“Hey, sorry I didn’t text you back the other day. I didn’t use my phone this week.”
I received this text from a friend of mine, and immediately began to panic.
“What happened?” I quickly responded. “Did you lose your phone? Did it break? Are you severely depressed and withdrawing from the world?”
“Nah. It was a challenge for school. Who could go the longest without their phone. I won. One week.”
“Oh,” I texted back, breathing a sigh of relief. “Well, congrats.”
“Yeah. It was really hard. I mean, I bet you couldn’t do it.”
I paused. Looked at the words on the screen.
“I could do it,” I typed back. “I could do it for even longer.”
“Fine. How about a month?”
So began my one month hiatus from using my phone.
- I couldn’t use my cell phone or anyone else’s.
- I couldn’t use the messaging feature on my mac.
- My phone had to remain off for the entire challenge, not just in airplane mode or with wifi turned off.
Why I did it
I was a late smartphone adopter. I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2014, and only got one because, for the past few years, my dad would argue with me about it.
“It’s the fucking 21st century Jen! You can’t walk around with that flip phone anymore!”
I’d ramble for a few minutes about how I didn’t believe that people should be connected to technology at every moment of their lives until he’d cut me off.
“Look — you wanna be part of the family plan? Then you need to get a smartphone, period.”
So in 2014, I caved. I still believed that smartphones were filling a void that perhaps should just be a void. Maybe people shouldn’t be “on” every second of the day. Maybe if I start wondering which season of Top Chef Richard Blais first appeared on while I’m on the phone with my grandma, I shouldn’t be able to look it up in that moment. Maybe I should just eat my food instead of taking a picture of it. But Dad and Facetime and Snapchat wore me down.
And it wasn’t so bad.
I found that I liked Snapchat. I liked posting pictures on Facebook. I liked checking my email from my bed.
When my friend challenged me to a month without my phone, I wondered just how addicted to it I really was. I wanted to find out.
Plus, the surest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t.
Here’s what I learned.
We Don’t Control Our Phones — Our Phones Control Us
Has this ever happened to you?
You sit down to read a book or study for a test or finish up a project for work, when you suddenly hear the ping of a text coming through on your phone.
You see your best friend’s name flash across the screen, and absentmindedly reach for the phone to open the text.
“Omg you will never believe what just happened!”
Intrigue. You type back, “what?!”
“I ran into someone at the grocery store…”
“Ah just tell me!”
“It was that guy Pete from college.”
“From your lit class? Wow you had the biggest crush on him.”
“I know! We’re going out for drinks tomorrow night!”
10 minutes later, after contemplating outfits for your friend’s date, you return to the task at hand.
Only to get a Snapchat notification from your brother.
Welp, must open that. Oh it’s a cute little dog he saw walking down the street. Now you must respond with a cute picture of your own dog. You spend five minutes coaxing him into the most adorable position you can and snap the photo.
Alright, now what were you doing?
Another buzz of the phone. WHAT?! Aaron Rodgers is out for the season?! You’ve got to get on the waiver wire and pick someone up! 20 minutes later, after combing through every team’s quarterbacks and proposing a trade you…return to…that book? That essay? What the heck were you doing?
You didn’t actively engage yourself in a conversation with your friend, sending photos to your brother, or researching Aaron Rodgers’ health.
Your phone did these things for you. It prompted you to take action by notifying you to things happening in your world.
Convenient? Sure. Frighteningly powerful? You bet.
When you don’t use your phone for a month, you become conscious of the absence of these notifications. Which makes you realize just how many there are. Sure, sometimes we deliberately pick up our phones with a task in mind. But more often than not, it’s the phone that is seeking us out, enticing us to open it with a buzz or a beep.
We Are More Distracted Than We Think
The above section mentioned all of the times that your phone encourages you to pick it up. But the opposite is also true.
During my month without my phone, I can’t tell you how many times I mindlessly reached into my pocket to pull it out and just do…something.
Send some useless snap.
Look through my photos.
Find an answer to some stupid question that would have no impact whatsoever on my life.
During every pang of boredom, every idle moment, every second where I felt like I should look busy, I reached for the phone that wasn’t there.
And when I realized it wasn’t there, I felt anxious, disappointed, self-conscious.
I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has pretty good focus. It wasn’t until I didn’t have my phone that I realized just how many times I reach for it during the day. Just how often I’m looking for a distraction.
The Void Has Changed
Smartphones have allowed us to fill every empty or boring moment with something else. Which sounds great, until you realize that you’re substituting one type of emptiness for another. Likes on Facebook, scrolling through Reddit with glazed eyes, sending a mass snap on Snapchat — is this really adding value to our lives?
I for one miss the void.
I miss talking to myself.
I miss — gasp — thinking about something while I stand in line, instead of scrolling through Instagram.
Because that void, that abyss, it’s the place where art is born. It’s the place where creativity thrives. It’s the place where understanding comes from. It can be painful, but I think that it’s necessary to the human experience.
A month without my phone taught me that.
A month without a phone is an exercise in patience. I don’t really think we need to cut smartphone use entirely. But I think it would benefit us to use our phones more deliberately, with more purpose. That way, we don’t get sucked into —
Wait, hold on — my phone is ringing.