For the past 31 days, the moment I stepped over the threshold of my apartment door, I was entering a screen-free zone. No TV. No computer. No phone. Gulp.
It was an idea my partner and I came up with late last year as a kind of digital equivalent to "dry January"—a month when lots of drinkers choose to forgo alcohol. We had fallen into some habits that felt unhealthy and uncomfortable, like eating dinner in front of the TV every night. We wanted to force ourselves to take a break.
But we're both journalists and, like many workers these days, our jobs mean we can't abandon screens outright. We both stare at computers and smartphones all day to work and to keep in contact. But at home, on our own time, we could set our own rules. So we did.
It was simple, but severe:
- no TV
- no computers
- no phones
There were a few small exceptions: We could grab one of our phones to pull up a recipe, or launch a playlist to stream over our speakers. If we had job-related work we needed to complete—a deadline on a story, for example—that was a free pass, too. Otherwise, we had to keep it shut down in the evenings and on weekends, all month long.
"I wanted to do it to get away from looking at that mindless entertainment, like Netflix and Reddit," my partner, Stuart, said. "It's like sugar. It's brain sugar and I think if people tried to quit cold turkey they would see that it's an addiction."
There's plenty of scientific studies on the effects that too much screen time has on children, but not as much for adults. Still, we do know that looking at a screen before bedtime negatively impacts sleep, and our constant multitasking throughout the day—flipping from cooking dinner, to reading Facebook, to checking email—is a major drain on our brain's energy. These issues, combined with the fact that constant screen time just didn't feel good, convinced us to ditch our devices at the door.
We had a number of expectations and goals for the month. We wanted to talk more, and spend more time facing each other instead of facing our phones. We also wanted to do more of the things we never seem to have enough time to do—go to the gym, check out that 80s painting exhibit at the Whitney, catch up on creative pursuits.
We believed that, without the noise and distraction and all-consuming mental suck of media, we'd suddenly have endless time and energy to pursue these goals. In some ways, that turned out to be true, but there were limits.
The first few days were dreamy, to be honest. We'd come home, put on some music, cook dinner together, and then—unimaginably—we'd sit at a table and eat. After dinner, Stuart would play guitar while I read. Chores were done promptly and without hesitation. It was pretty blissful.
"It felt like life in the 50s," Stuart said. "They would just sit around in a really hot apartment playing records and talking, because those were the only options they had. I liked connecting back to that."
Then, the weekend came.
When you're just killing a few hours in the evening, the lack of screens isn't much of a challenge. But when you suddenly have 48 unoccupied hours stretched out in front of you, the idea of no Netflix starts to feel more daunting. Still, it wasn't hard to find ways to entertain ourselves—we live in New York, after all. We did go to the gym, sometimes. But we also went to new neighborhoods (and, once, New Jersey!) to explore and just walk around. We made plans with friends and actually kept them. We, somewhat ironically, went to the Museum of the Moving Image, to see an exhibit on Martin Scorsese.
"The infinite scroll consumes our life."
In a lot of ways, our hopes for this experiment were paying out tenfold.
"It's different than exercise or eating healthy—those things take a long time to see results—but with tech, you can see the results pretty quickly," said Manoush Zomorodi, the host of Note to Self, a podcast from WNYC Studios. "It's incredibly empowering to do something and see results immediately."
Note to Self regularly tackles issues with technology fatigue and often creates structured challenges for listeners to help them break out of bad tech habits. One project, called Bored and Brilliant, challenged listeners to deliberately allow themselves to feel bored, in an effort to reconnect with their creative side.
The connection between boredom and creativity emerged early for Stu and I. He started sketching again for the first time in years. I'm mildly embarrassed to admit I started writing poetry again, something I hadn't done since college. The muse had returned, and all we had to do was turn off our screens for a couple of hours.
We also both felt it improved our relationship. We talked more, sometimes deep conversations, but also just day-to-day chats. Even though we spent just as much time together before, we weren't connecting in the same way.
Not everything went the way we hoped it would, though. For one, having lots of time to do things doesn't mean you necessarily have the money to do all the things you want—museum exhibits, book readings, dining out, and taking classes all cost money. There are also times when you just really want to unwind and watch an episode or two of The Office.
"It's not like we sat there every night and had these really rich, deep conversations," Stu said. "Sometimes you have to do something that's just for fun, so we kind of replaced all the mindless entertainment with crosswords. We did a lot of crosswords."
We also both slipped a little more toward the end of the month. I found myself flicking over to Facebook when I was supposed to just be looking up directions to a restaurant. Stu got caught up in a stream of news on Twitter our last weekend.
But overall, we both agree that we'd like to take the benefits we gained from switching off and extend them into our daily lives. We want to click with a purpose, and use our screens deliberately. Watching one episode of Game of Thrones because we like the show and want to stay up to date feels different than mindlessly scrolling through Reddit for three hours without speaking to one another.
"The key word is deliberate," Zomorodi said. "The idea is purposeful use of technology because otherwise the infinite scroll consumes our life."
It's why these kinds of experiments are more than just a fun challenge; they teach us what kind of boundaries we want to set up when all of our technology is designed to topple any limits and keep us coming back for more. It's different for every person, but a really good way to discover just how little screen time you really need in your life is to eliminate all screens completely. At least for a month.