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

I stopped distracting myself with TV and podcasts

When I get anxious — before I even realize it — my thoughts multiply and race. I feel overwhelmed because I’m literally thinking about five or six things at once.

My first instinct is to grab my phone. A cute video of a domesticated raccoon should soothe me, right? It never works: My social feeds are always chock-full of world news, soft launches and influencers on vacations I’ll never afford.

I used to ask a friend to change my Instagram password for a couple of days. A seven-day break from Twitter and TikTok reduced levels of depression and anxiety in a small randomized trial, U.K.-based University of Bath researchers found last year.

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.”

As I worked in silence, the unpleasant thoughts still came and went. But without calling someone to discuss each one, they passed more quickly and less painfully. I could retrace my mental steps to determine why I was upset, or if I was actually bothered at all.

I’ve started going on walks without my AirPods almost daily. It helps me gauge how I’m feeling, even if it’s just a short walk to Joe Coffee. Once or twice per week, I tell friends I can only Facetime for a few minutes, so I can use the rest of my post-work downtime to quietly recharge.

Often, on those walks, I think about something McDaniel told me earlier this year about the Daoist conception of water: “If you throw dirt in the water, and you just wait, the dirt settles at the bottom and the water remains clear.”

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