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Self-experiment: No smartphone when others are around

Smartphones are the incredibly powerful tool that we all have in our pockets. We can do a lot of great things with them that you used to need 10 different devices for. So much for the theory. Because if we are honest, these great applications only make up a small part of our mobile phone use. Much more we seek the dopamine rush with apps like Instagram, Tiktok or LinkedIn. Time for //next columnist Markus Sekulla to try a hiatus with a twist.

The for me most mind-blowing project I heard about in 2022 was "The Artist Is Present" by Marina Abramovic at MoMA in New York in 2010 as part of her retrospective. For this, Marina sat on a chair for 7-10 hours a day for 11 weeks and looked straight at the people who sat at the other end of the table.

As someone who loves #monthlychallenges and is fascinated by such projects, the idea of a presence challenge was not far: "Markus Is Present" and it went like this:

For one month: No smartphone use when other people are in the room with me. That means – among other things: No quick whatsapp check, no Wikipedia while we watch a TV quiz, not confirming the weather forecast for tomorrow's endeavors. 

We are so used to constantly taking our smartphone to check - often very pointless - things. One of the best things about it was going to coffee shops to observe other people’s behavior. 

And I know what we are all thinking at first: “Yeah those kids are glued to their phone, but me…” Nope, I’m not buying it. It’s almost all of us. The image I love most is the older couple, let’s call them golden surfers, who are sitting at a coffee shop and are looking at their phones like we think some 14-year-olds would do.

But back to my hiatus. It was certainly one of the tougher challenges this year. That became clear after just a few days. Here are my learnings:

  • On a regular home office day, you are often in the same room with other people.
  • With a hiatus like this, the "withdrawal symptoms" subside very quickly. After 24 hours, the smartphone "pick-ups", i.e. how often you use your mobile phone, decrease significantly.
  • Nobody is constantly present in the presence of other people. In 100% of my conversations, meetings or private gatherings, people check their smartphones (often multiple times). Fortunately, that wasn't entirely on me (I hope J). If you look around, you'll hardly discover a person who doesn't use their smartphones in meetings or restaurant tables.
  • All the people I've talked about the challenge said something in the nature of "Wow, great, I should do that sometime."
  • It’s more applicable in personal circumstances than at work
  • It’s not the phone itself. It does fantastic things like navigation, train tickets, guitar tuning, shazaming your next favorite song, etc. It’s certain apps – mostly ego related apps that is. It’s FOMO. It’s dopamine.
  • In less than 5% of my phone pick-ups I found something that needed my urgent attention.

The energy vampires had to go

Today I use the smartphone again when other people are in the room. But way less than before. Besides, the goal I’ve set for myself is to stay under 1h smartphone time on average per day in 2023. This is easier than one thinks because the problem is (again) not the smartphone itself. The key is to avoid (delete) certain apps that I now call attention vampires. Instagram, TikTok right up front. Have you deleted them from your phone? Fantastic, write me a note and I’ll be a happy man. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not against Social Media in general. I think there are upsides features to it. An overuse does come with a health risk, though. If you are interested in studies around this topic, please check the read more section at the bottom.

Most things can wait

I think what stays is the question what matters. Being present and focusing on the person right in front of us is important – we can all agree on that. You don’t have to all put your smartphones in the middle of the table, so no one can pick them up to concentrate. Just be aware that most of the things you will find on your phone don’t need your urgent attention.

A little anecdote at the end – I have no idea if it was true. Napoleon opened his mail exactly 3 weeks after they arrived. What was still important then got his undivided attention.

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