Play is fundamental to our experience. Cal Newport dives into why we might need to step away from the screen.
Play is fundamental to our experience. Cal Newport dives into why we might need to step away from the screen. (Photo: Ovidiu Gruescu/Unsplash)

To Upgrade Your Leisure, Downgrade Your Phone

The author of 'Digital Minimalism' explains how you can maximize your free time

Play is fundamental to our experience. Cal Newport dives into why we might need to step away from the screen.

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In 2009, at the age of 30, Dave Smith was working long hours at an accounting firm in San Luis Obispo, on California’s central coast, and he wasn’t happy. “It was fluorescent lighting, no windows, not much interaction with people, lots of paperwork. I hated it,” he told me this summer. Two or three times a week, his frustration would peak, and he would get up and walk out the door. “I would have no intention of going back,” he says. But inevitably, he would remember that he had infant twins at home to support and talk himself into returning to his desk.

After four years of this unhappiness, Smith quit his job with the large firm and moved his family to a remarkable, under-the-radar area, located on the outskirts of the town of Morro Bay, known as the Beach Tract. Tucked between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, the neighborhood is made up of modest, single-story ranch houses with low-lying roofs, all a short walk from the shoreline. A combination of zoning restrictions enforced by the California Coastal Commission and its distance from the anxious wealth of San Francisco and Los Angeles has allowed the Beach Tract to support a core of young, middle-class families attracted to easy access to ocean sports and a laid-back sense of community. As Smith explains, it’s the type of place where it’s understood that, on good surf days, “You drop everything, cancel all your meetings, and get on the water.” 

To make ends meet, Smith started his own CPA practice that’s focused on tax preparation for individuals in the community. During the three months leading up to the April tax deadline, Smith works long days preparing his clients’ returns, but during the other nine months of the year, he rarely works more than a dozen hours per week. As if to make up for the time lost in the fluorescent prison of his old job, Smith has dedicated his newfound free hours to aggressive leisure pursuits. His house is a three-minute walk from the surf, and he can see the conditions from his window. On a good day, he surfs a couple hours in the morning, goes for a mountain-bike ride around lunch, and then plays an afternoon round of golf. “I call this the trifecta,” he says. There are so many outdoor activities available in the area—including kitesurfing, fishing, sailing, and mountain climbing—that Smith came to accept he had to become more selective with his recreation. “I can only do so many,” he jokingly complained.

For lots of people, Smith’s story sounds like a fairy tale. The idea of leaving a grim job to move to the beach and embrace “trifecta” days is appealing in large part because it touches on our primal affinity for leisure. In her 1999 book Deep Play, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman argues that intense play is fundamental to the human experience. “It’s organic to who and what we are, a process as instinctive as breathing,” she writes. The health and fitness guru Mark Sisson agrees, emphasizing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed extended sessions of “pure, unadulterated leisure time.” This wasn’t just because it was fun, but also because it provided “a vital component of communal living and social cohesion.”

But at the same time, stories like Smith’s can be frustrating, because they often involve a protagonist making a dramatic move to someplace exotic while drastically reducing their work obligations. Most people who aspire to more unadulterated leisure can’t easily upend their lives in this way, leaving them feeling wistful and resigned. There is, however, another option. While researching my most recent book, Digital Minimalism, I stumbled across a way in which almost anyone in our current, overworked culture can inject significantly more quality leisure into their life without requiring a move near the ocean or radical job change. In other words, there’s a way to practically embrace the same spirit that drove Smith’s life-changing transformation. It starts with taking a closer look at your relationship with the device on which you’re probably reading this article right now.

In recent years, it has become increasingly common for people to express unease about their smartphones. As a computer scientist who also writes about the impact of technology on culture, I decided there might be an interesting book lurking in this cultural shift, so I began researching the topic more seriously in 2016.

Early in this process, I set up an experiment. I sent a note to my e-mail newsletter subscribers asking for volunteers who would be willing to spend 30 days abstaining from what I called “optional personal technology,” a category which included social media, video games, streaming media, online news, and idle web surfing. This was a big ask, so I expected that, at most, a few dozen brave souls would agree to participate. I even imagined that I would talk to them regularly on the phone so I could detail their stories in my book. But I had underestimated my readers’ frustration with their devices: more than 1,600 people signed up. They were a diverse group, comprised of students, parents, overworked executives, and retirees, from all over the world. What unified them was a collective exhaustion with how much of their lives they were dedicating to screens.

As the experiment unfolded, these volunteers began sending me reports on their experience. For most it took about a week to lose the knee-jerk urge to check their phones at every brief moment of boredom. After this point, they tended not to miss the services that had previously occupied so much of their attention. (It turns out, you can still keep up with friends without compulsively checking social media and be aware of what’s going on in the world without monitoring breaking news tweets.) The real surprise turned out to be how much free time they suddenly had in their schedule once they put aside their devices. “After the first week, I honestly felt like crying with joy at the freedom I was experiencing,” one of the participants told me, while another admitted: “I actually felt a little odd the first two days when I realized I had so much free time.”

These volunteers had unwittingly lost so many minutes to their phones that they found it challenging at first to figure out what to do with these newly unearthed holes in their schedule. “I am positively terrified,” one of the volunteers admitted early in the experiment. Some even dropped out rather than face the challenge of undistracted time. But those who persevered past this shock did so largely by rejuvenating their leisure lives. Boredom is a powerful motivator, and when digital distractions are removed, classic sources of recreation once again play an important role in crafting a satisfying day.

Many of the participants restarted long-dormant reading habits (“fat books!”) and spent more time engaging in deep conversations with family and friends. Some found fulfillment in home repair, while others returned to creative hobbies like writing, painting, and, in multiple cases, recreational computer programming—which turns out to be a real thing. One young woman raved about architectural Lego building (“a wonderful outlet”). Perhaps not surprisingly, many also invested energy into rigorous outdoor-leisure activities of the type Dave Smith might approve of. Running clubs were mentioned several times, along with biking and long walks. Some participants returned to recreational sports teams or began training in specific athletic skills, like stand-up paddleboarding or Brazilian jujitsu.

This case study exemplifies how almost anyone can significantly upgrade the amount of high-quality leisure in their life. If you’re like many of the people who participated in my experiment, your phone has probably colonized much more of your free time than you realize. If you’re willing to dramatically reduce its role in your leisure, you’ll likely be surprised by how much more meaningful recreation you’ll be able to fit into the typical day.

To succeed with this free-time transformation, ignore your initial instinct to simply tweak your habits. In my experience, small changes like turning off notifications or shuffling the icons on your smartphone don’t stick. The technological and cultural forces attracting you to your screens are too powerful. Instead, I suggest you follow the same general structure as my experiment: pick a length of time during which you take a break from all optional digital distractions, and allow the resulting boredom to motivate you to aggressively pursue higher-quality alternatives. The goal is to lose your taste for easy digital diversions and reacquire an attraction to more nourishing pursuits. 

The piece that separates this strategy from the increasingly popular digital-detox concept is that it’s not just about what you avoid but also about figuring out what you should do with your time instead. Stepping away from distracting technology while making no effort to replace it with something better invites backsliding. Seeking meaningful alternatives is so crucial that in Digital Minimalism I suggest that people map out detailed leisure plans to break down their goals, such as achieving a new personal record or finishing a craft project, into weekly milestones and daily habits. 

For example, instead of just resolving to ride your bike more, you might set up a weekly mileage goal and then put in place a daily training habit that will help you reach it. To many people, the idea of forming such structured plans might seem like overkill. Indeed, one reviewer even made fun of me for this suggestion, noting that building these plans “sounds like the least fun thing ever.” But this reaction underestimates the degree to which many have lost familiarity with long-term commitment in an age of instant gratification—a little structure turns out to be quite helpful in regaining comfort with satisfying difficulty.

At first glance, the approach that I outline for reclaiming leisure might not seem as glamorous as Dave Smith leaving his soul-numbing office job for 12-hour workweeks by the ocean. But the impact of leaving behind nights of mindless scrolling to fit in another trail run or a sunset ultimate Frisbee match can be similarly powerful. Activities pursued for no reason other than their intrinsic value play a crucial role in the human experience. When your phone is your constant companion, such activities get pushed to the periphery. When it’s not, you’ll find you had more time than you realized for these vital pursuits. 

Cal Newport is a computer-science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

Lead Photo: Ovidiu Gruescu/Unsplash