My Screentime Experiment

With my 38th birthday approaching, I was feeling reflective.

I noticed my phone alerts me to my screen time each week, and that during the ‘Crona my time had skyrocketed. The arrow went up, the percentage grew, and I was logging upwards of 8 hours per day on my phone. This is almost double what my normal screen time looked like prior to the pandemic, and I was starting to feel it. I realized the spike in hours wasn’t just because I was home with the kids and needed to do more school-related communicating; I also found myself clinging to news and information online, often getting lost down rabbit holes and numbing my feelings of uncertainty and grief reading things, watching things, and staying desperately connected to people. In a time where the world felt a loss of control, I noticed I was seeking control by learning everything I possibly could about what was happening in the world. I was also staying “busy” with cooking, crafting with the kids (of course every recipe and creative idea came from my phone) as well as watching funny video clips to take my mind off things.

MAKING A PLAN

At first I was unaware how all that screen time was piling up, and that’s the point – I was losing hours of my day through the numbness of the screen! I know this isn’t healthy but still found myself fearing the loss of that comfort and clinging to it, so I decided to do an experiment. The week before my birthday, I would minimize my screen time and see how I feel. I decided to commit to between 2-3 hours per day (I wanted to be realistic) and made a mental plan. I would be in charge of when I picked up my phone – those notifications wouldn’t tell me what to do! I would not start or end my day with my phone, and I would put it down during the day instead of walking around with it.

Clean up your screen! Simplify to make it work best for you.

Not only did I decide to minimize screen time, I also committed to several other forms of self-care. I chose to incorporate daily meditation, walking 10,000 steps per day, daily yoga or muscle work, reading every day, intentionally connecting with my husband each night, and journaling about my experience into my routine. Ambitious, right? Especially as I had only been able to achieve a few of these sporadically with all three kids home all day, day in and day out for the last two months. Still, I was determined, as a birthday gift to myself.

My plan was taking shape, but I needed help. I talked to the kids about what my expectations were (“Mommy is going to need time in the morning for meditation, so please don’t interrupt,” etc) and enlisted the help of the hubby to cover the kids for me during extra walks. I set reminders in my phone and visualized what my time would look like, with a strategy for how to respond to temptation. Just the planning felt great – but what came next was better than I envisioned.

Wow! WHAT A WEEK!

After just one day of my new “healthy me” experiment I was already feeling a wave of refreshing freedom. I looked at my phone at the end of the day and it showed 1 hour, 59 minutes of screen time. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It felt GREAT! What surprised me most – aside from the low number – was how effortless it was. I expected this to be difficult, and it wasn’t. Instead I found myself avoiding my phone because I had better things to do! All of that planning ahead really paid off! I exclaimed to my husband – “Wow! That was easy!” and it motivated me to keep going.

On the second day I found myself sleeping better, waking refreshed and eager to start the day. I looked forward to meditating first thing, as well as some movement (stretching, body weight movements, etc). This kind of wake-up self-care felt like I was pulling back the proverbial sling shot and aiming at my target – priming me to take off for the day. I loved the clarity it gave me, rather than the usual fog I would get from scrolling news and notifications when I woke up. This was motivating enough to make me want to start the day like this from now on!

The next day built on this great feeling as I continued my self care practice and healthy boundaries with the phone. I noticed that the less I touched the phone, the less the phone “called to me,” including notifications. I realized that before, the more I picked up the phone, the more notifications I’d get. It surprised me how the world left me alone when I left the phone alone! It felt incredible to be free from the need to respond all the time to what was coming at me. I felt a renewed sense of power, self-determination and confidence. I thought, “I’m in charge!” I was clear-headed and had a real sense of peace come over me.

On day four I found inspiration to do things I had been avoiding or previously dreading. Instead of feeling like I didn’t have enough time, I had an abundance of time! I cleaned and organized, did some writing, finished a few projects I had been putting off, and found all of it to be a pleasure, not a burden. What a sense of accomplishment I had been preventing with the perpetual phone zone. I didn’t need any more convincing – I was hooked..

The next day of my experiment took me by surprise. I expected to be more engaged with the kids all week with their schoolwork, so that was a pleasure. Obviously they benefited from this too, as I saw a positive improvement on their focus in spite of their own increased school-related screen time during distance learning. What surprised me, thought, was the sense of being hyper-present and aware of myself and my surroundings. I have plenty of experience with mindfulness, but I hadn’t realized that I was coping with this pandemic event by becoming mindless. Finally I was able to just sit and think again. I didn’t feel restless or the need to busy myself. I had forgotten how good it feels…pure bliss.

Then all of a sudden, at day six, I became flooded with emotions. I welled up with all the strong feelings that overcame me, and as I wept, I realized I hadn’t cried the entire pandemic! I was clear as a bell as I sat in my swirling whirlpool of joy, fear, gratitude, grief, and overwhelm … just noticing everything and letting the tears flow. Clearly these were all the emotions I had been suppressing with screen time. Without the phone to distract me, they came like a tidal wave and took me by surprise. It lasted for a while, and even though it was a lot, it wasn’t unpleasant. Instead, I felt…

TOTALLY ALIVE.

The weight was lifted – I was really living again! Without the screen I could be fully present, fully alive, alight, aware, awake! It was a powerful experience to have this realization and know it deep in my bones. We have all read articles and understand what screen time does to numb our bodies (I know a thing or two about this as a hypnotherapist), but nothing affirms this ugly truth better than the personal experience of screen freedom!

Of course the strong waves of emotions passed as I let myself experience them. It was a great opportunity to practice what I preach – “feel it to heal it” – and reinforce how powerful that really is. It is an affirming reminder to notice how we transcend all strong emotions when we really allow them to come and go. I sure needed that. I emerged lighter, contented, and totally inspired.

what I learned

After one week I sat down to look at my results and review how I felt and what I had learned. I ended up smashing my goals: only 1 hour 48 minutes of screen time per day, over 10,000 steps per day, 20+ minutes per day of meditation, 10 minutes of journaling, 30 minutes or more of reading per day, and an immeasurable increase in my overall well-being. I was able to reflect on what permanent changes I want to make, including minimizing my screen time as much as possible, continuing meditations and keeping my steps up. It will be wonderful to take note of the long-term effects these mindful changes will have on my life, but for now, I feel great at 38!

RESULTS:

  • Decreasing screen time is actually easy – IF you have a plan and have healthy things to do in all that time you will gain.
  • The less I needed my phone, the less my phone “needed” me. I got less alerts and notifications the less I interacted with it.
  • Less screen time means more time for activities that are life-giving, not life-sucking. I had time for exercise, long walks in the fresh air, quality time with my kids and husband, and reading, journaling, and meditating.
  • Less time on the screen means less distraction from what makes us human – thinking and feeling. We feel more alive when we are able to think and feel without suppressing whatever comes up. What a gift to give ourselves permission to think and feel without fear, judgement or suppression.
  • Habits are easier to make permanent once they become routine. I can imagine missing one day of walking, meditation, or screen time, but if I have two days in a row of “lapses” in my goals, it would be a much harder hole to climb out of. Routine is the key!

TIPS

I certainly recommend this experiment to everyone who feels like screen time has more power than it should in your life. The rewards are instant – but so is the temptation to return to old habits. We live in a world of technology and social media and in many cases it is impossible to escape it. Unless you have a plan in place, this kind of behavior modification won’t last. Change doesn’t happen on its own – we make it happen with our mindfulness, preparation, and motivated execution. When it comes to eliminating screen time, expect emotions to surface and mentally prepare yourself to allow for them. This will help cleanse your mind-body of all the pent-up angst and dis-ease the screen has suppressed. Visualize it – it’s a wonderful feeling that we all deserve!

I helped myself succeed by setting reminders (yes, on my phone!) to meditate, go for walks, or journal. It’s great to use reminders for things like taking supplements, working out, or even taking a mindful breath to center yourself. The new habits you seek to incorporate will be more appealing with tools in plain sight. For example, if you want to work out more, put your weights in a place you can see them. Want to do yoga more? Get your mat out and handy, prepare your space and select your yoga program ahead of time so it is easier when the time comes. If you want to read more, set up a cozy chair with your book of choice nearby as a visible reminder. If you keep forgetting to take your vitamins every day, put them on the counter by the coffee maker. Give yourself a leg up by making your living space facilitate your goals. In a similar vein, put away or throw away things want less of in your life. For example, I kept my phone out of reach and out of sight and it made it much easier to achieve my goal. Don’t want to keep reaching for the chips? Stop buying them! Help yourself out!

Another great tip is keep track of things. I loved being able to look at my screen time periodically during the day and see how low it was. So motivating! Another great motivator is a step counter to track step progress and kick your movement into gear, or a meditation ap to keep track of “streaks” – how many days in a row you gave yourself the gift of meditation. (I recommend Calm, but have also used Waking Up, Headspace and 10% Happier. Do a trial and see what works best for you!) It may seem counter intuitive to use the screen to help avoid the screen, but I found that when I used technology for health-related purposes, I felt even more empowered to be “in charge” of when and why I choose to pick up the phone.

Finally, don’t do this alone. Tell your people you are making some changes and that you do or don’t want support with it. Ask for help when you need it! I didn’t want anyone commenting on my goals (trust that I am motivated – I got this) but some people prefer the accountability. I did, however, need help sometimes in order to achieve my goals. If I needed time to do something solo, I needed my husband’s help with the kids. If I needed breathing space, the kids had to respect my quiet time. It is a terrific example for “your people” to set expectations, showing them what good boundaries and new healthy behaviors can do for overall well being. Just like old maladaptive behaviors were contagious, healthy behaviors are contagious, too!

I would love to hear how a screen time experiment worked for you!

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