10 Days Without a Phone -- Why you should take a digital sabbatical.

Naked.  Naked and Alone.  That's how I felt.  Crazy?  Perhaps.

In truth I was fully clothed and surrounded by multitudes of people - with my family in close proximity.  I still looked the same, had eaten the same and was from all appearances exactly the same person I had always been.  Me.

But, my pocket was empty.

No matter how many times I patted the sides of my shorts, like a nervous twitch, my phone was simply not there.  This time, it was my fault though.

I had read a couple of months earlier about the concept of a digital sabbatical.  A voluntary break from all digital devices in your life.  Upon reading the article, I immediately became defensive, as I think we all do, and my mind ran away with itself telling me time and time again that I wasn't a phone-a-holic, I had it under control.  Sure I had friends who couldn't seem to put their phones down - but I was different.

The defensive rationalisation was necessary because the article basically rested on one key pillar - the effect that our addiction to constant connection (digitally, at least) is having on our individual lives and on society as a whole.  Now the science behind this kind of thinking is voluminous and it wouldn't be a good use of time to explain it all here - there is plenty out there on the internet if you are interested.

What is more personally impactful, I believe, is using anecdotal evidence to get the point across.  If there is one thing I know about you, as a reader of this post, it's that you have access to technology - and inferring from that, a smartphone of some sort.  I'm also willing to bet that for the vast majority of you, that smartphone is attached to your person 24/7.  Right?

Maybe that's not such a good thing.

I planned my 10-day digital sabbatical for my holiday down at the coast, over Christmas time.  This was for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I would be with my family down at the beach, away from the hustle and bustle of Joburg.  And secondly, that physical distance meant I could really commit to the experiment and actually leave all my devices at home.  I knew that if my phone, iPad and laptop were within reach - I wouldn't have the willpower to stay away from them for the full time.  So it was much better that they were safely stowed away in another province.

The objective for the sabbatical was to do a personal reset and look back at the year I had.  It was also an opportunity to rediscover what it meant to be "bored" or have nothing to do.  An opportunity to consciously spend more quality time with my family and to read books.  Lots and lots of books.

So that was it - I decided to give it a go.  Smartphone, tablet and laptop all safely packed in my cupboard in Joburg, and off to the airport I went.


So now we're back to where we started.  Naked and Alone.

It was a weird feeling not having my phone.  I don't think I quite appreciated how many times I took it out of my pocket instinctively, because I tended to pat my shorts pocket many more times than I was proud of, even though I knew I would find nothing there.  Habit, that's all.

The biggest fear of course, when you are without a phone, is that you are going to miss out on something.  FOMO.  I went through the anticipated withdrawal symptoms, wondering if I had important emails from my new employer that were coming through to an unattended mailbox.  Did I have messages from friends who were unaware of my sabbatical and hoping to get in touch with me? How many photos and videos would I miss on my newsfeeds - that would mean I was out of the loop?

Silly concerns I know, but truthfully they were there.  And that's when I realised the real power of such a sabbatical.  It's a small reminder that we are all running in a hamster's wheel of our own design - slaves to our newsfeeds and inboxes.  After a day or two it all seemed so inconsequential.  I felt freed, to some extent, to do whatever I wanted to do - without interruption or temptation to procrastinate.

That's the trap I had fallen into, unwittingly.  My phone had been fulfilling three dangerous uses.

Firstly, it was taking away my conscious control of what I wanted to do and making me a slave to incoming stimuli - which all seemed so seriously urgent.  It was a never-ending battle to attend to all the notifications that would come in, every minute.  In turn, draining my focus from the things that really mattered.

Secondly, it afforded me the means and inspiration to procrastinate.  It allowed me the justification I needed to leave the difficult, but important tasks I was tackling, to take on some easy wins.  Wins that felt like progress, but in reality were just prolonging the agony of the hard problem I was grappling with.

Lastly, it had removed the element of boredom from my life.  With a phone, whenever I had a spare moment - standing in a queue or waiting for a friend or anything like that, the first reaction was to pull out the phone and bide my time on there.  Boredom was eliminated.  You might initially think that that is a good thing - after all, boredom has some very negative connotations.

However, if we look deeper I think it's slightly counter-intuitive.  Boredom provides a valuable commodity in our fast-paced world and that is serendipity.  The absence of action provides space for random events and associations to take place - which can in turn open us up to new possibilities and experiences that wouldn't previously have been seen.  Some of our best moments are in times of serendipity, when we think we know what we want, but something else comes along and surprises us completely - changing our references and beliefs.  By not having a phone in those moments, it forces you to take in your surroundings, pay attention to smaller things and most importantly to breathe. To take time to breathe and to think.

Now I am supremely aware that in our generation, our smartphone is a non-negotiable part of our body.  It just is that important.  So a digital sabbatical must sound difficult to you, as it did to me.  But I want to implore you to try it.  I found such incredible results from my 10-day experiment and I truly believe if you try it you will find tremendous value in it.  Give yourself some time to breathe.  And to think.

It doesn't have to be a 10-day vigil either - that was just me biting off more than I can chew.  Try it for a day, or a weekend.  It's well worth it.

If you do try it, I would love to hear your experiences.  Leave a comment below with how it went for you.