bill and his blog


Cell Phone Experiment

TL;DR

I will not use my cell phone during March to learn more about how much I depend on it.

Explore/Exploit

Ever since I read Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit, I try to habituate as many aspects of my life as I can.

Making my bed every morning is an example of a habit -- so too is flossing at night before bed.

The exploit axis of the explore/exploit tradeoff endows habits with their power. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths explain this concept more clearly than I can in Chapter 2 of their exceptional book, Algorithms to Live By.

Habits are powerful, but if I overly exploit an activity, I may settle on a local optimum in lieu of settling on a global optimum; these are the opportunity costs of exploiting (i.e. habits) versus exploring (i.e. spontaneity).

But what if it was possible to habituate exploration?

Monthly challenges

Every month since October 2018, I challenge myself to try something new. In the past, monthly challenges have been things like:

Typically for an activity to qualify as a challenge, I must spend at least fifteen minutes working on it at least five days each week.

This month (i.e. March) I'm challenging myself to avoid using my cell phone.

My parents gave me a cell phone when when I was a freshman in High School; I was 14 years old. I am now 28, so I have been using a cell phone semi-daily for over a decade.

While I enjoy the convenience that my cell phone provides me, I am curious to suspend my usage to more clearly understand how much I depend on it...

April

Now it is early April, and I completed March's challenge. So how was it?

Below I outline the parts of using a cell phone that I missed and the parts that I surprisingly did not miss. I will also mention the two times that I used my cell phone and why.

The first three things that I missed all relate to time.

Timekeeping

On the first day I realized that unless I was near a computer, I did not know what time it was.

I exclusively use my cell phone as my watch; I do not wear a watch. To adapt, I started looking for clocks around my office and while I was taking public transportation. Thankfully London posts the current time on the digital train schedules. This oriented me while I was traveling, which was also when I needed to know the time the most.

Most of the month, however, I never precisely knew what time it was.

Alarm clocks

While I anticipated living without an alarm clock prior to the experiment, I decided against buying a substitute. Prior to this month, I theorized that morning alarms probably disrupt the quality of my sleep. If I'm tired, shouldn't I keep sleeping?

As the month progressed and my 24 hour day morphed into a 25 hour day, I learned that I would prefer waking up at a set time every day and synchronize my schedule with the rest of my timezone.

I am still unsure if alarm clocks are helpful in the long-term. I would have slept with the curtains drawn to allow the morning sun to wake me up. Unfortunately, I live on the ground floor nearby a brightly shining street lamp that spills into my bedroom.

If I lived somewhere more remote (perhaps even a suburb would do) I would like to repeat an experiment where I live for a month without an alarm clock.

For now, I must return to the Temple of Chronology and supplicate until Father Time restores my sanity.

Timers

Using timers motivates me to do a bunch of short tasks like cleaning my flat for fifteen minutes, stretching, or reading before bed. Thankfully, I already owned a physical timer that I keep in my kitchen. This replaced the timer on my phone without disrupting my routine.

Maps

Speaking of being disoriented, what about living without maps software? On the few occasions where I traveled somewhere that was unfamiliar to me, I had to memorize the directions from my computer before I departed.

At least I didn't need to visit gas stations or museums to buy trifold tourist maps...

I once left my office mistakenly assuming that I would download the directions to my destination while commuting. As I awaited the office elevator, I realized that I had no clue where I was heading.

Thankfully I wasn't far from the safety, comfort, and familiarity of my desktop computer -- with its fatty WiFi connection. In no time I was studying Google Maps in my web browser and memorizing the directions.

Overall this was hardly an inconvenience, and I think I even enjoyed stress-testing my memory: a job that I so often outsource to hardware.

Rendezvouses

A couple of times I met friends in various parts of the city. Organizing these particular rendezvouses was a novel (read: anachronistic) experience. For all you young whippersnappers reading, take out your stone tablets and chisels. I'm going to explain how this works:

First I would tell my friends where and when to meet me. I emphasized that I would be quite helpless to any changes they might make to the plans once I began commuting, which made the commitments unusually more binding.

On one occasion my friend -- who is characteristically prompt, and even chides me for when I'm late -- was twenty minutes late for our engagement. My friend is German, so I figured I should do my civic duty of alerting the German embassy that my friend had broken German code, is obscenely late, and should therefore hand-in his passport and renounce his citizenship. After awhile my conscience advised me to reconsider.

It was fortunate for both of us that I did not fully understand how late he was. Remember: I didn't know what time it was.

I decided this would be a useful opportunity to test my patience, so I loitered for twenty minutes outside of our meeting point. He couldn't text me to tell me that he was late. I couldn't listen to music, call family or friends, or partake in any of the other rituals that modern-day loiterers observe to pass the time. In the end he showed up, and it was scarcely a big deal.

This experience made me wonder what the policy for abandoning plans is when someone is running late. Before smart phones, how long did people wait? Maybe the proper etiquette is to wait long enough for you to absolve yourself of the guilt of flaking in the unlikely event that your friend arrives shortly after you leave.

So... thirty minutes? I'll call my grandma tomorrow and ask her.

Boredom

My phone couldn't entertain me while I queued at the grocery store. Same too when I commuted.

I also found myself listening to less music than I usually do. I decided to read to occupy the void when I could; this helped me progress towards completing this year's GoodReads challenge.

Cheating

I used my phone twice during March.

  1. Once to use my bank's mobile app to internationally transfer money from my U.K. account to my U.S. account. I could have used TransferWise's website, but I didn't.
  2. Another time I used my phone to take pictures of an item that I wanted to sell on CraigsList. I could have and perhaps should have used my laptop's webcam, but at the time, I didn't want to. I am accustomed to using my phone to take pictures, and I wanted to sell something.

In both of these cases, prior habits eroded my resolve to stay the course. These are useful reminders that habits don't distinguish between helpful and hurtful; they just exist.

In total I would estimate that I spent somewhere around fifteen minutes using my phone in March. While not perfect:

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without (Confucius)

Substitution = Dilution

While the explicit goal of this challenge was to avoid using my cell phone for a month, the implicit goal was to disengage from many of the nonessential activities that compete for my attention.

There were some activities that I didn't miss while living without a cell phone. This wasn't because I don't value these activities, but rather because I can adequately replace them with alternatives.

For texting and making phone calls, I used Telegram. Telegram helped me sustain a healthy relationship with my girlfriend while still honoring the constraints of the challenge.

While I appreciated the convenience Telegram provided, I felt that I remained about as available during March as I was in February. If I ever experiment with drastically reducing my availability, I will be more explicit about my objectives.

Distraction displacement (whack-a-mole)

Because cell phones and other electronics have conditioned my behavior, I habitually avoid boredom and seek entertainment. On its face this may not sound like a harmful practice. My generation drills the aphorism "you only live once", suggesting that we may want to embrace a Hedonistic lifestyle.

Hedonism may or may not be a wise way to play the game of Life. All I know is that living a life in which I am often stimulated but proportionately distracted appeals increasingly less to me as time progresses.

During March I noticed that once I freed my attention from sending/receiving texts, my brain quickly reassigned my attention to maintaining a vigil over the other social media outposts that I maintain.

I should also admit that I habitually checked Telegram now that it served as my new cell phone. Didn't see that coming...

In another case, once I discovered that I could use Instagram in a web browser instead of on my phone, I filled my newfound time and attention on Instagram.com (don't click!): displacing the time that I spent on an app on my phone to time that I spent on a website in a web browser.

Holy whack-a-mole!

Halfway through the month, I wrote a program to block websites on my computer. Surprisingly this worked and forced me to more deliberately fill this hard-fought, foreign time with other activities.

Easy come, easy go?

As the saying for making friends goes, "easy come, easy go", implying that friendships that you easily form can just as easily be destroyed.

Habits invert this creation/destruction relationship. In my experience "easy come" implies "difficult to go".

For example, I could easily form the habit of eating chocolate around 15:00 at work; curbing this habit would require more effort. When I compare this to the difficulty I experienced habituating a meditation practice, and how easily I can dislodge my meditation practice, it seems to me that the laws of habits dictate "easy come, difficult go; difficult come, easy go".

I suspect that while my cravings for using a cell phone have temporarily ceased, they will return shortly after I start using my cell phone. And as if nothing happened, I return to where I was at the end of February just before I decided to curb my cell phone usage.

Because of this, I'm planning on keeping my cell phone in my closet where I stored it during the month of March. As noted, enough substitutes exist for me to live a mostly normal life: one where I am not unnecessarily straining the relationships of my friends and my family. After all these are the people who matter most to me and those who drive me to explore new ways to improve.

I recognize that the "self" in self-experimentation is a misnomer. Can you truly conduct an N of 1 trial? My decisions impact the people in my life, and I want to thank everyone who tolerates my eccentric and oftentimes annoying experimentation.

Thank you for reading.