Listening to our political leaders argue over policy, it’s easy to forget that economic debates are supposed, ultimately, to be about wellbeing.
Economists look at the scarcity of things we like or need, and the abundance of things we don’t, and try to turn those situations around.
With that idea in mind, I set out in February to reduce the ‘abundance’ of a couple of harmful aspects of my life, and thereby make space for a bit more wellbeing.
I joined friends abstaining from alcohol for ‘FebFast’, and I put aside a much newer habit – my smartphone.
Ditch the grog, and the blog
Going cold turkey with the booze, which I’ve done a few times before, wasn’t too hard for me this time around.
For that, I’m grateful – the interaction of alcohol and the modern epidemics of stress, anxiety and depression mean that for certain people, or at certain times of life, it can be a huge challenge.
Its most noticeable effect was a bit more energy, and a bit more time to do healthy things such as walking the dogs at the beach.
The smartphone, however, is where the real experiment lay – because unlike the wine we’ve quaffed for millennia, it’s still very new.
The eight years smartphones have been available in Australia have been time enough to discover some of the downsides of these amazing devices – that they can be intrusive, counterproductive and harmfully addictive for some people.
By giving mine away for a month, and instead carrying a ‘dumbphone’ that could pretty much just make calls and send text messages, I wanted to know if my sense of wellbeing would change, but also how it would change my productivity as a journalist.
We know, already, that across a range of occupations workers are being caught out for wasting time on their phones.
But for many occupations the problem can go much further. You can find yourself working around the clock, though not necessarily ‘producing’ more.
In economic terms, that’s a decline in labour productivity, not a gain.
And if the wellbeing of a person compulsively checking their phone decreases, they might be better off with a 1990s-style dumbphone.
At first, it was hard to break the habit of whipping out the handset.
Watching TV with my kids, I’d think, “I’d better just see how the market has opened in London…”.
Standing in line at an ATM I’d think, “I wonder if The New York Times has published any more stories in the last 30 minutes”.
After about a week, however, that urge began to fade. When at home on in the office, I made it a rule to sit at my desk and use a laptop to do these kinds of things.
And when I was out and about with the dumbphone I just couldn’t check news, Facebook, Twitter, the weather, or anything else.
The effects of this pattern were quite clear.
Professionally, I read as much as I needed, but in intensive bursts at the desk.
I wrote longer emails to friends and colleagues, or none at all.
I checked social media less and less and realised that I didn’t miss what I didn’t see.
And because I restricted all these activities to the desk, when I wasn’t at the desk I had more time for things I hadn’t done for years.
I actually finished reading some long-form journalism in the print edition of The New Yorker – amazingly it was more interesting than photographs of my Facebook buddies’ latest meals.
I finally made some progress through a weighty but fascinating book I’d bought two years before.
And I walked the dogs, shopped, cycled, or caught trains without stopping every few minutes to check ‘what’s happening’ on the phone.
Whether it was due to Febfast , the ‘dumbphone challenge’, or both, I hadn’t felt so unburdened for years.
And then it happened. Just like a FebFaster walking into a bar, I walked into that buzzing hive of information (and misinformation) known as Parliament House.
On the first day, I tried to get by with the dumbphone, but couldn’t. I could not find my contacts’ phone numbers quickly enough. Sending a text took about 10 minutes. And trying to add a new contact was infuriatingly slow and fiddly.
That revealed to me what is smartest about a smartphone – for me at least. It’s the user interface that allows me to flip from phone to SMS, contact book to calendar and back again in seconds, and to write a quick text, well, quickly.
I stuck to my diet of no email, no internet, no social media unless at a desk, but was hugely more productive with the touch-screen user interface on my smartphone than with the dumbphone.
Is that, then, a marketing opportunity for Samsung or Apple? Nokia or Sony? Could one of them make a phone with all the ease of use of a smartphone, but with none of the distractions? I’d seriously consider buying one.
When I first suggested this experiment to my newsroom colleagues, many said, “I could go a month without booze, but not without my phone”.
Having survived the dumbphone challenge, and felt all the better for doing so, I think I can now reply: “Yes, that’s exactly the point.”