but there was actually a time before we were all constantly glued to our phones. The iPhone only came out in 2007. Before that everyone had those flip phones or BlackBerries and you could text someone or you could email but it didn’t feel as addictive as phones today. There weren’t all these apps designed to give you this dopamine rush with every new like in the infinite scroll. Of course making the Internet more accessible that also has a lot of upsides.

S1: I owe my career to the Internet sort of democratizing force. I wouldn’t have been able to get a job in media if not for the Internet. Like I like I literally never knew anyone that worked in media or lived in New York or was a journalist.

S10: I graduated into the recession. I’m from a quote unquote nontraditional background. And I was in grad school for fiction writing actually. And I got on Twitter and I was able to get hired out of nowhere called hired out of nowhere to run this Web site because I seemed funny online.

S16: And yeah that was basically it after a few years working at online magazines. She said she had to sort of train herself to be more mindful of her screen time.

S10: My main concern was the feeling of just mental degradation that comes with the Internet. Like that comes with like strapping yourself to so like to do this like barrage of information that you can’t calibrate correctly. I don’t mind picking up my phone and reading stuff. You know when I’m like there’s a really long line at the bodega. I mean I think with the Internet it’s like I’ve always just wanted to ask myself what it’s taking for me and what it’s giving me.

S13: It’s interesting because I think the way I experience this is I have grown out of practice with boredom and stillness Yeah.

S9: And so like when I’m in line for the bodega I’m the same way right. Like it’s definitely way more fun to like look at Twitter or to like see like what’s happened lately or look at the e-mail that I got. And there is that kind of like positive reaction I have it’s just novel and it’s new and it might be interesting but as a result like I used to spend that time standing in line at the bodega like thinking about the story I’m working on and like that I actually feel like it’s the thing I’ve lost yet. And the thing about about our phones is that it’s not a choice usually to pick them up and look at them. It feels much more like a an a nearly automatic reaction reflex reflex and so as a result I didn’t even notice so much what I’m missing and the moment. Yeah. But in the aggregate I look back and I think to myself two hours and 54 minutes a day that I’m spending on this. Yeah that maybe is like at least like maybe 30 minutes of that time that I could have just been like daydreaming and had some idea about how to work on this next chapter. Yeah totally totally. That’s what I feel like I want more control over.

S17: Yeah well this is this was the question I wanted to answer okay. Why are people uneasy and what seemed to be clear is that it wasn’t so much what people were doing when they were on their phones right. It wasn’t that hey when I’m looking at my phone to think I’m doing on my phone is worthless or it’s making my life worse. They were looking at the phone beyond when was productive. They’re looking at the phone to the exclusion of things that they knew were more important the proverbial I’m giving a bath to my kid. And yet I can’t help but look at the phone.

S9: So so explain to me your idea of the 30 day kind of cleanse. What do you call it.

S17: The terminology is actually kind of important. Yeah I call it the clutter which I should also say another way of saying that is it’s not a detox but it comes out of the substance abuse community where a detox is really about the first step towards a permanent change of your relationship with something just damaging. And so I don’t quite like the appropriation of that term to talk about just taking breaks from technology I think taking breaks is is overrated you need to fix the underlying problem. And so I pitched this idea of the the clutter that the core notion is basically you do what let’s say Mary Kondo says you should do for your closet if it’s overcrowded you don’t just take a couple things out then hope that over time your closet gets better. She said you know empty the whole thing out and then just put back in what you really want.

S9: Like just tell me like how do I do that. Like if I pull out my phone. How do I how do I declare to start the 30 day declaration.

S18: So the basic idea is you start by taking out all of what we call the sort of optional technologies in your personal life. So for most people this is social media streaming video and so you start by stepping away from all of those optional technologies in your personal life and then you take 30 days and the whole idea of the 30 days is that for most people you actually need a little bit of time and a little bit of space to get back in touch with this idea of what do I actually want to do or what’s really important. And then when you’re done with the 30 days you say Okay now what I want to add back and hopefully now you’re doing it from a from a place it’s a little bit more informed than when you started.

S11: So this is the first rule for how to put down your phone. Remove all the games and optional apps and in anything else you don’t absolutely need and then go without them for 30 days and then afterwards ask yourself what you really missed. And more importantly what you didn’t miss during the last month is kind of like having a hard reboot of your digital life. And at the end the goal is to have a better sense of what’s truly essential and what’s just a big time suck that doesn’t make you happy at all. Q You tried Cal’s 30 day digital declare clutter and she wrote about it in the New Yorker.

S19: Yeah I tried it and it was it was wild it was wild to me like that’s I think when I realized how fully and permanently I am still tied to the Internet and social media for work I couldn’t completely I think I gave myself an hour a day where I could try to cram in all of the research for this couple of pieces I was working on but I did it and I went from let’s say like four hours to four and a half five hours a day on my phone to very very little. And yeah I mean what that does it just makes you buried at the fact of being alive and that sort of existential dread and wonder of it. And it was a doozy.

S9: Did you like it. Did you feel like this was like the callous suggestion on how to do this is the right suggestion.

S1: Yeah I mean I. So the one thing that I didn’t do because I remember in the book there’s there’s this idea that we should try to replace phone time with enriching real life activities which I did not do because I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to give up my phone in the interest of being sort of more productive. You know like a moral holistically whatever I wanted that dread and I wanted that wonder and I wanted to feel bored and you know I wanted to feel on stimulated and see what my mind did in its absence I wanted to just lay on my couch and stare at the wall for 30 minutes and not not fill my brain with a continual stream of new information. And that’s the thing that really broke me.

S20: I heard a lot of similar stories to be honest.

S18: I mean it’s incredibly uncomfortable to feel bored. And so one of the theories behind boredom is that this is what drives us to get over our our basic instinct to conserve energy which all animals have. You want to conserve energy because if you run out you die or the predator gets you. And so I’ve been interested in this notion that boredom is really important. But if you subvert the boredom draw by having this glowing rectangle that can immediately get rid of the boredom in the moment just like when you subvert the hunger drive by going towards the most palatable junk food it it causes these sort of maladaptive type issues. And so this is one of the things I like about this disclosure period is that it forces you to get back in touch with boredom and where does it drive you when you no longer have the option of vanquishing the boredom with a quick tap on a screen and you have to get up and do something what seems to satisfy it.

S1: I think what I was trying to do with this 30 days for me which was the thing that I needed to do it was to no longer think of my phone as something that would supply me with on demand anything. I used to feel when I worked as an editor I’d be looking at Twitter all day for stories to assign and at the end of the day I would have to like go and read poetry in a corner by myself to focus my attention again like my attention span would be just totally ruined.

S10: But I think the thing that the 30 day thing really did for me was just like it was that it was just the logic of productivity thing which I mean that’s what it illuminated how how much I had been formed by it how much I had absorbed it into my bones that I needed to be producing and doing something productive every minute of the day the idea that like I should always be I should always be sucking up information with the idea that maybe it could be useful later on. And again it’s not so far off from the way that I want to live. But there was something about feeling myself would be out of reach of monetization.

S1: More out of reach of monetization by corporations than it normally is. Yeah that’s the thing that the 30 slaves really made me aware of. Is pointing towards something bigger than just the compulsion to pick up our phones. And when we come back.

S12: We’ll explore how to survive and and hopefully thrive in the attention economy.

S16: We’re back. And here’s the big question if all of us want to use our phones less. Why is it so hard. What makes us so susceptible to these like little glowing screens. Why are our brains conspiring against us.

S20: If your mind gets used to this notion that there is this constant stimuli that you’re constantly changing over to new sources of information you will over time find that it’s difficult to sustain focus on one thing because your mind like a Pavlovian reaction has been trained in boredom mean stimuli and focusing on one thing is boring. But I think the deeper issue is that the human brain actually needs time alone with its own thoughts and observing the world around it. Right. So we call this solitude. And so this is I think an unintentional consequence of having ubiquitous access to this information. Good or bad information is that it gives you the ability to completely avoid that solitude state that your brain is just constantly put into a situation where it has to be in this all hands on deck for processing input from another mind which is something that as an incredibly social species we take very seriously and it uses a lot of resources.

S9: And if that’s what you do all the time it leads to long long term issues it seems to make people for example anxious and jumpy because the brain is essentially saying uncle if we’re trying to train ourselves to have that solitude right whether it’s because we sort of see some benefit to ourselves in it or whether it because we just crave it or we think it’s a human condition that we should experience what do we know about enhancing that tolerance. Like how how do Jia and I enhance our tolerance for this kind of time that has no usefulness associated with it.

S18: So the hack which I actually think is quite effective is you just get in the habit of doing one or two things everyday without your phone and it doesn’t even have to be that long. I mean if you’re gonna walk down to the Walgreens because you need to pick something up and come back or you drive to a store and you leave the phone in the glove compartment to go do your shopping. That’s a short term hack but what it gives you in your life is at least 10 to 20 minutes of time alone with your own thoughts and your environment on a regular basis which even that small change at least readers report back to me can have a significant improvement to this background hum of anxiety.

S6: This is the second rule. If that first rule that the 30 day declare. If it seems too radical then just try it for short periods of each day retrain yourself how to experience solitude through these quick daily exercises which when you think about it isn’t really that hard right. That’s what life was like before the iPhone. The real goal here is to figure out what do you want out of your tech.

S21: What seems to work is this notion of working backwards from what’s important. Choosing your tech to support those things and then this is sort of the key twist is putting in place those rules around the tech use to get the benefits while sidestepping the cost. But the key notion is that the tech you’re using if it’s intentional and there’s rules around it that tends to give people the sense of autonomy back.

S6: And that seems to cure a lot of the unease. A few years ago Gia came up with her own hacks to help regulate her phone time. In addition to removing nearly all of her social media from her phone she installed a couple of apps that block her from certain sites during certain hours of the day. One of them is called freedom.

S22: So I have freedom on right now. I can’t look at I can’t get social media from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.. OK so it keeps me from looking at it before I go to sleep and right when I wake up. And that’s when I try to read books the most and I’ve stopped really wanting to look at social media. Then I feel a little irritated but then mostly good. The parts of me that still feel under sway to these mechanisms I have gotten it as good as I can get it and it’s gonna be like this until we. Somehow find some way to dismantle the fundamental profit model of the Internet.

S16: Part of the problem is that our jobs increasingly require us to be on our phones.

S1: I am strapped to the internet for hours and hours a day 75 percent out of requirement 25 percent out of fun you know. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Like I think the real problem is the lack of regulation on Silicon Valley itself. You know I mean like it’s like the real problem is that like American leisure time is spread out into micro installments you know like the real problem is what’s happening in labor like you know I think declaring works. But you know it’s it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist and like the fact that the problem shouldn’t exist is the thing.

S9: So cow What do you think of that.

S21: I tend to be much more optimistic at this moment by moment I mean about 30 year period of a drive towards more faster communication more ubiquitous pervasive communication especially the knowledge workers fear is more emergent and arbitrary than we give credit to. It represents a a sort of inefficient deployment of cognitive resources and even market forces themselves are probably going to push us as far as this economy sector grows towards a place in which we actually spend much less time communicating. So I actually think we’re reaching sort of peak frenetic communication in the workplace and that this is going to get better if 20 years from now we’re sending Slack messages every five seconds I’ll be surprised. And you know this is good news for everyone but her job is really is going to make it almost impossible to squash the other 25 percent. Yeah a lot of other people you can go much farther.

S1: I mean I wonder I guess I mean I wonder. I would love it if in 20 years that generation is not my age and sending messages on their phone for work every five seconds. But for me having grown up in the time of like just having seen how the Internet changed in my coming of age it’s hard for me to imagine. But I love the idea that it could be like that and I I take that optimism to heart. Maybe it’ll sink in.

S9: You wrote in the piece that you wrote about. About reading Karl’s book that after declaring that you found yourself feeling more grateful for your phone than ever.

S1: Yeah I mean I’m still really glad that I can look up facts on Wikipedia when I’m stoned whenever I want. You know that I like can’t remember what constellations look like but I can look at it and an app that will tell me you know like this was a this was a part of your book where you talk about people wanting to cut down just being constantly available by text right. And that’s something actually that I realized I mean I text for so much every day and I realized actually I love that. I love talking to people all day. Like one of the reasons that I’m on my phone a lot is because I try to avoid my computer screen to the extent that I can like I write on paper when I can. And you know if you’re home alone all day and you’re social it’s lonely. Yeah. And one way for it not to be lonely is texting as the tax.

S9: No it’s like a little like like every single time one of my friends sends me like some dumb comment I’m sitting at my desk. It’s like they sent me a little gift.

S7: Yeah it’s great. I love texting. And this is the final. To remember that one of the reasons we use our phones and all the technology in our lives.

S23: Is because they do these wonderful things right. I can leave my office and go play with my kids. And then pull out my phone and get some work done other resting. Or if I’m driving and the emergency fuel light comes on I can within seconds from the closest gas station. Our phones make our lives better. As long as we are deliberate and thoughtful about how we use them. As long as they’re a choice rather than a reflex.

S24: We we have a lot more control over that than we think. But it’s hard to figure out the right way to exercise that control. The vast majority of people the vast majority of what they’re doing on their phone in those moments is often deferral or dispensable. And people are often surprised by once they spend let’s say a month doing a transformation they’re surprised by oh I can significantly reduce these things in my personal time with without much negative ramification there’s a lot more autonomy there to be gained if you have some good strategies for going after it.

S9: Yeah I think it makes a lot of sense. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from hearing you talk your cal about this that hopefully will pay off. What I do with my phone when I’m next hanging out and my kids.

S21: Well I hope you don’t tweet about this soon because the ironies would be overwhelming. Yeah.

S23: Thank you so much to Cal Newport energy Atlanta. Make sure to look for Cao’s latest book Digital minimalism. Choosing a focused life in a Noisy World. And gives great new book of essays. TRICK MIRROR. Reflections on self-delusion. Give a problem that needs solving. Send us a noted how to its late dot.com and we might be able to help. And we do not mind if you use your phone to do it. How tos executive producer is Derek. John. Mara Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s brand. John Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcast and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio.

S25: Special thanks to Asha solution. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.