How To Go Offline In 2024

From Time Famine to Time Rich, With Productivity Expert Dr. Christian Poensgen

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What you will learn:

  • Use “Intermittent Digital Fasting” to reduce your smartphone use.

  • Explore practical strategies, such as “Intention Cards”, to effectively manage distractions and reclaim your time from digital devices.

  • Learn how cultivating self-awareness and disconnecting from technology can fuel creativity, boost productivity, and foster a greater sense of purpose in your daily life.

⏲️ Reading time: 6 minutes

There is a direct correlation between quality time and the absence of my phone. Duh, you might say.

So I vowed for the new year to spend less time on my phone.

I spend a lot of time on my phone. All family logistics run over WhatsApp. I have improved, but I am still not great at keeping boundaries. I feel an obligation to answer all messages. Granted, it is a self-inflicted wound. My album production (20+ people involved) and course business (5+ people involved) runs mainly on WhatsApp. I also created a coaching offering where my clients can message me whenever needed. 

Trust me, I am no beginner at productivity. And likely, neither are you. 

Here is what I have done so far, maybe you’ll still find some inspiration:

  1. My colleague Maria sorts out my email and business WhatsApp on work days and handles all administrative requests.

  2. I have moved most non-urgent, recurring discussions to asynchronous 1x1 agendas with a recurring invite (i.e. if I have an idea for my business partner Laura, I will add it to my 1x1 with her rather than texting her… unless I am too excited)

  3. I have automated logistical choices (HelloFresh makes our dinner planning easy)

  4. I have installed a “project manager” for every major project: Maria takes responsibility for Rethink Careers GmbH and the Bachmann Coaching GmbH, and my producer Charis coordinates all musicians involved in the production of my album.

  5. My notifications are turned off (except for messages from my wife Jessie and my assistant Maria), and I have turned my phone screen to grayscale. 

  6. I am using Opal (app blocking) and Endel (soundscapes to calm my brain) right now (both work), and I have used OneSec (similar to Opal) in the past.

(if you want to find out more about any of these strategies, just let me know)

Here is the most recent intervention I found effective: I no longer carry my phone around. More than that, I try to keep it out of view. 

There’s even scientific evidence from the University of Texas at Austin: Having your smartphone nearby harms focus and task performance, even if the phone is off and in your pocket. The brain is actively working to ignore the phone, and therefore uses mental resources.

My most important commitment for 2024 is to go offline. I want to spend significantly less time with devices. But in February, I still spent way too much time on my phone. 

I’ve heard all the common productivity advice and read all the books. So where to go from here? My friend Dr. Christian Poensgen is a productivity expert and the author of the free "Beyond Productivity" newsletter.

I reached out to Christian to understand what else I can do to unplug, what really works. Here is what I learned: 

He told me about a paradox described by Harvard professor Ashley Whillans: we have more free time than any generation before us. But life in the digital era does not feel restful. 

The reason: “time confetti”. 

As our leisure time gets fractured by digital technology, we use our free time for tiny bits of easy, fast distraction. Thus, our free time only comes in tiny snippets. This time confetti makes us experience “time famine” (or feeling hungry for time), as researcher Leslie Perlow calls it. Like in a hunger famine, we're constantly triaging and stressed – even in our leisure time.

Good lord, how I feel time famined in recent months! 

DallE’s rendition of time confetti vs focus.

Let’s cut back to the chase. How can I let go of my damn phone?

Christian shares a strategy akin to intermittent fasting, but for our digital lives: Intermittent Digital Fasting. It's straightforward: limit your screen time to the critical hours, not the first and last of your day. This method is the most effective tactic to keep your daily screen engagement under 90 minutes, avoiding the fragmented time that leaves us feeling perpetually unsatisfied. 

In simple words, here's how it works:

  • Put your phone (and all other screens except your e-reader) to rest an hour before bed. Don’t charge your phone next to your bed. Use a traditional alarm clock to wake you. My daughter Zoe does a great job at it, somewhat consistent between 5.15AM and 7AM ;)

  • In the morning, let your smartphone “sleep in” for an hour longer than you do. This might challenge you at first, but it becomes more manageable with each passing day. Fill the void with activities that enrich your day. For me, that’s planning my day using my journal. This is the most impactful part of the strategy. Try to keep it up as long as possible into the morning!

  • If you want to advance your digital fasting practice, apply it throughout your day. Start with device-free meals. (Make it a game among friends or family: whoever reaches for their phone first does the dishes or picks up the bill.)

I have been trying it out for several weeks, and the knock-on effects are surprising: I start my day more refreshed, especially in the mornings. I notice a reclaimed sense of time, purpose, and focus. I also became a very annoying advocate, telling my wife to put away her phone about five times a day. You can learn more about “Intermittent Digital Fasting” in this article from Christian.

Becoming aware of our triggers

Procrastination - and that’s what most phone use actually is - often has its reasons. 

As I delved deeper into reclaiming my time from digital distractions, I had a crucial insight. Understanding the triggers for my phone use was key to breaking free from its grip. It wasn't just about limiting screen time. It was about fixing the root causes that led me to reach for my phone. This journey into self-awareness brought me face-to-face with an uncomfortable truth.

Procrastination often hid deeper feelings of fatigue and overwhelm.

With this awareness came a newfound commitment to confront these challenges head-on. Here's how spotting our triggers can lead to a more focused and intentional life.

There are two underlying questions that we really have to answer if we want to deal with distraction.

1 – Can we get better at dealing with this discomfort? 

Author Nir Eyal makes an excellent case for it in a LinkedIn post he recently shared. 

2 Can we become even clearer about what we really, really want to achieve and stop once we’re done?

Most of the time when I procrastinate with my phone, I actually feel tired and overwhelmed. And because I am tired, I don't realize my planned task is poorly organized. Which is why my brain takes the path of least resistance... into some distraction.

There are two ways I am bringing this to life:

  • Intention Cards: When I pick up my phone or open social media, at least while at my desk, I grab a notecard and write down the reason for using the phone or socials. If I catch myself being pulled into some feed, I refocus on the task and try to plan it out in smaller chunks. The paper note keeps me accountable.

  • Goal Setting: The more I hone my intentions on a quarterly, weekly and daily level, the more confident I start into my day. If I plan the evening before, I don't even need to open my phone in the morning. Why? I use pen & paper for it.

For the longest time, I have operated under the assumption that productivity means “doing things”. In recent months, maybe because I’ve embraced creativity as a practice in more areas (music, company building, instructional design, writing), I realized that my unconscious mind needs time to do its work. Especially when I am trying to grasp complex ideas. Neither my phone nor any software helped with those initial stages of inspiration.

I hope sharing my journey helps you go offline more in 2024. 

Please share what works for you! I’d love to hear from you.


PS. If you are into more tactical productivity & performance advice, check out Christian’s free "Beyond Productivity" newsletter.

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