Better as Friends: My New Relationship With My Phone

Doubling down on self-control, deliberate actions and the offline world.

Hey there! I'm Will Lawrence, product manager at Facebook. Product Life is my weekly newsletter where I write about product strategy, career advice and frameworks I'm using to navigate life. If this sounds like a good time, sign up so you don't miss any articles.

I went on a hike a few weeks ago and it started to pour. Fortunately, I brought my rain jacket so I tossed it on and put my phone in my pocket to protect it from water damage. Unfortunately, “waterproof” doesn’t mean “moisture-proof” and my phone was out of commission. No amount of uncooked rice was going to save it this time.

Not going to cut it this time

My mom had an old phone lying around the house, so she said she would mail it to me and I would receive it in two weeks. Two weeks? I thought. How am I going to make it through two weeks without a phone? I was worried:

  • What was I going to browse when I was bored in class?

  • How was I going to know when to leave to catch my bus?

  • What was I going to listen to while I go running?

Little did I know that these two weeks without my phone would be one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Steve Jobs famously compared computers to a bicycle of the mind. This analogy is spot on in many ways: a computer (or phone) can enhance your thought process with additional information, digital services and computing power.

But is enhancing your thought process desirable? Let’s tun through a hypothetical situation:

You’re on the bus and you pass your old high school. You think back to the good times you had and remember a friend in your life who moved to another country. You wonder what they are doing today.

Pause. There’s two ways that this can continue to play out:

  1. You whip out your phone and look that person up online. You may see that they are in Germany and enjoying their life. You think of another friend, you look them up, browse around and repeat the process again and again. Next thing you know, you’re at your destination.

  2. You let that thought go and you continue to look outside your bus window at other things that catch your eye.

While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with either of these options, the former takes you out of the present while the latter keeps you in the moment.

While that might sounds fluffy, I noticed this exact thing when I lost my phone. With no distractions, I found that I was more present than ever. On my bus ride to university, I was making eye contact and smiling at people more, I spoke to the bus driver a few times and I even learned the exact order of every stop between my place and school. That may sound trivial, but these are experiences that I remember more than mindlessly browsing my phone.

Noticing more of Vancouver in the fall was not bad at all.

Without my phone, I also felt boredom for the first time in a while– and it was great! Usually, when I’m bored in a lecture for example, I’d “check out” from the situation and browse my phone. In other words, when I experienced the negative state of boredom, I looked for positive stimulus elsewhere to get quick hit of dopamine. I noticed this trend when I was sitting through a particularly dry lecture. I was bored but I couldn’t check out, so I pushed myself to keep listening to the lecturer. I found myself really trying to extract some interesting knowledge and even found myself writing down my own thoughts on the topic. I engaged with the material in a way that I hadn’t in a very long time. More generally, without the ability to check out I found myself teasing out the most value from each situation.

This was probably best seen on my morning commute. After a day of two of without the stimulus from my phone, I had to find other ways to get enjoyment out of my commute. So one day, I decided to bring a book with me onto the bus and started to read it during my ride to school. It was great; I got to finally start making steady progress on my New Year’s Resolution to read more while also making my commute enjoyable. Win-win!

Music was the next thing I considered. My brother got me some wireless earbuds for my birthday and I had been using these for at least an hour a day to listen to Spotify. But without my phone, I wasn’t able to do this. I love music and I definitely didn’t want it cut it out of my life, but this period gave me a time to reflect on how I use music. My best experiences with music, I found, were when listening to music is the primary activity like during concerts or listening to an album from start to finish in one sitting. On the other hand, I realize that when I’m multitasking with music in the background (like when I’m at the gym or walking around campus) music takes me out of the current situation and drowns my ability to think. With beats and lyrics in the background, I wasn’t creating my own thoughts but rather listening to the stories and thoughts of the artists. This was especially clear during my morning runs. At first, it felt awkward to hear every breath and footstep. But soon, I found that running without music made me appreciate the beautiful landscape that surrounded me which made me calmer throughout my day.

Morning runs were all the more beautiful without distractions

Ironically, I found that losing my phone also helped my relationships. I usually called my parents, who are three time zones away, when I had some free time in between classes or commuting. But now, I had to deliberately make time to video call them from my iPad when I was at home. I found myself less distracted and rushed during our conversations, mainly because you can’t really multitask while holding an iPad up to your face. With my friends, because I was only sending them messages from my computer or iPad, I didn’t have any conversations while I was on the go. For this reason, I started to use technology as a way to coordinate in-person meet-ups and conversation rather than maintain conversation through texts. Naturally, this helped me spend more quality time with some of my closer friends.

So am I saying you should throw out your phone?

Not at all. There are times when they are dramatically useful, like getting directions, coordinating a meet-up with friends, or answering an emergency call. The key takeaway that I gained from this experience is that we need to make technology use a positive addition, rather than distraction, to your life. For example, I no longer use Spotify when I’m commuting, but I frequently use it to listen to a whole album from my favourite artists. Think about your relationships with different devices and services and think about how you can make your relationship with them more positive.

How can you do this? Here are three practical tips:

  • Keep your phone out of reach — put it in your bag, in a drawer or across the room. This lowers the temptation to aimlessly browse, but still leaves it available for deliberate and useful actions.

  • Make notifications work for you — if you find that push notifications suck you in from the lock screen, for example, try substituting them for “badge” notifications. Think about what information is adds to your day (rather than detracts) and adjust your usage accordingly.

  • Carry a book — before you roll your eyes, here me out: the majority of your browsing (be it the news, Twitter or even meme pages) is reading. Replacing these short snippets of reading with a longer, more complete book of your choice is an exercise in maintaining focus on a singular task. If you need a recommendation, here’s my Goodreads reading list.

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