Drop Ins: Tommy Sobel of Brick

We believe in the power of routines and finding meaning in the ways we sew comfort into our everyday surroundings. Drop Ins is a series that explores just that, taking a dressed-down look at the lives of people who inspire us.

Tommy Sobel knows what it’s like to be glued to your phone. When he worked at Dreamworks —later Amblin— as Steven Spielberg’sassistant and then as a new-media executive he spent all day on his phone, staring into the blue light. He knew something needed to change. And he would know: Sobel spent four years as a research associate in UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute.

He started turning his phone off once a day. He felt better. Slept better. Read more. All by turning his phone into a “brick.”

It set up his next act with Brick, a community designed to help people build healthier habits and relationships with the digital world. He calls himself a digital habits coach, which has a nice ring to it. We like that. More specific than the wild west of wellness. Brick is designed to help people break bad phone habits. And Sobel sets people up to succeed.

We chatted with the affable and kind Sobel, who has excellent posture, via Zoom from his Los Angeles apartment about everything from reading books to New Year’s resolutions.

What does digital wellness mean to you? It's such a broad, catch-all term these days.

Digital wellness to me means using technology and enjoying it without being compulsively attached to it. Making the most of all of the amazing tools and technologies that we have, without it using us. Digital wellness is a loaded term.

I guess digital wellness doesn’t really mean anything anymore?

It feels very broad. It doesn't feel like it means anything. If you were to search on Google, there are a few organizations that have tried to define it for themselves. It's not even in the dictionary.

It seems like with digital wellness or building better habits, there's going to be an ebb and flow, right? We can't always be in a perfect or ideal state. How do you personally cope with that and how do you work with the people within the Brick community on things like that?

The goal is not to be perfect with anything in life. What I consider to be the worthy journey though, is to basically have set structures in your life — so that the healthier behavior is easier and more enjoyable and more likely.

So, by creating the discipline to make the first and last hours of my day phone-free, by just setting that as a rule, I don't do that every day, I'm not perfect. But, by setting the rule itself and by knowing why I've set that rule, I'm more likely than not to follow it. Over the course of the days, weeks, months, and years, it increases my productivity, boosts my sleep, makes me more present in my relationships and just makes it easier for me to be the person that I want to be.

By creating the discipline to make the first and last hours of my day phone-free, by just setting that as a rule, I don't do that every day, I'm not perfect. But, by setting the rule itself and by knowing why I've set that rule, I'm more likely than not to follow it.
Life is going to get in the way. It’s like what coaches have told me over the years: training programs are written in pencil.

Right. You're setting yourself up for failure if you think that having good discipline or having healthy habits requires you to be perfect. That perfectionist mentality can make your goals or your habits really brittle, so that when you do take that day off— or, in my case, if I do check my phone at the end of the day—you don't want that to then mean anything more than it is.

Right. You don’t want a negative feedback loop.

Exactly, yeah. Or that I'm a failure or I have bad willpower or I don't have discipline. Don’t make it mean anything more than it is: which is just that we’re human and humans are fallible.

I really like the way that you break down habits and set up guideposts along the way. Before you started Brick, did you use those things in your own life?

Definitely. When I was struggling in the entertainment industry and working at Dreamworks I was on my phone for 10 hours a day, every day and was not in control. So, I ended up applying what I knew about behavior change and habit reformation on myself and it started working. My favorite thing to do in the world is to read, and on my bedroom bookshelf, I had like 150 books that I'd never read — for years.

They were just decorations

Right. And every night, they were just glaring down at me like a life that wasn’t well lived. When I had just one rudimentary practice of turning my phone off for an hour a day, I spent that time reading. Over the course of 2017, I ended up reading 28 books.

That sense of achievement — of literally doing my favorite thing again that I hadn't been doing — just made me so much more confident. I had the joy of the reading itself, but the unintended positive consequences of then feeling more confident that I could put my phone down in other situations, feeling more confident in social situations because of that, and waking up earlier to work out.

So, it became what I now know is a keystone habit where that one behavior change of putting my phone away for that hour to read, created a cascade of other positive behaviors.

Why are habits hard to break?

I think most people would respond by saying something like, I have bad discipline, or I don't have the willpower, or I don't have the grit to maintain healthy habits. I do think there's an element of that.

I call it impulse control. So, if you want to have the healthy habit of not checking your phone, you basically need to control the impulse to check your phone.

What people often discount or ignore is the impact of the environment on healthy habits, what behavioral scientists often refer to as “environmental design.” To change a bad habit, if you're surrounded by an environment that supports that bad habit, you're very unlikely to change it. Like for instance, when you're trying to go on a diet, if you're surrounding yourself with Oreos and desserts and ice cream in the freezer, it's going to be very difficult for you to say no to all of that. Designing your environment for success makes it so much easier than just focusing on the grit and the discipline and the willpower component to it. Those are the two main parts.

So what do we think of New Year’s resolutions?

I think it’s an amazing opportunity to give ourselves permission to reflect on the year and the future year.

And build throughout the year?

I think that it's really important to set those goals because, if you don't set goals, you're very unlikely to reach them. Don't set New Year’s resolutions. Set annual goals instead. Review and update them quarterly, not just once a year. Or even simpler: Set goals, not resolutions.

Don't set New Year’s resolutions. Set annual goals instead. Review and update them quarterly, not just once a year. Or even simpler: Set goals, not resolutions.
Do you make them personally?

I have. What I actually do on New Year’s is a process called “Goal Digging.” It's a new year. What do I want my life to look like by the end of this year, in a bunch of key categories? Then, what do I need to accomplish? Then I divide that year into milestones, like different seasons. So, if I divide the year into four seasons, what do I need to accomplish six months from now to get to my one-year goal? Then, what do I need to accomplish in the first 90 days, the first three months to get to each milestone? So, that allows me to take something that might seem like eating an elephant, and break it down into bite-size chunks so that I'm not overwhelmed, and I actually start taking actionable steps towards it.

Do you do quarterly or monthly check-ins with yourself? How often are you assessing where you’re at without getting too overly analytical?

I'm really into this aspect with myself and with my clients, because of how impactful it is. So, I chunk out real wide with goals, and I chunk down real small. So the widest I get with goals is, I look at my three-year vision. I just did that again recently. So, I look at my three-year plan, and then every three months, I create a new one-year plan, a new one-year vision. Then, I break that down into those quarterly milestones that I described. Then, I take those quarterly milestones and I divide that into three monthly goals. Then, I take the first month, and then I divide that into four weekly goals.

I really do this. [laughs]

So is it OK to have these goals but shift them?

Yeah. You always have the authority and permission to change these goals at any moment whenever you want. That's really important too because you don't want them to feel constricting, you want them to be empowering. So, if you no longer feel like you want something that you were working towards, you're going to have resistance towards it anyway, and you'll procrastinate, and then you might feel shitty about it or self-criticize. It's not helping you at all. That's why it's important to do to the one-year plan at least every three months—quarterly resolutions you could call it — instead of new year's resolutions.

The other thing about it is, you really can't be too ambitious. That then starts to get the mind turning, thinking big. If you have small goals, you're going to think in line with those goals. But, if you have really big goals, there's no limit.

Tommy Sobel was photographed (safely, from a distance) in Malibu on December 10, 2020 by Isabella Behravan. For more tips on how to take a vacation from your phone follow Brick over on Instagram.

Join Tommy for his first workshop of the year, "Digital Jedi Masterclass" on Thursday, January 21, 2021. Sign up HERE and use the code FEALS20 for 20% off at checkout

Bill BradleyBill Bradley Bill Bradley is a writer and the co-founder of Three Point Four Media, a creative agency and editorial studio. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Likes: Black coffee, bonfires, Beefeater martinis, all four seasons.
Dislikes: 42 and rainy.