At 7 a.m. today, Elana Mugdan’s smartphone found a new home: a tiny, vitaminwater-branded jail cell.
Unbeknownst to it, the phone will be held prisoner for the next 365 days.
vitaminwater chose the 30-year-old Mugdan, who has spent more than half her life writing a series of dragon-focused fantasy novels, to embark on the brand’s viral #nophoneforayear journey.
The author and filmmaker was hand-picked from more than 100,000 creative souls who volunteered to ditch their devices for 365 days.
At the end of the year, Mugdan will take a lie detector test to determine if she followed the rules. If she passes, the cash is hers. If the scroll-free journey is too tough to take after crossing the six-month mark, she can tap out and claim a $10,000 consolation prize.
If she bails before the midway mark, she’ll walk away empty-handed.
“vitaminwater has always challenged the monotony – and there’s nothing more monotonous than scrolling mindlessly through your phone,” says Associate Brand Manager Natalia Saurez. “We also proudly take a stand against the bland and boring… and Elana is anything but bland or boring.”
Mugdan grew up in Queens, N.Y., where a lack of cable television in her family’s home steered her to a love of reading and, later, writing. She devoured books at a young age and resorted to crafting her own stories rather than watching them onscreen. At 14, she began work on her debut novel, Dragon Speaker, and even produced a trilogy of feature-length fantasy movies while in high school.
“I’ve always been a storyteller,” Mugdan says via phone from her New York City apartment. “And I’ve always been drawn to fantasy – the more magical or otherworldly, the better.”
After college, she returned to the Big Apple to tackle her first professional feature film project. Without formal training or industry contacts, Elana assembled a stellar cast and crew and shot an award-winning indie comedy, which she wrote, directed and produced.
Mugdan’s lifelong flair for fantasy can be traced back to kindergarten, when she latched on to her cousin’s love of dragons. “She grew out of it, but I never did,” she recalls. “Anyone who meets me will know within 30 seconds that I dig dragons.”
This passion has helped make her a published author. Dragon Speaker hit shelves in 2016, and the second installment of her five-part Shadow War saga comes out in May.
Mugdan recently embarked on a solo, 3,500-mile road trip, stopping at local bookstores for public readings over eight days. Her favorite part of the experience, she says, was encouraging young writers to follow their hearts.
“I shared with them advice I wish I’d gotten at their age – to chase their dreams and to not be afraid,” she said. “A lot of people will tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t go for it, but if you truly love what you do, you’ll find a way to make it work.”
Mugdan hopes giving up her phone will power her own passionate pursuits by fueling her creativity, and by challenging her to be more present and productive in her daily life.
“I’m hyper-cognizant of how I use my phone throughout the day and have noticed a terrible pattern when I’m writing… in moments when I should be sitting still and thinking quietly,” she explains. “I’ll come to the end of paragraph and, unsure of what to write next, instinctively reach for my phone. That’s so detrimental to me as a writer. Phones are supposed to help us, but they can be a huge hindrance.”
She sees the #nophoneforayear challenge as an opportunity to break these harmful habits.
But it won’t be easy.
Navigation tops the list of the smartphone features Mugdan will miss the most. “But I went to college in Maine and used to drive to and from New York with no navigation system, so I know I can do it!” she said.
Note-taking and fitness-tracking apps will also be hard to do without, and of course there’s music and social media. But Mugdan has a few “hacks” in mind.
“Real writers use actual notebooks!” she says, laughing. “And I know I rely too much on emojis, which is ironic because I’m a writer and should be using my words like a big girl. I see this as a chance to express myself more eloquently.
“I’m also considering going super old school and getting a Walkman,” she continues, “and I guess I’ll need to get an actual alarm clock and calendar.”
An avid gamer, Mugdan will also have to step away from her beloved “War Dragons,” which she plays for up to three hours a day with fellow dragon-obsessed fans around the world.
But she won’t have to live completely off the mobile grid. She’ll have access to a (not-smart) flip phone, as a nod to simpler times when the term “scrolling” had not yet entered our lexicon. Mugdan can use the throwback device for calls and texting.
Mugdan hopes to her scroll-free journey will inspire others to follow suit. It all starts with self-awareness, she says.
“It’s important be aware of how much we use our phones as a crutch and how they can hinder us both in our professional and personal lives,” Mugdan says. “I want people to know that if I can do it, they can too!
“I’m sure it will be harder than anticipated,” she concludes, “but I honestly can’t wait to get rid of it.”
Let the monotony breaking begin.