How living like a monk for 48 hours helped me break my bad habits

It’s unusual for me to go 48 seconds without talking or checking my phone, let alone two days.

I was inspired by the University of Pennsylvania’s “monk class,” actually called “Living Deliberately.” It requires students to “observe a code of silence” and “abstain from using all electronic communications” for one month, the university’s website says.

Some class alumni report feeling calmer and hesitant to rejoin their social and virtual worlds, professor Justin McDaniel told me in June. Abstaining from conversation and technology means making fewer decisions. Monks believe that makes you more mentally available for epiphanies, he said.

I wanted to achieve that level of awareness, but my livelihood depends on my voice and three-pound work laptop. My editor agreed to a truncated trial period: I’d stay physically and virtually silent from a Sunday afternoon until a Tuesday afternoon, so my experiment could cover the weekend, a remote workday, and an in-office day.

It seemed daunting. Personality tests show I’m anywhere from 94% to 98% extroverted. I crave connection constantly. When I feel uncomfortable, I start conversations or distract myself with social media and podcasts.

That’s likely a sign I’m avoiding other feelings, so says my therapist. But during my 48-hour “monk” trial, I noticed something: Without my phone and other people, I was more aware of my emotions, making it easier to squash three of my peskiest anxiety-driven habits.

I lessened the impulse to check my phone

At first, I had to turn my phone off and physically put it in a drawer in another room to stop thinking about it. After about 30 minutes, the itch faded. I stopped dwelling on who was looking at my Instagram story.

I usually take weeks to finish a book, but I read 200 pages of Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake” that evening.

The next morning, I started my remote workday, using pre-printed research and interview transcripts to handwrite a 500-word article. Using a pencil, I wrote two drafts in less than 40 minutes — the time it typically takes me to type one story. Removing the temptation to check my phone between every sentence sped up my writing.

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My memory felt sharper, too. Most days, when an idea hits me, I have to frantically write it in my notes app or forget it in seconds. Instead, I remembered those light-bulb moments hours later.

When my experiment ended, I was hesitant to take my phone out of the drawer, just like McDaniel’s students. As a compromise, I’m more intentional about my social media time now.

My phone locks my social apps after a combined hour per day. I’ve hit “Ignore Limit” a couple times, but seeing the notification reminds me to check in with myself. I’ve blocked my access to TikTok and Twitter, now known as X, before 9 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

Three weeks later, I really do feel less emotionally tethered to my phone.

I stopped distracting myself with TV and podcasts

Three weeks later, I really do feel less emotionally tethered to my phone.

During my 48 hours, I realized I hadn’t been going far enough. Without television, podcasts, music or texting, I felt even better than I did on Instagram hiatuses.

When I rejoined the world, my anxiety returned. A couple nights ago, I started re-rehearsing a disagreement with a friend. My brain quickly seized on other insecurities: Did my coworker think my anecdote about denim jackets was weird? God, I really need to start running more.

When I noticed my internal monologue’s rising hum, I turned off my television, threw my phone in the drawer and went for a walk. Almost instantly, my thoughts and heart rate slowed.

I stopped ‘crowdsourcing’ my emotions — and felt better

I tend to seek out guidance when I don’t need it. Should I buy the blue or the orange purse? Should I text my ex-boyfriend? I already know the answers, but I ask others for input anyway.

The extra advice can cloud my judgment. Some of McDaniel’s students do the same thing, he told me — and while asking for help is often important, we don’t always need other people to tell us how to feel.

“You have to learn how to be bored,” McDaniel said. “Or sit with feelings of anger or sadness or loneliness, without crowdsourcing your emotions to your friends.”

You have to learn how to be bored. Or sit with feelings of anger or sadness or loneliness, without crowdsourcing your emotions to your friends.

Justin McDaniel

Professor, University of Pennsylvania

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