How I Kicked Burnout with a Burner Phone: Exploring Technological Isolationism

June 26, 2024

Overwhelmed by constant notifications and digital distractions? Discover how one radical decision transformed my life from digital burnout to mindful presence: the Burner Phone.

Our Digital Overload: Cheap Dopamine

I love living in the Pacific Northwest, mainly because of its close proximity to beautiful nature. Not too long ago, I was on a popular hiking trail near my home with a friend. As we meandered down the path, I happened upon a group of six deer trotting along the Sammamish River’s edge.

A portion of the Sammamish River Trail. How could you not think, "This is beautiful"? You can't.

I gasped in awe and stood there, staring at how beautiful they were. Then, as I looked around… I realized not one of the two dozen people around me saw the deer. Not because the deer didn’t exist — they were right there — but because everyone had their faces buried in their smartphones.

Such is our modern hellscape. As Naval Ravikant said, “The modern devil is cheap dopamine.”

Now, imagine this: you're at dinner, the conversation hits a lull, and out comes all the phones. Heads are down, backs hunched, interaction dead on arrival.

We’ve all done it. Smartphones have become our constant companions, and with them comes an endless barrage of notifications. Dopamine hits disguised as emails, texts, and social media alerts--pings that clutter our mental RAM.

Greg Isenberg said it well: 

Your phone is a shopping mall, casino, office, travel agent, talent show, concert hall, classroom, therapist, business mentor, friend, enemy, news anchor, customer service center, weatherman, cookbook, library, gym, cinema, art gallery, toy store, diary, mirror, bank, GPS, encyclopedia, camera, auction house, bulletin board, nightclub, travel agent, personal assistant, and how you use it says a lot about you.

It’s no wonder we’re all teetering on the edge of burnout;  we're all hooked on the digital heroin of alerts and messages, sleepwalking through our days as prisoners to our devices. 

The truth is, I was once a junkie jonesing for my next dopamine hit - that delicious ding of a notification lighting up my phone, hooked on the digital heroin of alerts and messages, sleepwalking through my days.

Sound familiar? Me too – until I discovered a radical solution that changed my entire life.

A Universal Addiction

Since the beginning of my career, I prided myself on my ability to hustle my ass off and outwork everyone around me. It might be the immigrant family mindset, but I didn’t learn until much later in life that working smarter was an alternative to working harder.

Because of this, I found myself stretched in a million different directions, managing teams, putting out fires, and with my phone constantly blowing up.

I found myself constantly stressed, anxious, and depressed — so much to the point that one day, I reached a point where I seriously considered driving into the desert unannounced, never to be found again. Sounds crazy, right? But that's where I was at - mentally checked-out and desperate for an exit ramp from the relentless grind.

Upon reflection, my phone was more handcuff than handset. I was a prisoner to my device: always on, always reachable. The endless pings, bings, and dings kept me tethered to a digital world that distracted me from the real one.

The URL had supplanted the IRL.

The Build Up to the Burner

Like many tech types, my issues with digital burnout had festered for years. 

Way back in 2019, I tried band aid fixes like silencing notifications and removing work apps from my personal phone. But that wasn't enough - the darn thing still captivated my attention with its siren call of endless possibilities and cheap digital highs. 

By August 2022, I knew something had to give before I had a full mental breakdown. 

My solution? Get a freaking burner phone.

At this point you’re probably thinking: “What the hell is a burner phone?!

Well, it spawned from a simple, alluring thought: "If I want to make it so literally no one can reach me, how can I do that?" It made me think of thrillers and action flicks where spies used burner phones that they then threw away. 

It was a seductive inversion: no one could reach them, only they could reach others. 

The concept of owning who could reach me (and therefore, owning my time) became all but irresistible.

It’s not a stretch to say that I can divide my life into two discrete phases: BB and AB.

Before Burner (BB), I was just another overwhelmed, stressed-out startup exec. 

After Burner (AB), I’ve found calm, presence, and mindfulness.

Deciding on a Burner

I know what you're thinking - a burner phone, really? 

Hear me out. I explored tons of possibilities. At first, I thought I would get an iPad with Internet access, so I could do the basics: navigate using GPS, call 911 if my life was in danger, and read. But I needed something portable and bare-bones, with cellular capabilities for safety, and with as little temptation as possible. 

An Android wasn't an option since I'm an Apple zombie. Apple Watch with 4G wasn’t an option either, because navigating on Maps is too difficult on a 1.5” screen. And flip phones (dumbphones) are too limited for the things I wanted to do, like Maps or reading.

So an iPhone it was.

Eventually, I settled on the cheapest, crappiest iPhone I could find: the frustratingly limited iPhone SE. It was perfect for what I needed - staying connected for emergencies, but too basic, banal, and boring to enable any digital addiction. 

My unbelievably shitty iPhone SE; it's so boring it makes my eyes bleed and I'd rather read a dictionary than use it.

Going cold turkey was tough, and like any addiction, the pangs of anxiety and beads of sweat were part of the withdrawal process. Setting up my “technological isolationism" wasn't easy: I essentially had to live a double-life, keeping my personal world separate from work.

When I first told people about my burner phone, the reactions were priceless. “So, this is your work phone?” they’d ask. “No,” I’d reply, “this is my leave-me-the-fuck-alone phone.” 

The mental incongruence was real—how could someone as connected and extroverted as me need such isolation?

My regular smartphone became a "connected" phone: there, I could talk to my friends, schedule meetings, and do most basic things. Meanwhile, this janky little burner became my one-and-only personal connection to the world. No social media, no emails, no work stuff whatsoever. Just me and utilitarian apps like the Calm meditation app, the weather, Google Maps, Spotify for podcasts, and Libby for reading. Oh — and obviously, no contacts — this iPhone was a true burner that cut me off from everyone except my husband, and only in case of an emergency.

These are all the apps I need to function: reading apps, the weather, something to control my thermostat, you get the idea. I don't keep anything else on it. It's BORING.

The Benefits of Isolationism

This shitty iPhone SE straight-up changed my entire life and rescued my mental health.

Without the endless stimulation of a smartphone, I was finally able to calm down, be present, and embrace mindfulness. A whole array of amazing habits flourished, like getting up at the crack of dawn, meditating consistently, and being an attentive human when engaging with others face-to-face. 

I’ll write more about my routine another day, but here is the kind of life I have been able to construct on most days, AB (After Burner):

  • 4:00pm: put Personal Phone on wireless charging stand in office. Pick up Burner Phone. Close office door. Only activities allowed on Burner Phone are language learning, reading/podcasts, and meditating.
  • 8:00pm: set alarm for next day on Burner Phone. Charge phone.
  • 8:40pm: sleep.
  • Next morning, 4:40am: wake up. Get into workout clothes. Brush teeth. Take Burner Phone.
  • 5:00am: protein coffee and Greek yogurt. Five Minute gratitude journal. Write more if desired in separate journal.
  • 5:30am: meditate.
  • 6:15am: work out.
  • 7:30am: shower.
  • 8:00am: wake up my dog Leia, feed her, and walk her while optionally listening to a podcast.
  • 9:00am: put away Burner Phone, pick up Personal Phone.

I don’t touch my Personal Phone until 9:00am the next day. And some days, when I want even more technical isolationism — I don’t touch that phone at all. I take my Burner Phone with me all day. These are some of my happiest days, even as an extrovert.

Though I was thrilled with my new routine, there was something even more important: my mental health did a complete 180. I finally had breathing room without email dings, unread message counters, and the endless digital shackles weighing me down.

Truly, I can't overstate how liberating and life-changing this simple act of technological isolationism was. By removing all the noise that comes from hyperconnectivity, I was able to be much more intentional about how I spent my time and mental energy. E.O. Wilson’s sage words finally sunk in: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”

For the first time in ages, I was governing my own attention instead of being a humble servant to the apps and people demanding things from me. I finally felt like I had psychic boundaries again.

My Advice: Start Small

I know what you’re thinking - okay, good for you, Regina — but I can’t imagine how batshit crazy I’d have to be to go to the extent of getting a freakin’ burner phone.

You're right, it's an extreme step that won't work for everyone…at least, not right away. 

My advice is to start reining in your digital leashes through small steps first.

Here’s my roadmap for you to start small.

1. Turn off notifications on your phone for everything. 

I’m talking: nothing on your home screen or notification center, no badges, no banners, no sounds, no vibrations, nothing.

The only thing that should have a notification is any security system you have set up for your home, and someone calling you so you can pick it up.

But otherwise, kill those red notification badges that fuel so much shitty dopamine-seeking behavior. It’s more liberating than you know.

2. Delete any unnecessary apps.

Really scrutinize it: do you truly need Slack to ping you at all hours of the day? Or does that just give you the illusion that you’re productive?

For most of us, the answer is fuck no - you don’t need it. It’s just inviting anthills of emails and Slacks into your personal space. Rip the cord out, and uninstall everything.

3. Create sacred, tech-isolationist sanctuaries. 

This is just a fancy way of saying, create no-phone policies in your life. Make your bedroom a sacred, phone-free zone for quality sleep and anything else you do in your bedroom (you know what I mean.)

Commit to having real conversations with real people that are in the same physical space with you. It’s remarkable how simply being present can deepen bonds.

4. Get the Burner.

If you are a tech junkie like I was (and let’s face it, you probably are), you may have to go the extreme and go full hermit. Get yourself a goddamn Burner Phone.

And let’s be clear: this is a phone that you are intentionally not supposed to like. Make it crappy, low-end, and with minimal space to download apps on it. Create a separate Apple ID to have true separation between your Personal Phone and Burner Phone.

And allow yourself to make using the phone suck so much, you don’t even want to pick it up most of the time. It might be more interesting to touch grass than use your phone - and that’s the point.

Broader Cultural Shift

Embracing a burner phone for personal use may seem like an extreme personality quirk. But it taps into something much bigger - the desperate need for all of us to be more mindful and intentional about our relationship with technology and pseudo-connection.

Face it: we all have a phobia of being disconnected. We’re terrified to miss out on ephemeral digital activities that give us a quick hit of meaningless brain candy. We're overstimulated, restless, frustrated, unable to simply be still and present without that itch to check what's new and scrollable on our phone's endless feeds.

We’re all collectively participating in the greatest FOMO cultural movement of human history. I’d love to see a world where we all shift to JOMO, the joy of missing out.

And it's not just our mental health that suffers - it's our real, interpersonal relationships and ability to focus, too. How many times have you been trying to have a conversation with someone who keeps getting distracted by their buzzing device? It's becoming the new norm to be rudely ignored in favor of refreshing social streams and email pings.

Simply put, we're drunk on the novelty and utility of having the world's information perpetually accessible in our pockets. We need to sober up and bring mindfulness and moderation back into our personal tech habits before it's too late and we fully disconnect from the real, physical world.

While getting a dumbphone burner may seem drastic, it's simply one small step of the broader cultural shift we desperately need. We're at a breaking point where people are realizing their smart devices have become debilitating bondage devices, leashing us to the fleeting digital world at the cost of our mental well being. It's time to reexamine our relationships with these pocket machines that we've allowed to morph into malevolent masters.

Reassess Your Relationship with the Internet

That sums up my personal journey with technological isolationism. I went from perpetually burned-out phone zombie to someone radically present and intentional about my time and energy. The act of getting a cheap-as-hell dumbphone with no apps was the catalyst I desperately needed to stop treating my real life like something to experience secondhand through a screen. I hope you’ll be curious enough to explore what that means for you, too.

Do I miss being glued to a single screen, perpetually task-switching between apps and drowning in notifications? Absolutely fucking not.

That constant context-switching and panic induced by trying to keep up with information deluge was making me a fragmented, anxious mess. Sure, it's taken time to adjust to my "digital hermit" lifestyle. But the benefits of being able to simply be are invaluable.

Whether you take the plunge and get yourself a Burner, or if you just start moderating your device usage and building better digital habits, you have to do something to fight back against burnout from techno-bondage. 

Mindful tech isolation is the kindling that lights the path to true freedom. Your mental health—and your life—might just depend on it.

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Many, many thanks go to Tom White IV for his help with this piece. Thank you for taking my incoherent thoughts, bullet points, and sentence fragments, and turning them into a work of art. You are the best!

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Regina Gerbeaux

Who’s Regina Gerbeaux?

Regina Gerbeaux (@_rpgbx) is the executive coach to some of the fastest scaling startups in the world. She is also a founder currently interested in the food delivery and logistics space.

Regina was the first person trained by Matt Mochary (executive coach to the CEOs of Coinbase, Brex, and many more) in the Mochary Method Curriculum.

Her tactical templates and operational write-ups have been referenced and used by fast-scaling companies, including BioRender, Tembo, dYdX, and many more.

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