Thanks to the technology, we have never been more connected. We can connect with friends all around the world using our phone. We have live weather updates, real time news, 24/7 coverage of financial markets, we can see what are friends and family are doing and show them what we are doing, what we are thinking, what we are watching, where we are going and who with…
We’re all connected. And it’s great.
But we’re also always ‘on’. When the sun sets we continue to operate. Darkness simply means flicking a switch and virtual daylight is created. Our connection to the world is perpetual. There is no end. As a result, our lives are constantly bombarded stimulants. Whether these stimulants are mere ‘pings’ from message alerts, or melatonin suppressing blue light rays, being connected around the clock alters the body and mind.
This isn’t another blog article about Facebook addiction or those obsessed with their email, nor is it about light. I've already covered light in my article How Technology & Blue Light Is Ruining Sleep. Instead, this article is about what happens when we go without technology. Particularly in the evenings. Dramatically decreasing one's exposure to technology and in turn light exposure, removing those stimulating pings. Removing the tiny ‘artificial suns’ that exist in our modern world. Suns that never set - computer screens, tv's, smart phones, even the glowing 'standby' light on your TV or bedside radio.
If technology & light has such an impact on our body, surely going without it must also have an impact. This is how nature works - yin & yang, life and death, day and night... light and dark.
So why the sudden emphasis on disconnecting and darkness? Well in researching my article 'The Secret To A Great Nights Sleep', I learnt how the body operates under the expectation of light/dark cycles. That's how we're evolved and it's what we are programed for. We need light as much as we need darkness. Disrupting this cycle by looking at your iPhone late at night can have some damaging consequences.
After learning about these negative side effects from light exposure at night and then taking a close look at the environment I was living in, I soon realized how I was out of sync with 'nature'. Sure my diet was on point, but here I was reading articles on my iphone 4-5 hours after the sun had set. I was sending signals to my body that the sun was up when it was approaching midnight. Not only that, I was always ‘on’. I understood the importance of taking breaks from the gym and from work, but now I was connected to the world 24/7.
This had to change. I help clients (and myself) enhance performance through optimal health. I had realized that living in accordance to nature's light cycles was an important piece in achieving optimal health. I also understood the importance of weekend escapes. I could have taken the shortcut path – booked the odd weekend away and followed my recommendations I made in this article – switching off my phone earlier in the evening, reading paper back books instead of an ereader, or wear my Blueblocker glasses at night. But no, I'm an all or nothing kind of guy.
'All' in this situation meant no technology past sundown. No technology also meant no artificial light. Realizing this was going to be practically impossible given the fact that the sun set around 6pm (I live in Sydney Australia, and it was late winter/springtime) and my partner and I sometimes didn't get home until -7pm, my girlfriend and I decided (yes my girlfriend was happy to play along) to run an experiment with one simple rule:
No technology past sundown for 5 weeks.
Why would one even consider putting themselves through such a restrictive, even crazy experiment? Well some of the reasons are covered in detail in my Blue Light article, but for those who haven't read it the benefits we were seeking included:
But I also wanted to see if I could break my addiction to technology and the internet. I always wanted to know what was going on in the world and stay on top of my emails. Sometimes this desire to be 'connected' meant disconnecting from my loved ones in my immediate surrounding. I knew this was backwards and I needed it to change.
The practicality of avoiding technology in the form of phones and computers was going to be easy. I would simply turn them off in the evening. But avoiding artificial light was going to be more of a challenge.
I live on the 4th floor of a 10 story apartment located in one of Sydney's most densely populated suburbs. From our windows we can see over 50 apartment buildings. There is a streetlight lined road running at our door step. And worse than all of this is the fact that outside our bedroom window is a 24 hour, multi story car parking building - full of ridiculously bright flood lights.
My Home - Not the best sleeping environment if you're after darkness! (Image from Destination NSW)
We have so much artificial night in our bedroom at night that even with the lights off it's possible to read a book with the blinds down. This meant that our one rule of no technology past sundown wouldn't necessarily achieve the goal of blocking artificial light exposure come sun down. So we added in a few additional rules. These included:
1. No light emitting technology could be used past 7pm (sunset was about 6pm) - All electronics would be switched off at the wall. Phones would be turned off and not used again until sunrise.
2. No electronic light sources to be used - light bulbs were removed from their light fixtures, any devices that had emitted light would be switched off at the wall. This even meant removing the light bulb from the fridge.
3. Candles could be used. Yes I know this is a form of 'technology', but fire has been used for 2 million years and I needed to make sure I wasn't peeing on the floor...
4. All outside light would be blocked from entering our apartment. This required drastic home 'modifications'. Including towels placed along the bottom of our main door and aluminum foil installed on our windows.
5. To reduce the effects from any 'light leaks' coming in from the outside world, we were to wear BlueBlockers come sundown. Eating, reading, cooking were all done wearing these uber cool glasses (good thing no one could see in right?!).
Tin Foil on my windows - Yes I was taking this experiment seriously!
Firstly - I didn't break any of the rules during the 5 week experiment. I say 'I' as there were a few nights when my girlfriend didn't wear her Blueblockers, and one night where she had to work an hour past sundown. But otherwise we stuck to the program.
There were a lot of positive outcomes, some as expected (such as sleep improvements), but some that I hadn't even considered and were possibly more beneficial to us as a couple than the benefits of deeper sleep. I run through these positive outcomes in detail below:
As expected, my sleep improved big time. Melatonin production wasn't disrupted by looking at a bright screen late at night. I was falling asleep with ease and would sleep through the night (for the first few weeks at least - more on this below). As we didn't have any technology in the house come night time, I had no idea as to what time I was going to sleep. I didn’t even wear my Sleep tracker Oura Ring.
My guess was that my 'sleep times' would have ranged from as early as 8pm to as late as 10pm on a few nights. Not knowing the time was surprisingly refreshing. As an online coach/personal trainer, my life is tied to my calendar. But come '7pm switch off' you would be flying blind in regards to knowing the time so to speak. I often tell my clients 'pick a regular bed time and stick to it'. In fact I practice that myself.
At first not knowing how far away 'bed time' was a little unnerving. But as the weeks went by I soon learned to stop worrying about this and simply listen to my body. The body does a great job of telling us what we should be doing. As the experiment continued, I found that the more I listened and worked with the body, the easier and faster you fell asleep. I'm certain that there wasn't a regular sleep time either. Some nights I crashed not long after sundown. Other nights I seemed to stay up a lot longer. As a coach I learnt a key lesson from this, listening to your body is more important than listening to a fancy app or device, a clock, or even a coach for that matter.
Prior to this experiment I used to set my alarm for 6:30am every morning. It was a rare occasion that I would wake without this alarm clock. Within a week of undergoing this 'experiment' I started waking much earlier. In September, the sun rises at about 6am in Sydney, I noticed I was starting to wake earlier and earlier until the point where I was actually waking with the sun rise. Despite all our efforts, there was some natural light leakage in our bedroom. If I woke and couldn't see my hand in front of my face I knew it was still night time. If I could see the outline of my hand I knew the sun was up (or close to rising).
Limiting light and technology obviously means less workable hours. In fact, the invention of the light bulb sparked an industrial revolution as manufacturers could now produce around the clock. However, as someone who is self-employed working from home, having an 'end time' in the day meant less time wastage and better efficiency. If I needed to get an email out I knew it had to be done by 7pm. No ifs or buts.
I'm a big fan of reading. I always have a few books on the go (subscrive to my Newsletter below to hear about my top book picks). But prior to this experiment I would usually read articles I had cued up in my GetPocket app come night time. Not wanting to forgo this passion and education time, I began printing out articles I wanted to read instead of saving them to GetPocket. Journal studies or blog articles would then be read by candle light come night time.
There was a surprising benefit to this - the ability to jot down notes and highlight key points while reading the article (though finding a highlighter color that is visible through blue blocking glasses in low light conditions was difficult!) Taking notes on an article you are reading is something that I would do throughout my schooling years. Nowadays I mainly read on a screen - an iphone, my macbook air, or a kindle. Technology has made it easier to find content, but nothing beats a pen and paper when it comes to reading and understanding content.
Ok so some of these outcomes may not be that surprising to you. Cut artificial light and you sleep better and work smarter. Great. But here's where things get interesting. The following outcomes manifested naturally, they were not even on my mind going into the experiment, but experiencing the following benefits over the past 5 weeks has led me to reconsider technologies role in our life and what life really is about.
This may sound silly, but it's true - I started looking forward to the small things in life. What do I mean by this? Well I started looking forward to my dinner every night. No I'm not one of these people who finish a meal and immediately start looking forward to the next, I'm talking about looking forward to the experience of a meal - the tastes and flavors, the company, the thought of being able to sit down and switch off.
Prior to this experiment, dinner with my girlfriend of 4 years was more of a daily routine. Going home from work you would be thinking about what emails you had to send, what clients I had to message, oh and what you would eat for dinner. But as we turned technology and light off, my thoughts would focus on food, company and conversation. It sounds silly right, but I think in today's fast paced world we just take these things for granted. We eat while flicking through facebook, or watching TV, or working away emails…
Not only would I look forward to dinner with my girlfriend, I would also look forward to reading my book, or spending time with my. The small things become big things. If you're struggling to get your head around this, I present this analogy - think of a time when you were starving, ravenous. You finally sit down to a meal, it's nothing flash, run of the mill spaghetti bolognaise that you have every week. Yet because you are so hungry it tastes AMAZING. Better than ever. The experience is bliss.
Now take this feeling, this experience, and imagine you could experience this every night. Now compound this experience with a clear state of mine, free from modern distractions. A mind that is tuned into the experience happening then in there. The food or the event hasn't changed, all that changed was your mindset and environment around the event. It's no different to a busy office worker who rushes past a blooming bed of roses every day. Then one day he's not running late (distraction free) he decides to stop and smell the roses. The small things in life really are quite pleasurable! We just have to stop to notice them.
I've been with my girlfriend for nearly 4 years. Living with her for 2. We get on great, we spend a lot of time together. We talk frequently, discussing holiday ideas, sharing thoughts etc. But something happened after this 'experiment'. Our conversations changed. In fact, ‘conversation’ is probably the wrong word. 'Statements' is probably better suited. Anyone who has been in a long term relationship and who has a lot going through their mind (work, hobbies, business ideas, bills to pay, that funny video they watched on facebook, what movie to see tonight etc) will understand what I mean. A typical 'conversation' is short, abrupt comments - Here is an example: 'How was your day?' Good and yours?' Yeah it was ok, tiring' Oh ok. Well you find a movie to watch and I'll clean up." “Ok”.
Rather sad really. The back and forth 'statements' never really transition into a conversation, let alone progressing to a point where you are talking about deep and meaningful topics while the evening hours whittle by unnoticeably.
So guess what happened when the lights, tv and phone when off? We conversed, deep, meaningful, long conversations. Just the two of us. Talking about everything and anything. Not just silly gossip, but ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies. It reminded me of the first few months in our relationship - when you wanted to know everything about this new person in your life. Their stories, their dreams, their values, their laughter.
Conversations like this seemed to bring you together, a sense of closeness, bonding, where everything around you disappears for the moment. I have experienced states of flow on the sports field, but I never thought it was possible by simply having an engaging conversation with someone!
Obviously these conversations weren't happening every night, but there were happening a lot more frequently than when we had our cell phones next to us on the table. I have a few theories as to what brought on this change. Having the time to talk was a big one (what else do you do when you have no power, minimal light and no phones), but the lack of distraction was the key. There was nothing to interrupt this flow state. No beeps, no vibrations, no 'oh my tv show is about to start'. Not only this, but there was no temptation. My phone is always on silent. When I look at my phone I see who's called, who's messaged, what's new. The problem is that I look at my phone to see what’s new far too frequently.
If my girlfriend would get up to go the bathroom, I'd check my phone to see what’s new. No notifications? No worries, there is always something new on facebook. Removing these distractions and temptations meant your mind stayed on topic. Now when my girlfriend headed to the bathroom, I'd have time process that last comment she made - sparking another thought... continuing into that state of flow.
A lot of the above was fabricated from an environment with less distractions. But there was one final consequence of 'switching off' that had a profound effect on my life. Having time to think.
Crazy huh?! We think all the time right? But do we? When I walk to the gym or the shops I have a podcast playing in my ears. If I'm travelling, I'll be reading. If it’s a wet weekend I'll watch a documentary or read a book... I never stop. I actually don't like stopping. I see 'breaks' as opportunities to work or learn. But switching off at night allowed my mind to wander.
Yes sometimes I read, but other nights I found myself literally staring at the wall for a good 45minutes... simply thinking. It used to freak my girlfriend out. Sometimes she'd be reading in bed and I'd be lying next to her simply staring at the ceiling deep in thought. She hated it… 'at least stare into a book, you're giving me the creeps' she would proclaim! I remember one night when she was in bed reading, I had been sitting on the floor in the living room for at least 30minutes with a candle next to me flickering away. She popped her head into the room and said "I'm going to sleep, will you be long?" I responded "Give me a few more minutes, I just need to a bit more time to think".
I'm not making this up!
It's all about switching off - we take rest days from our training. We shut down our bodies at night when we sleep, we take holidays for breaks from our work. Everyone understands the importance of these things. But in today’s fast paced world we never slow down. Jump on a train or bus at peak hour. Count how many people are using phones or reading. Then compare this to someone simply day dreaming out the window. I can assure you there won't be many simply 'thinking'. We've outsourced our thoughts to musicians, authors & podcasters.
Yes, during this 5 week period my sleep improved, my productivity was more efficient, and my relationship was strengthen. But I feel like I reawakened my mind. I had time to think, to process, to plan, to strategize.
In fact, during this 5 week period I developed two business plans in my head. One of which is now a live business - www.blueblockers.co and the other will be launched next year. By stopping it meant a loss of short term gain (not reading/learning/working), but it allowed me to lay a foundation for long term success. Not only that, but my thoughts allowed me to reflect on the profound impact that this experiment was having on my life. There's probably someone reading this thinking 'Oh geeze, you are writing about the benefits of thinking as if it's something you just invented….
I personally felt that for all my adult life I had always been 'on'. By removing distractions - light, technology - I freed up my mind.
Boredom led to innovation.
If you think I'm getting all 'woo-woo' here I want to share a paper by Mandred Ket de Vries titled 'Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom'. In this report, Ket de Vries shares a story how 500 years ago, an eccentric artist was commissioned to sculpt a figure out of marble stone. The artist made very slow progress to the concerns of many. The artist would simply turn up and sit in front of the unworked marble stone for hours on end. Friends would ask what he was doing, the artists responsded "I'm working".
Years later, the artist completed his work. The piece - The great statue of David. The artist -Michelangelo.
A product of lack of distraction
Ke de Vries explains in his report how it can be beneficial to do nothing. Michelangelo later claimed that he had to see the angel in the marble before he could carve him to set him free. Now I'm not comparing myself to Micheleangelo here, but I think there is a lot we can take away from this story. Look around your life, how many distractions do you have? When do you simply disconnect?
The final benefit of going without technology was a change in sleep patterns. I noticed after about 3 or 4 weeks I began waking in the middle of the night. I have no idea what time it was. I was falling asleep fine and continued to wake feeling refreshed so I was puzzled as to what was happening. After doing some research I learnt of Bi-Modal sleep and an experiment conducted by Thomas Wehr. Wehr had volunteers live in complete darkness for 14 hours each night. After 3 weeks a sleep pattern emerged in the volunteers. However, what happened after this surprised Wehr - "another [sleep] state emerged, not sleep, not active wakefulness, but quiet rest with an endocrinology all its own."
The BBC covered this topic in their article 'The myth of the eight-hour sleep'. Apparently waking in the middle of the night was the norm not the exception as it is today. People would wake in half dream like states and mediate, dream, have sex, feed their baby or just think. Upon learning this I realized I would be silly to stress over these middle of the night awakenings. Instead I used this time to think. I continued working on my business ideas, I planned my days tasks, I even thought about how I would share this journey in a blog! After sometime I always drifted back to sleep and woke feeling great - I didn't crave coffee or long for a nap.
Despite the favorable benefits of my light experiment, there were a few downsides. Obviously it was very restrictive. We couldn't eat out for dinner, our social life was limited to day time activities and I annoyed a few clients as I was unreachable come evening time.
There were also a few 'annoyances'. We spilt candle wax far too many times. Candle wax gets everywhere and is a nightmare to clean... especially when it gets in the carpet (note - use paper towels and a semi warm iron, don't go to hot or you'll melt the carpet!). Cleaning in general is hard, every morning we would wake up to discover we had missed some food on the bench. And though this didn't bother me, my girlfriend did miss watching a movie or two on the weekends. We're don't watch TV but occasionally we would put on a movie on a cold sunday night. After 35 nights of darkness, books and conversations I started to empathize with her loss!
Given the profound changes we experienced as a result of this experiment you would think I would never stop right? Well as much as I would personally like to continue switching off at 7pm every night, I have to consider society, my business and my girlfriend!
But rather than going back to bright lights and late night movies, we have implemented a few 'soft rules'. For instance, I continue to turn off my phone and computer at night (usually around 730pm). The router is off, so we have no connection to the outside world. We continue to wear blueblocker glasses come sun down. And we still go low blue light. Though we've upgraded from candles to red light LEDs.. Our apartment now looks like an Amsterdam red light sex booth come night time.
The tin foil is still on the windows, and the fridge remains light bulb less. We continue to talk over dinner and read books or printouts at night. We will occasionally watch a movie or go out for dinner. But as the day is longer as we head into summer, we find that we're still going to bed 1 or 2 hours past sundown anyway.
I continue to sleep amazingly. I have learnt the importance of switching off and will regularly go for walks without any technology on me. Some nights I continue to lay and 'think' well staring blankly at a book. I also continue to help individuals with their sleep issues and have put together a free resource for those who want to learn more ways to sleep better – you can see this resource here.
This 5 week sleep & light experiment really did change us. I sound surprised yet I shouldn't be. I eat a diet that is in line with our ancestors as this makes perfect sense to me from a health point of view. It is also obvious that we should be Living according to our natural light cycles for optimal health. But it's not only living with less artificial light, it's living with less artificial technology.
And just think, by switching off at night, you might be the next Michelangelo!
For more ways to improve your sleep be sure to sign up for my free 4 part sleep improvement series or be sure to view my Sound Asleep Sleep Improvement Course. If you enjoyed this article please leave a comment below, if it has inspired you to make some changes in your own life please let me know. I really do love hearing from my readers!