When I first took this assignment, I felt a little guilty.
“I shouldn’t even take their money,” I told my husband. “I’ve already banned all devices from the bedroom, just like Gwyneth Paltrow and other spiritually evolved lifestyle gurus.”
“What was that strange object I saw you tapping in bed the other morning, like a lab rat hitting a lever?” my beloved asked.
Okay, so it was my phone.
A few months ago, before I agreed to take on this assignment, I decided that I needed a better work-life balance. Step one was banning my phone from the bedroom, so I wouldn’t be tempted to check my email (or Instagram feed) when I woke up at 3 AM. But until this experiment, I didn’t commit to going phone-free for a full eight hours; I made dawn the cutoff. If I woke up anytime after 5 AM, I’d let myself retrieve my cell from the kitchen, where I’d left it plugged in next to the coffeemaker all of five hours earlier. Then I’d squirrel back to bed with my prize and immediately start obsessing over work deadlines.
Tapping away until lights out and keeping my phone on the nightstand in the early morning probably wasn’t great for my health. (It also meant I wasn’t actually banning devices from my bedroom.) Research shows that using smartphones late at night can harm sleep quality and, in turn, diminish productivity at work the next day. Our cell phones are also a major source of stress—those message and app alerts are unsettling, to say the least, breaking our concentration and making us feel like we’re supposed to be doing something else, which prevents us from actually relaxing.
With this assignment, the goal was to do the experiment for real. So for two weeks, I banned my phone from the bedroom entirely. Here’s how it went.
The first five mornings were like waking up to discover that I’d lost my keys, wallet, and eyeglasses during the night. To say that I felt unsettled is putting it mildly. It was unbelievably hard to get up and perform my ablutions before checking my phone. I had two dreams in which I was checking my smartphone, and it froze. I woke up totally enraged. Score one for my husband and his lab rat analogy.
By the end of the first week, I noticed that I was feeling less on edge, both in the mornings and in general. Without my phone to let me know about an urgent email or social media update, I was able to halt the cycle of worry that generally runs in the background on my personal operating system. Did a client return my email? Did a big story break on Twitter? I eventually stopped wondering about these things, which meant that I had the mental real estate for more meaningful and productive thoughts.
The duration and quality of my sleep improved significantly during this experiment. The first part was no surprise. If you check your phone every time you wake up during the night, you’re obviously going to get less sleep. Keeping my phone out of the bedroom meant that instead of checking email, I actually dozed off again. By the end of the two weeks, I was getting, on average, an additional hour of sleep each evening. Beyond that, my sleep felt more restorative, which I honestly wasn’t expecting. After a few days, I felt like it finally filtered through to my brain that nighttime is for sleeping, not for staring at my phone. By the end, I was sleeping all the way through the night for the first time in years.
A committed hypochondriac, I like to diagnose myself with the direst possible diseases based on the mildest and most innocuous symptoms. I’ve never in my life thought, “I must be getting a cold.” Instead, I think, “I wonder what the symptoms of Dengue Fever are?”
After a few days of enforcing the cell ban, it became apparent that many of my ongoing health woes were a result of my extended screen time and lack of rest. For instance, before this experiment, my eyes were often dry and scratchy, which I always assumed was incipient blindness. Considering these symptoms cleared up when I dialed back on my cell usage, I’ve decided that my eye doctor was probably right; my symptoms probably were just signs of eyestrain. Ditto for my sore thumbs, which I thought were caused by arthritis. The symptoms disappeared after a few days of enforcing the cell ban. My new self-diagnosis: tendonitis from holding my phone at a weird angle for hours every day.
I have what was once called a Type A personality and is now called, “a person who lives and works in the 21st century.” By that I mean that I assume I’m essential to every project. Embarrassingly, I’ve actually heard myself say, “But I can’t take any time off! I’m the only one who can do XYZ!” This is never, ever the case, of course. Unless you’ve just invented a new technology and are the only one who can use it, you’re probably not indispensable. Banning my phone from the bedroom helped me to remember this. After a few days of not answering emails from my bed, I noticed that nothing bad had happened. My work was proceeding on schedule, my bosses weren’t mad at me, and nothing was slipping through the cracks. Who would have thought?
Being calmer also made me better at my job. I noticed an uptick in my productivity and a reduced number of errors. Also, because I was in a better mood, I was a nicer coworker. I found myself volunteering for more things, and feeling more cheerful about helping out—or, okay, slightly less resentful about volunteering for stuff. It turns out, to have work-life balance, you need to keep your work and your life at least a little bit separate. Spending at least eight hours a day away from my phone, the device that brings work into my life, made that much easier to do.