Experiment: Life without a Smartphone

I recently participated in an interesting and illuminating experiment. Having carried a smartphone on me for some two years, what would life be without a phone? Not only without a smartphone but just without a phone altogether. The results were quite interesting and not what I expected. I actually experienced a feeling of freedom.

The reason I participated in this experiment was not entirely voluntary. On a recent business trip my phone and myself got separated. While I travelled back home to Iceland, the phone went south, all the way to Africa. It was located using Find my iPhone service from Apple in the town of Nabor in Marocco. I could even see the street and the house. And given these circumstances I considered the phone gone.

Then how do you live without a phone? Since I was in this situation, might as well find out. So, here is the experience.

Let’s start with the bad things first. I think the most annoying thing was not to be able to contact my family. This is very natural since the phone is a security tool, a survival mechanism. One few occasions, my wife needed to get hold on me. In all cases, for trivial issues such as picking up some missing ingredants from the dinner recepy. For us to communicate over the workday was easy since we both work on computers and messaging is just a click away.

I missed being able to call when I was at the grocery store. Even if I carefully created a list, I still had the urge to call. Just to check. Then again, this is what we do, we check all the time.

This checking also happens with information. We are always checking mail and for news. I experienced few times early in the experiment that I wanted to grab the phone and do something. Having done that, I noted down why I would do this. In most cases it was because I was bored. Just waiting and with nothing to do. The phone is indeed, a time-killer device.  In two occasions it was because of insecurity. I was worried and not sure if I was doing the right thing so I tried to grab the non-existing phone for confort, just to look like I’m in control – just checking my mail or something. The phone seems to be an escape from insecurity. We feel we look less out place if we appear to be doing something. In one case I needed the phone because I wanted to know where I was and in few I felt it would be good to look up some some information.

I just realized I was suffering from the Checking Habit. This is described by scientists as brief, repetitive inspection of dynamic content quickly accessible on the device (Paper by Oulasvirta et. al: Habits make smartphone use more pervasive). We are checking all the time!

Now for the good parts. Being without the phone actually improved my life in this way. Instead of check email before going out of bed in the morning and numerous times during the day, I committed on working on email fewer times, but much more effective. Also, if you read your email on the phone it is quite common, if not a rule, that you do not respond on the device, but decide to wait until you are at the computer. Reason is that writing email messages is easier using a keyboard than a small device. Then, at the office with the computer you have no new emails and might fail to respond to read-only message.

The most surprising experience I got was when I was just going to work on some preparation. I needed to work for few hours. I got the feeling that I was free – nobody could interrupt me. I was in total control of my life.

With the phone we are actually open for interruption 24/7. We accept this and are not surprised when the phone rings. Somehow this is part of modern life. Always-on. Always checking. And as I write this, my new iPhone on the table beside the laptop.

I’m back on the chain gang.