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I’m a Tech CEO Who Tried to Give Up My Smartphone for a Year. I Wasn’t Fully Successful — but it Did Make Me a Better Leader.

"In the process, I've learned that curbing a tech addiction isn't about cutting off access to technology."

By less.talk/Shutterstock
By less.talk/Shutterstock

About a year ago, I made a huge change. After spending my honeymoon in the backwoods of New Zealand — out of WiFi and cell range — I realized, for the first time, just how addicted I was to the supercomputer in my pocket. When I got back, I traded in my smartphone for a “dumb” one, with the intention of making a permanent switch. 

It was a risky move considering I’m the CEO of a growing tech company. Still, I figured being more present in the world would benefit both my home and work life. I went into this experiment with gusto, and at first, I found it liberating. Yes, there were some blips in the road — like getting lost without my GPS and constantly worrying I’d miss important work emails — but I learned to adapt and was confident I’d seen the last of my smartphone.  

I wish I could say that was true. Over the past year, I’ve encountered some real hurdles — mostly technological — that have kept me from going completely smartphone free. But it hasn’t been a total loss. I’ve still managed to cut way back on my smartphone use by removing distractions like apps and setting firm boundaries around my communication patterns. In the process, I’ve learned that curbing a tech addiction isn’t about cutting off access to technology but rather finding a healthy balance with it. And it’s even helped me become a better CEO.

It turns out, dumb phones are way too dumb

When I started this experiment, I was mostly concerned that my own inability to break my habits would be my downfall. Truthfully, there was some withdrawal at first, but I soon learned to adapt. Without a smartphone, I carried around a notebook and pen, I got a GPS for my bike, and I brought a book on the subway to occupy my time. But there were still things I needed a phone to do — make calls, send texts, and offer WiFi hotspot capability. Finding a device to reliably perform these simple tasks was, by far, the biggest challenge. 

While dumb phone sales are on the rise as more people seek to disconnect, I found the technology behind them to be seriously lacking. I scoured the internet for one that met my needs, but each new phone I bought proved to be more disappointing than the last. The first would repeatedly drop calls. The second refused to ring when there was an incoming call, and my latest — praised as being the best in the business for breaking a smartphone addiction — has an insufficient battery life and won’t upload all of my contacts. Oh, and every time I try and sift through the phone it freezes, to the point where even making a quick call is a complicated, multistep process. I even resorted to coding my own hacks to try to improve these devices, to no avail.  

The reality is, my business has been growing at a major clip. We’ve doubled in size over the last few years and I now run a team of over 100 employees. I just can’t risk missing out on crucial communications. Sadly, I had to go back to using a smartphone, although I noticed that after my hiatus I used it in a totally different way. 

Rather than allowing my phone to hijack my attention span and lure me down rabbit holes, I’ve limited its capabilities. There are no apps, no browsers, and all notifications are disabled — nothing buzzes, pings, or rings unless I allow it to. I use it during working hours only, and most of the time it’s buried in my backpack so it’s hard to reach. Putting these boundaries in place has helped me prioritize communication that matters — which has been essential as my company has grown. 

Limited contact equals better leadership

Without all the bells and whistles of a fully-loaded smartphone, I’ve been able to be extremely intentional with my time. Instead of answering emails and slack messages as they come in, I have designated times throughout the day when I check my email, and people have learned how to get in touch with me (a phone call if something is urgent, and an email if it can wait). This leaves me with uninterrupted blocks to focus on the big picture: how my company is evolving and how to communicate that to my clients and my team. You’d think pulling back on constant communication during this critical growth phase might have been a hindrance, but I’ve actually found it was necessary to help me develop as a leader. 

Dumbing down my smartphone let me engage more fully in meetings and have more conversations with people face to face. It gave me a better read on my team, which is particularly important given how quickly we’ve grown. I’ve even started to notice a trickle-down effect, with some of my employees making a conscious effort to cut back on their smartphone use as well. 

I should note though — while it’s cool to see other people being more conscious of their phone use, I’m not out to inspire copycats. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that forming a healthier relationship with technology is a highly personal thing. 

Finding balance through trial and error

Even though I’ve gone back to my smartphone, I’ve still achieved a lot of the goals I set one year ago. I’m much less susceptible to the distractions of technology, and I see my smartphone as a tool, not a toy. Imperfect as it may be, I still use a “dumb” phone on nights and weekends, which allows me to be much more present with my family and friends — and I’ve (mostly) gotten over the urge to zombie scroll to avoid boredom or awkward social situations. 

Most importantly, though, I’ve realized breaking your smartphone addiction isn’t all or nothing. You don’t have to sign up for a digital detox or go cold turkey like I did. Even simple actions, like leaving your phone in your backpack during the work day or turning it off during dinner, can be a catalyst for positive change. If that works, getting a dumb phone and using it on the weekends is an easy next step. 

The important thing is to find a balance that’s right for you. So try it out. You might be surprised at just how easy it is — and how good it feels — to put some distance between you and your smartphone.

Originally published on Business Insider.

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