Hold the Phone Challenge

It started with a harmless comment from one of our senior account planners: “I’d like to see you go a whole week without your phone.” That, mixed with innate competitiveness, sparked a challenge inspiring a small group of millennials including me) to give up our cell phones for a week. And we did it at the expense of our social lives. There was laughter, tears, an inflated sense of confidence at the outset, and a dramatic end for some. After responding to all of our missed texts and snaps, we identified our top six insights from the experiment:

A phone is a burden.

This is why it feels freeing to go without one. When you are tethered to your phone, there is pressure to make sure you are keeping up with text messages, social feeds, and conversations. And when there is a camera on your person at all times, there is a need to capture every moment that you encounter. Your phone is a commitment to yourself, and to others. This became clear as my friends/girlfriend/family expressed their annoyance when I told them that I didn’t have a phone, as if I were backing out of some ancient promise to constantly be available to them. These are things I hadn’t noticed when I had my phone with me, but once I started accepting that life went on without snapping photos and following my feed, I was able to thoughtfully enjoy moments.

FOMO (Fear of missing out) is real, especially for us twenty-somethings, but the kicker is that being without my phone lessened the amount of FOMO I experienced. This feels backward, especially for those of you who have never had the luxury of “going no phone.” Hear me out: With a phone, you feel much closer to friends, as if they were right next to you, because you can track their every move. But when they are getting together without you, you unconsciously refresh your feeds, questioning why you aren’t there. The FOMO is all happening in real time.

Without a phone, I found myself being more present because I didn’t think about what everyone else was doing. Their activities were out of sight, out of mind. I wasn’t following their constant updates, so their activities didn’t seem so important and real. When I finally hung out with those people later, they may have had grandiose stories to share, but so did I. And the conversation didn’t end with my saying, “I wish I had been there instead.”

Phones make us flaky.

When you go without a phone, you might expect older generations to reminisce about the good ol’ days without cell phones; but that didn’t happen (apologies for my stereotypical view). Most commonly, older generations actually expressed empathy for my situation, agreeing that it must be difficult to go without. They have seen the world dramatically change since their own childhoods, and they’ve adapted.

When I was younger, if I wanted to hang out with my friends, I called their home phones, left messages on their answering machines, and waited for them to call me back. As millennials, we grew up in this pre-cellphone era and (contrary to popular belief) we still remember how that phone-tag system works. But the reality is that nobody makes plans like that anymore. We now live in a world where you can send someone a text mere moments before a planned meeting, change the location or time, or leave important details to be planned in the moment. We know that if we drop someone a text or a phone call, they will likely see it, even if they are not home. Plans are more fluid and spontaneous than when phones were on a cord because people are always available. But this also means that it is easier to cancel at the last minute, as it is totally acceptable to send a flaky text with the news that you will not be attending.

An example is the best way to explain this. If I were to make plans with someone with my cell, I might text them and say, “Let’s meet at the pool after work.” I would wait until work was over, then text my friend on the way home to figure out the exact time to meet. Once I got to the pool, I would text him to see where he was sitting. Without a phone, all of these details need to be established in the initial conversation. Instead of texting, “Let’s meet at the pool after work,” I would need to call and establish an exact time and place to meet, and I would need to be on time. Those plans would not change – just like when we were kids calling our friends’ home phones.

I need 1.08% of my phone.

On day one of the challenge, I had 92 apps on my phone. I would have told you that some are used daily, some are used every few days, and the rest are things I downloaded because I need them for certain instances. All in all, I believed I needed most of them.

But by day seven, I realized I only needed one app – text messaging. It is easy to overlook the simplest functions that our cell phones give us when they also give us the ability to shoot Poké Balls at imaginary Bulbasaurs. My life became immensely harder when I couldn’t instantly contact anyone from anywhere. I was less likely to make plans when I knew that all of the details had to be established and decided before I left the comfort of my laptop and desk phone. I constantly wondered who could be trying to get ahold of me. Even my productivity suffered when I didn’t have my texts, because I was obsessing about not having that function.

Don’t get me wrong. I wished that I had access to my Snapchat, phone calls, Google, Apple Maps, Microsoft Outlook, my camera, Spotify, the weather, and my podcasts (just to name a few), but I simply missed those things. But I needed my texting. After a week with no phone at all, I realized that I’d had it pretty good with my Motorola Razr, on which the coolest feature was sending texts. I believe the phone innovations we’ve since seen are merely nice-to-haves. Knowing I missed only one main app helps make a case for switching back to dumb phones (or whatever we call the phones that preceded smart phones), but I personally like listening to my podcasts too much to make the switch.

Texting is the new dinner table conversation.

Obviously, one of the first things that crossed my mind when I started the week was, “what am I going to miss out on?” I felt as though I was going to be left out of rich conversations with my friends that would have taken place over texting or Snapchat. But that never happened. I realized I had it all wrong. I was completely backward with which conversation I was having in real life versus over the phone.

With my phone, if something exciting or important happened to me, I would relay this through text. But when I saw my friends in person, I had already texted them all of the exciting and important milestones, so we ended up talking about nonsense.

For example, my friend happened to start a new job during my “no phone” week. I felt as though I was missing out on all of the good stories by not being in the textual loop. A few days later, I saw her in person, and I finally got the chance to ask her about her first day. The conversation lasted longer and had a lot more color than it would have had over text.

That was an eye-opener. Last weekend, I was working on client research, and my girlfriend was curious as to how the presentation went, so she texted me. We texted for about 20 minutes and then the conversation died. That night at dinner, we could have talked about the presentation in person, but instead talked about the drink the waiter was serving to the couple next to us.

It was backward. I have decided I want to talk about the important stuff at dinner, and dumb online memes and fancy drinks over text messages.

We’re addicted to constant noise

According to this test by The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, I am supposed to, “… consider seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist who specializes in behavioral addictions for a consultation.”

I would be willing to bet that most people my age would get the same result. However, I would like to challenge the idea of how addicted we are. How we function in the world has changed, thanks to cell phones, and in many cases, we are just using them to live more efficiently. Is it still an addiction if I am using this piece of technology for conversation and communication, and for increased productivity? My opinion is, no.

Specifically, the addiction is present if you are using the device merely out of boredom, or to kill time. Your phone is a tool that can greatly improve your life; but it can also be another classic case of “too much of a good thing.” Sitting on a bus, waiting at the dentist’s office, lounging on the couch, and even eating, become restless experiences without a phone. In these instances, I catch myself squirming and feeling uncomfortable. I’m sure many people feel this way if their phone is dead or left at home. A definition of addiction by Merriam-Webster is: “strongly inclined or compelled to do, use, or indulge in something repeatedly.” We are addicted to the constant noise that mindless scrolling gives us and it is becoming a replacement for relaxation and mindfulness. No wonder so many people today are stressed; even when we are relaxing, we are plugged into our headphones and scrolling through meaningless content, bombarding ourselves with constant audio and visual noise.

Our phones let us take risks.

It is easy to talk about how terrible our phones are for our psyche. Just Google “cellphone consequences” and scroll through the 11.7 million results. That aside, they are magical little devices that give us security and freedom. I have a very benign example from my short week without a phone: my bike. I left it in the rain many times throughout my college years, locked to our neighbors’ seldom-used clothesline pole. It is a gray bike that is now red from rust, and someday (probably very soon) it is going to fall apart. Nonetheless, I usually take it to work, friends’ houses, and anywhere I may have to otherwise pay for parking. But without my phone, I didn’t ride it at all. I couldn’t help imagining getting three miles from my house, having the chain snap, and having nobody around to help me. I am not a worrier, but I actually had no idea what I would do if that situation came about. This fear resulted in my simply driving, instead of biking.

Obviously there are hundreds of other examples with more serious consequences than the one that I envisioned. But with phones, we have more confidence to do fun things like taking a new route in hopes of discovering a hidden restaurant (which you may try, thanks to reading a 5-star Yelp review). It makes you wonder what else cell phones and constant connectivity have given us the guts to do.

We always know that if something goes awry, we can find our way home with maps, call a friend for help, document what is happening, or at least kill the time on Instagram. It is why you feel “naked” without your phone, and when it is not in your pocket, you do the awkward thigh-slap trying to find it.

After a week without my phone, I will be the first to say that I was relieved to get it back. But I noticed some big changes that I could and should make in my life. Toward that end, I, along with the others in the group, have made a list of the behaviors we are changing, and how we’re living differently with our cell phones, which includes:

  • Viewing the phone as a tool, not a place to spend time.
  • Saving important and exciting conversations for IRL.
  • Being cautious of falling into a mindless scroll.
  • Savoring moments for ourselves instead of sharing all of our time with our cell phones.


To get the play-by-play for all four of our guinea pigs, be sure to check out the daily videos on our Facebook page.



Cole McCloskey


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