On our honeymoon last year, my wife and I spent three weeks in the remote wilds of New Zealand. We had no internet access, no cell service and — to my complete surprise — no problems because of it.
It was the first time in my adult life I’d been without access to mobile technology, and it was a watershed moment.
Sure, I’d read all about how smartphone addiction has become an epidemic in Western society, and how texts, likes, and push notifications trigger our brains as if we’re on drugs. But actually living without a functional smartphone made me acutely aware of my own tech addiction. I was the guy who checked emails before I even got out of bed in the morning. At dinner with my wife, my attention was half in the conversation and half on my screen, and I’d immediately occupy idle moments by reaching for my phone.
So, despite being the CEO of a tech company, I made a game-changing decision when we got back from our holiday: I ditched my smartphone in favor for a “dumb” one.
I was incredibly nervous, not just about the impact on my social life and daily habits, but on my business — after all my company relies heavily on mobile technology. But a few months into my experiment, I’ve found that life without a smartphone is not only possible for someone in my position, it’s made me a better, less distracted, leader and a more present person.
Going smartphone-free has definitely come with a learning curve though. Here are a few tips and takeaways for other entrepreneurs or leaders managers who wonder if it’s really possible to go smartphone-free.
Outsmarting the smartphone
I knew if I wanted to kick my phone addiction I had to go cold turkey — it wouldn’t be enough to install apps that monitored my screen time or charge my phone in the other room. So I traded in my smartphone for a version with just enough features to be useful without being addictive: good call quality, no apps, and wireless hotspot capabilities.
Finding the right tech, or lack thereof, was relatively easy. The hard part was dealing with my withdrawal symptoms — and let me tell you, the struggle was real. Those first few days were filled with anxiety. I worried about missing important emails, I got lost without GPS, and taking the subway was painfully awkward without the safe escape of my news feed. But within a few days I started to acclimatize to my new reality and tune into my surroundings. There was a whole world out there I’d honestly never really noticed before.
For instance, one evening a friend was 40 minutes late meeting me for a drink, so I parked myself at the bar to wait. Without my phone for distraction, I chatted with the bartender and learned how much skill went into crafting each cocktail. It made me realize how liberating (and eye-opening) life without a smartphone can be if you push past the initial discomfort.
Day-to-day with a dumb phone
Of course, like a lot of people, my main concern in going smartphone-free was whether I could keep up with a world that expects constant connectivity. Practically speaking, I have had to recalibrate how I do some things. Sans iCalendar, I’ve started using an agenda and a notebook to keep track of my schedule and I ask people for directions instead of using Google Maps. When I know I have to wait in line, I bring a book or a magazine.
At work, I’ve assigned priority levels to my communications — a phone call is number one, a text is number two, then Slack, then email. I still make time every day, multiple times a day, to check emails and other communications on my laptop. But I rely a lot more on what phones are really for: making calls. Actually talking to people, I’ve discovered, is often way more efficient than texting or emailing and — bonus — you build better relationships that way, too. And I’ve found in most cases, if an issue doesn’t warrant a phone call, it can wait.
The biggest surprise in all this has to be how much more efficient I am at work. Seriously. Without the option to casually dip into office emails after hours, I have to actually focus and get sh*t done when I’m at my computer. I no longer waste time toggling between windows or browsing social media.
Ironically, going smartphone-free has also crystallized what I love most about technology and why I started my company in the first place: Our goal is to provide real value for our clients and their customers, not to instigate zombie scrolling or dish out meaningless clickbait on a distracting device. It’s always been our aim, but now it’s front and center for me every day.
Is the future of tech “dumb”?
Interestingly, the people who have been most supportive of my “dumb” phone experiment are other technologists. At a time when more people are signing up for digital detoxes, downloading apps that limit smartphone use and Apple is introducing measures to control our screen time, it’s telling that people who work in tech seem to be leading the backlash against it. (Case in point: one of our developers has been using a flip phone since forever.) It makes sense; after all, technologists are arguably the most susceptible to the addictive properties of the devices we’ve come to depend on.
But I’ve also realized that dependency is largely self-imposed. It might feel like our culture demands we reply to emails at 2 a.m. — whether you work in tech or not — but in reality, few people actually expect you to drop everything and respond right away. It’s a personal choice whether to submit to that pressure.
I know I’m an extreme case — and in a privileged position as a CEO; I can dictate when and how people reach me. If I were back in the early stages of building my business, I’m not sure I could afford to take this leap. But my experience is proof that it is possible to stay connected without a smartphone. After all, even a dumb phone can still call anyone you need to reach in an instant. Only instead of the technology owning you, you’re the one in control.
Ben Crudois the CEO of Diff, a full-service agency that designs and builds ecommerce solutions for major retailers.