A friend of Entefy conducted a weeklong experiment in curbing digital distraction. Here’s what she learned.
Recently I went through a period when I just wasn’t feeling myself. I didn’t have my usual energy. Ditto my creativity. So I started reasoning through why that was. Perhaps I wasn’t getting enough sleep? No, that wasn’t it. What was I doing at night? Well, I was on social. I was reading news feeds. I was messaging. I was… all over the place, digitally speaking. And I was all over the place pretty much every evening before bed. In fact, I was getting into bed with my smartphone and tapping away until I fell asleep. Could this have something to do with it? I vowed to find out.
But first, some back story. My smartphone is the first and last part of my day, every day. I check headlines and social before getting out of bed in the morning. I bring my phone on nature walks to track my steps and take photos of my dog along the way. Basically, my phone is attached to my hip all day and then is the last thing I look at before falling asleep. And I am definitely among the 71% of people who sleep with their smartphones within reach.
The truth is, I like to be connected. So I make myself available to everyone and every app. I have grown accustomed to being available and responsive to messages pretty much 24/7. Until it dawned on me. For someone who loves “me” time for clarity, planning, and meditation, I was giving away precious time and attention… to my phone.
Which brings us back to the experiment. What would happen if I simplified my nighttime digital habits? The experiment was simple: for one week I kept my phone on silent and put it away at least an hour before bed. Here’s what happened…
Seven days, seven lessons
1. I took action on goals that had been on the backburner. I’ve long wanted to take new exercise classes, schedule more events with friends, get a better handle on my personal finances, and meditate more. But here’s how it would normally go: “I want to take a yoga class tomorrow.” So I’d check three schedules. But then thinking about yoga would get me thinking about my yoga instructor friend in L.A. and so I’d text her. Which would make me curious how much a ticket to L.A. might cost right now. But what’s my budget for a trip like that? I’d check my bank. And before I knew it, 30 minutes had passed, I hadn’t signed up for a class, and besides now it was too late to wake up early for yoga anyways.
The first thing I noticed about not having a device nearby to deter me was that I had the time and mental clarity to add goal setting to my daily routine. The big change was that instead of passively searching for ideas or solutions generated by other people, I got clear on what I wanted and created a personal action plan. Taking the time to do so each evening led to my days feeling far more productive and complete.
2. I finally started that book on my nightstand. Without digital distractions, I finally started the book that had been gathering dust on my nightstand. Which isn’t an incidental detail. Every night I looked at that book and thought, “Tonight’s the night.” But instead of reading, what I’d find myself doing was scrolling through my Instagram feed.
Two things happened once I started reading the book. First, even though I had picked it up purely for pleasure, I found information as I was reading that was relevant to my work. Or would read passages that had nothing to do with work, but still find myself creating new ideas for work in the background. And what was cool was how clearly I was able to recall the information the next day. Nighttime reading delivered a great deal of daytime clarity.
The second effect was that reading a physical book at night was therapeutic in itself. I was deeply engrossed in the book, with no outside distractions to impede my focus. No thoughts of the 30 things I needed to do tomorrow. No quick check-ins. And even better, I slept great reading a paper book every night. I awoke very restful and energized.
3. One night, my device wasn’t on silent. I heard my phone buzz and I snapped out of my zone. The feeling was a little like walking out of a silent room into a noisy party. It turns out that recovering from the cost of interruptions can take a few minutes, even half an hour, and I experienced this right away. My clear mind wanted to go straight back into the notification rabbit-hole. What was interesting was that after just a few nights without notifications, this one buzz actually created a feeling of anxiety—who could that be!?
4. I was mindful and grateful of the moment. Digital-free evenings gave me time that I used to appreciate the fragrance of my candle, my dog cuddled next to me, even the weather outside. This made me feel calm and relaxed, which reminded me of all the benefits of mindfulness. Home in bed is safe place where you stop worrying about things outside of your control—that is, when you’re not being constantly reminded about them. The mind can wander, that’s heathy, but it isn’t prompted to wander as when the notifications are rolling in. There is a time and place for everything—most 11pm emails aren’t something you can act on until the morning anyways.
5. I came up with better ideas and didn’t forget them in the morning. Sometimes I would come up with ideas right before bed, but I didn’t have a lot of success with actually capturing them by writing them down. Because when I was multitasking on my phone, the idea would appear then disappear the moment something on the screen caught my eye.
With my journal in hand and phone put away, I found inspiration within myself and took time to write ideas by hand. When I read them in the morning, they stayed with me all day. Whether or not Archimedes actually coined the phrase “Eureka” in the bath, my experience supports the core idea of the story: relaxation creates focus that prepares the mind for discovery and invention.
6. I didn’t miss my apps, but I did miss my people. There are a few people I like making time to talk to before bed. I also want to be reachable if a team member or someone I know needs something really important. The one part I missed about not having my phone near before bed was not being able to connect more deeply with people. One of the best parts about technology is being able to maintain connections from a distance. I didn’t want a million social media notifications but I did want to be connected to loved ones.
7. I slept like a baby. There is research that the blue light emitted from devices “negatively affects health and sleep patterns.” Putting my phone away sent my mind a signal that I was shutting down for the day. It’s amazing how fast I fell asleep during my digital hiatus.
So did I change any habits?
I learned a lot about this phenomenon of information overload just by unplugging for a little while every day. Now, my phone is still with me the majority of the day, but my relationship with it has changed. I’ve pretty much turned off all app notifications permanently. Instead, I mindfully open an app only when I decide I want to, not when it calls out to be checked. I haven’t lost any of my availability to my colleagues, family, and friends; I’m reachable when I’m needed. And, overall I’m more efficient with my time throughout the day. Creativity and energy are off the charts.
As with many things that we grow accustomed to, we don’t realize exactly what our behavior is like until we break the habit, even temporarily. Notifications affected my focus, clarity, even creativity, until I took it upon myself to take control of my digital life. My experiment was one amazing vacation, and I didn’t post a single pic of it.