ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Some of my colleagues here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED have been taking up a challenge, trying to be less consumed by their smartphones. Here's the reason. Research suggests that our brains need downtime and that people have some of their most creative ideas when they're bored. But these days we have instant mental simulation at the ready in the form of our phones. And the slightest hint of boredom - say, waiting for the train or standing in an elevator - we can now be working or at least online. Our friends at the WNYC podcast New Tech City came up with a way to quantify screen time and challenged all of us to put down our phones. Seven people on our staff took up the gauntlet, my co-hosts among them. And Audie Cornish is going to pick this up from here. Audie, how did it go?
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Well, in a word, rough. (Laughter).
SIEGEL: You're in withdrawal?
CORNISH: Yes, exactly. The Bored and Brilliant challenge was a challenge to those of us. Here's just a little hint of what we had to go through.
RACHEL ROOD, BYLINE: I did very terribly with this challenge.
MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: Well, it didn't go that well, I guess, if the whole point of this was to get me to use my phone less.
SERRI GRASLIE, BYLINE: I don't know if I'm actually doing any better than I was before.
CORNISH: That's producer Serri Graslie - before her, Melissa Gray and Rachel Rood. Let's see how this has been going for everyone else. Manoush Zomorodi is the host of New Tech City at WNYC and the brains behind much of this challenge. Hey there, Manoush.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.
CORNISH: So let's start with the big picture, right? It wasn't just us. A lot of people seem to resonate with this idea. Just how many people actually signed up?
ZOMORODI: So, Audie, we had more than 18,000 people sign up, and I really think what we learned was that we really struck a nerve with this idea that reflexively checking your phone comes at a mental cost. Seventy percent of those we surveyed before the challenges told us the reason that they signed up was because they just wanted more time to think.
AMANDA ITZKO: This is Amanda from DC. The itch to just pick up my phone and check it is absolutely overwhelming.
ERIC O'RAFFERTY: My name is Eric O'Rafferty, and I'm from Altadena, Calif. Overall, the challenge has been pretty easy for me. My minutes have gone from around 200 a day to below a hundred.
CORNISH: And, Manoush, Eric O'Rafferty there referring to the app we were all using to do this. We downloaded an app that was tracking minutes of screen time and number of times a day the phone is actually picked up. Overall, how did people do?
ZOMORODI: OK. So we were using two hours as our baseline. That's where we started out. And over the course of the week, overall our group did check their phones fewer times each day during challenge week, and they spent fewer minutes on their phone. But, you know, it really was a small amount. It was about four minutes less and a couple fewer phone pickups. But, you know, Audie, what I found so interesting from the survey results that we've just gotten in is almost 90 percent felt somewhat or very confident that they could alter their future phone use habits. And though our data was not done in a lab, we have heard from numerous psychologists and neuroscientists who are curious about this project because there just aren't many studies on the consequences of digital disruption.
CORNISH: And out of that 18,000 number, you've actually broken out team ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - right? - our tiny little data set. How did we do?
ZOMORODI: OK. So team ATC at NPR. You guys went down an overall 10 minutes. But I want to be clear here. There were a couple of you who I think had a hard week (laughter) and even went up.
CORNISH: There were also specific assignments - right? - these little challenges to help us cut down our smartphone activities. Now, again, you're looking at the survey. Any particular challenge that people actually made good progress on?
ZOMORODI: Yeah. We saw that two of the challenges really had an effect. The first one which was keep your phone in your pocket so as you move throughout your day as you're walking down the street or taking the train - that one made a big difference. And the other one that made a difference was deleting that app. I deleted a game that I had been spending way too much time on, and that took a big old chunk out of my numbers. Ninety percent of those that we surveyed said they will try to continue to keep their phone in their pocket, and 50 percent plan on deleting apps, too.
CORNISH: But to get back to the point of the experiment, the idea - right? - is that there are hints that too little time letting our minds wander might actually hurt our creativity.
CORNISH: Again, when you looked at your surveys, do you get a sense that people actually felt more creative when they put their phones down?
ZOMORODI: Well, that we have to rely on anecdotes, Audie. Billy wrote us saying he felt like he came out of mental hibernation. Melissa Gross, a student, said she was stunned - that she felt like she was understanding more at school. You know, how you measure creativity, obviously, is in the eye of the beholder. But really what it shows is that there is a subset of our society that is craving harmony with technology, and I think this group is only going to grow unless we rethink how and where we use it and we put some pressure on technology companies to build our apps and our devices to fit into our lives better.
CORNISH: Manoush, thanks so much for bringing us into the challenge. It was a lot of fun.
ZOMORODI: It was great. Thanks for doing it.
CORNISH: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast New Tech City from our member station WNYC. Now, her show will be all about the challenge this week. And you can still take the challenge. You can still sign up. It's not too late. Find links and more about the results on our blog, npr.org/alltech.
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