As the whirlwind of the holidays descends, you may find yourself wishing that you could slow down time. Here’s the thing: You can.
You just need to put down your cellphone.
I first discovered this myself a few years ago when, as an experiment, my husband and I took a 24-hour break from all our screens starting at sundown Friday. Saturday morning we accomplished more by 11 a.m. than we’d normally get done in an entire day. We cooked. We talked. We cleaned. We read. I practiced guitar. We played with our daughter. I felt like I’d unlocked a time-stretching superpower that I hadn’t known I possessed.
Since then, I’ve heard many similar reports from people who have taken up my suggestion to try a 24-hour phone fast — what I like to call a “phast” — for themselves. It turns out that this is the result of a real psychological phenomenon.
“When we’re on our devices, we lose the ability to mark the passage of time,” says David Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “This phenomenon is called dissociation, and virtually everyone experiences it to some extent when on screens.”
Designers often do things to deliberately trigger dissociation to get us to “engage” — marketing speak for “spend time” — with devices for as long as possible. There’s a reason, for example, that casinos don’t have windows or clocks: That makes it hard to judge how long we’ve been dropping money into that slot machine. Apps on mobile phones and tablets employ similar techniques, using features such as endless-scroll news and social media feeds to make us lose track of time. Spoiler alert: You’ll never “finish” Twitter!
Although phones can make hours seem to mysteriously disappear, the good news is that the opposite is also true: By putting digital devices aside, you can make your perception of time slow back down.
As Greenfield explains, “Putting down our phone places us back in what I call ‘real time,’ and this is where life is really lived and experienced.”
Indeed, the way we spread joy during the holiday season ultimately comes from our presence. I recently met a man who’d given his young son a coupon book of activities they could do together. The father was touched and, he admitted, disturbed when the first coupon his son chose to use was “a day together where Dad is not on his phone.”
These realizations have inspired me to conduct another experiment: From now till the end of the year, I’ve resolved to plug my phone into an out-of-sight charging station the moment I walk in the door in the evening. (The ringer stays on, in the highly unlikely case that someone calls in an emergency.) I’m asking my family to do the same. It’s fine if we occasionally slip — expecting perfection would be a recipe for failure. The point is simply to make a conscious choice to spend more time together this holiday season and less time with our faces buried in our phones.
If you’re interested in doing something similar but find the idea daunting, my suggestion is to start small. Designate the dinner table as a phone-free zone. Get a basket or box where people can deposit their phones at mealtime. Consider buying a box of conversation prompts if it’d help to make more of a fun game of it. You may encounter resistance at first but before long it may seem strange to think that you ever allowed mobile devices at the table.
A 24-hour fast (or two, or three) from sundown to sundown is also a good way to decompress from too much holiday stimulation. You are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms — I certainly did — especially the first evening. But most people I’ve talked to about their own phasts are surprised by how refreshing and empowering they feel.
Changing habits is difficult, especially when it comes to our phones — and the holidays might seem like the hardest time of year to unplug. But think of it this way: You’ve got almost a month until New Year’s Eve, so why not do some experimenting between now and then?
If you don’t like the results, you can always go back to your old habits. But if you do like the way it makes you feel, then by the time Dec. 31 arrives, you’ll already have found a 2019 resolution that you might just keep.
—Catherine Price is the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” and the founder of the JOMO Project.