I am remembering why I was such a late smartphone adopter.
I lost my phone on our recent trip to South America. I thought my husband had it, and he thought I had it, as we hastily exited a plane in Buenos Aires. We were both wrong.
I had some immediate realizations: I’m not that upset; I bet someone will find it and hand it in soon; and, neat! This is cool, that I’m feeling pretty indifferent, and calm!
I thought the airport security officer’s face was priceless, when I explained to her that I really did think someone was going to hand in my phone. I told her I assume best intentions in others.
She nodded, half-smiled, and told me not to hold my breath.
No one handed it in. I would like to think because it was never found and simply vanished into the synthetic airplane seats forever. I spent the last week of our trip phone-less.
It felt very different. I was more present to my family. I borrowed my husband’s phone to check email once a day. I used our nice camera to take pictures when it was worth it. I relaxed.
When we got home, a new phone ($100 on eBay) was waiting in the mail. After we were back a week, I finally went to get a new SIM card and download all my content onto it.
I felt ambivalent about getting my new phone set up, because it had been so nice to not have one. I hadn't been totally MIA; I used my laptop to send iMessages and FaceTime.
What I didn’t have was a palm-size distraction in my back pocket every minute of the day, tempting me to pull it out: take a picture of this, shoot a video, look at texts, check Instagram.
Here’s what didn't happen when I didn’t have my phone:
- My husband didn’t ask me to put it away.
- My daughter didn’t look at it, wondering why I was looking at it so much.
- She didn’t crawl toward it, grab for it, and hear “no” as it was stored away.
- My friends and family didn’t get many pictures and videos of her.
- I didn’t post on social media as much.
- The world didn’t end.
Here's what did happen when I didn’t have my phone:
- I felt more calm and centered.
- I didn't think as much about taking pictures and was more present for what was happening.
- I felt more relaxed about my business and my writing.
- I started reading long-form journalism again (from a magazine, not online).
- I slept better.
A friend recently emailed to say that she was getting a smartphone for the first time. What did I find a smartphone useful for? And did I have any suggestions of what to avoid?
I smiled, reading her email. I remembered my concern when I caved and got a smartphone in 2013. I wondered how getting a smartphone would impact my life; I didn’t want to get addicted.
(I had similar concerns when I got my first cell phone, in 2004. Having something that would ring and beep with text messages at any time made me feel smothered.)
I responded to her email:
- I find Google Maps very helpful when going somewhere new. I also try to drive without it. My brain likes the chance to figure it out and get there on my own.
- I use the voice dictation feature pretty regularly to send texts, especially now that I have a baby. My husband also really appreciates when I don’t do it in front of him.
- I enjoy Instagram and Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, particularly after moving so far away. I try to take breaks when I find myself making comparisons, though.
- I keep my phone on silent almost 100% of the time. I turn it on when I’m expecting a call but otherwise like it to not distract me. Alicia doesn’t know what sounds it makes.
- Carlos and I have talked about limits around on our phones. We keep them out of sight when we’re talking to each other, so we don’t feel like we’re competing for attention with a phone.
- We don’t bring our phones to the table. I've been thinking of getting a box where we put them when we first come in the door, next to where we take off our shoes (stay tuned).
- I started sleeping better when I began leaving my phone charging in the living room overnight. I try not to look at it first thing when I come out in the morning.
- I try to remember phones are designed to be engaging (ie. addictive) and to not judge myself for getting dependent, even when I said for years that that’s why I didn’t want one.
A few of the thoughts I shared with my friend were about how phones affect my relationships, especially with my husband, and I could have written more.
I watch couples in restaurants. One person is on their phone; the other person waits, attempts conversation, gives up, and then pulls out their own phone. They both dive into their screens.
My husband and I don’t take out our phones during a meal, but the rest of the day is fraught. Neither of us like it when the other takes out a phone, effectively exiting conversation.
I don't appreciate when he is on his phone when I want his attention, but then sometimes I take out my phone without saying anything. I often feel defensive when he asks me to put it away.
"It's just for a minute, I'm just _____,” is my reflexive response. I feel put upon and annoyed that he said something (although I do not hesitate to. Double standard, much?)
And when I say, “I’m just _____,” that's not really true. It’s not just that one thing, like taking a picture, because it leads to other things, like sending or sharing or editing it.
Then I’m in the zone and forget my surroundings. I open Messages, scroll through Instagram.
I look up to see his disappointed or frustrated face. I feel bad and put my phone away, but still feel annoyed… now at myself, and the whole situation. A little while later, I do it all over again.
All of this, gone in a flash, for two weeks. It was wonderful.
My friend said once that games on her phone were her "emotional babysitter." When she was upset, she didn't have to sit with her feelings. She could distract herself; she could always play.
It makes me think about how often I reach for my phone, the second I have a chance. For two weeks I wasn’t able to. I noticed what I ended up doing instead.
At a red light, I couldn’t reach to see text messages. (This is a not-OK habit I have been trying to break for a while now.) I looked out the window, saw the wind in the trees.
In a café, waiting for my food to arrive, I couldn’t sit and immediately reach for my phone to help me wait. I talked to my baby, played with her, and ended up chatting with people nearby.
It made me think of a sign I saw outside a coffeeshop while traveling in Chile years ago. I was perpetually on the hunt for the next wifi spot to upload pictures to share online.
This coffeeshop on a steep cobblestoned street was a likely prospect - except that outside, the sign said:
We don't have wifi. Talk to each other.
After I drafted this, in early June, I set up my new phone. I started making and receiving calls in my car again (which I had really missed). The return of GPS was also helpful.
I didn’t want to fall back into my habits, though: interpersonal conflict, avoiding my feelings, tempted while driving. I wanted to retain the peace and calm of two phone-less weeks.
One month in, I leave my phone in my bag or by the charger more. It’s less on me, less within immediate reach. I get on social media less times a day. I read more in print.
I chuckled when I opened a Dove chocolate at my therapist's office and read the reminder to "leave your phone." I'd already been leaving it at home or in my car often, at least once a day.
I am more mindful about when I pick up my phone; I am only slightly more mindful about what I do (and get lost in doing) when actually on my phone. This is still the harder part.
I continue to be present. I notice I feel much of that calm, from the phone-less weeks.
And I continue to wonder: How do I coexist with a smartphone and use it well? How do I set healthy boundaries and limits? How can I be present to others, and to my thoughts and emotions, and not get lost in autopilot distraction mode?
Inspire me! How do you coexist with a phone without it gaining control of you?
Food for thought:
An op-ed on "The Joy of Quiet" by Pico Iyer