I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 21. This was partly a function of timing; it was 2001, I had just graduated from college, I didn’t have a lot of money and cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are now. Still, I was one of the last of my peers to buy one.
I was also a late adopter of the smartphone. Again, I held out for a long time. Even when the iPhone first came on the market, and then its more chic and streamlined iterations of it every year, I just kept going through life with my little Nokia flip phone. I didn’t care that I couldn’t take snazzy photos or receive text messages from friends with smartphones. It worked for my life just fine. I even took some pride in being loyal to an older and slower gadget, like a hipster with a typewriter. And then, a couple years ago, my Nokia died. I was about to go out and replace it with yet another similar model until my in-laws offered to buy me an iPhone as a Christmas gift, to which I finally caved.
Because of my ambivalence and even apathy towards the latest technology, I never feared I would get addicted to my smartphone or that it would consume my life. But it did. Majorly. Having such a powerful tool at my fingertips that contained my calendar, emails, texts, photos, news and updates on family and friends easily facilitated this codependent relationship. During the brief moments I was away from my smartphone, I would get restless until I was reunited with it. What if somebody texted or emailed me within those few minutes, let alone hours? They’re probably worried I’m not responding! What if a catastrophic world event occurred and here I am completely ignorant of it! My muscles would visibly relax upon being reunited with my precious smartphone and I would go through each of my apps to make sure I missed nothing important. Rarely, of course, was that the case. But that didn’t stop me from continuing to seek the immediate, dopamine-fueled comfort that having my phone close at hand provided.
That powerful, come-to-Jesus moment in an addict’s life finally arrived when I realized and admitted I had a problem. Despite its helpfulness in my life, my smartphone made it harder for me to live in the present, to be mindful of all the things you can only see when your eyes are no longer down, onto a screen. I was missing life, this one beautiful life I had been given. Consequently, I created a basic set of guidelines to regain control of my smartphone so that it improved my personal life, work and relationships instead of weakened or distracted me from them.
Guideline #1: Play with My Kid
The first guideline was sparked by my commitment to being present to my son. In those first few months as a new mom when my life was completely disorienting and destabilizing, the one piece of advice I kept hearing from seasoned parents was: “Enjoy this time. It goes by fast.” I limited my smartphone usage then to be more present to him and continues to this day. In some ways, it’s easier to get sucked into my smartphone now that he’s older, more independent and can entertain himself at the playground or with other kids. At the same time, he is all the more needful of my attention and playfulness. My son goes to preschool during the mornings so my husband and I take turns watching him in the afternoons. On the afternoons I am with my son, I put my phone in my purse. I keep it on for work or the odd emergency but for the most part, it stays in my purse. I laugh with him when he laughs, I see what he sees, I point fun things out to him and he points them out to me and I pay attention. What this means is that I don’t have a gazillion photos and videos of him on my smartphone from every day of his life. That’s okay. My memories are all the more vivid when I devote my full attention to the present moment with him.
Guideline #2: Be Present to Family and Friends
My second guideline is similar, but instead concerns my phone usage around my family and friends. I keep my phone away when I am with my husband, parents, siblings and friends. We are all busy and it’s special for me to spend time with them either one-on-one or all together. For example, people generally think my husband is funny. I used to think so until I started being half-present to him because my attention was always divided between him and my smartphone. Now, I can be present to him completely. I listen to him and hear his stories. His take on things is hilarious. He really is funny! I’m glad I married him.
Guideline #3: Be Bored from Time to Time
I have a third guideline that has been more difficult to maintain than the other two. And that is, pretty simply, I try to let myself be bored from time to time. Whenever I am waiting in any kind of line, waiting room for an appointment, or waiting for anything in general, my immediate compulsion is to take out my phone and go through my email, social media or news…like everybody else is almost always already doing! This guideline is less rigid than the previous two and functions more as an invitation for me to resist my unconscious reach for my phone. I invite myself to instead, observe everything around me and to even let myself feel bored — a rare feeling in my life these days and one I do not like to feel, which is why it’s important to feel it on occasion. During those moments of being tech free and not occupied by anything else, I see things. I see things I don’t used to see — the cashier joking around with the older gentleman in front of me, people’s expressions as they shop, funny titles of woo-woo health magazines (I shop a lot at Sprouts). Suddenly, I remember, this is fun. I used to love people watching. It used to be one of my favorite things. Until I got a smartphone.
Guideline #4: Have Fun on Vacations
I severely limit my smartphone use during vacations as well. What is the point of a vacation if it is not different from my normal day-to-day life? I paid hard-earned money to go on a trip so I better make the most of it and actually take it all in instead of continually compromising my attention with minutes from a committee meeting or a friend of a friend’s wedding photos. Again, this means I have a lot less photos and videos of fun trips because my smartphone is not readily available to me. But, again, I was more present. And really, one needs only a handful of good photos from a trip.
Guideline #5: Don’t Use the Smartphone as a Social Crutch
My smartphone also goes away for any kind of work meeting or social gathering. I don’t want to be distracted when I’m working with the staff and I also don’t want them to perceive me as distracted in any way. Not surprisingly, when my phone is put away and I’m all ears at meetings, I am a lot more efficient and creative. Meetings also end quicker when people are focused. As for social gatherings, I am most tempted to reach for my smartphone when I’m uncomfortable or intimidated. Smartphones are a brilliant social crutch, which is why it’s too easy to escape an awkward environment by hiding behind a smartphone. This can be a saving grace at times but I noticed that when I defaulted to this every time, I missed opportunities to make meaningful connections with others. Now, I act similarly to how I act in situations where I am waiting: I validate the presence of those uncomfortable emotions, extend compassion towards them and then I invite myself to act in alignment with my values (which, in this case means being present to people and developing good relationships).
Guideline #6: Give My Smartphone an Early Bedtime in a Different Room
My final guideline is the most recent one and it has been life-altering for me thus far. I used to love me some smartphone time after a long day, on my bed, in my pajamas. My phone and I emitted a strong “don’t talk to me now” signal to my husband so I could just get absorbed in the online ether. I found it incredibly, profoundly relaxing. The ironic, but perhaps not surprising, part of this was that though I found it relaxing in the moment, I found it tiresome during the next morning. It would push back my bedtime because I would follow a rabbit hole of clicks and apparently the blue light of our smartphones suppresses melatonin, which makes falling asleep more challenging.
I came across a few tips from people who recommended putting your phone in a room separate from the bedroom and giving your phone a “bedtime.” I couldn’t do that though because I used my phone as my alarm clock. And because I got up so much earlier than the rest of my household, I needed my phone on my nightstand so as to not disturb the rest of my family with my early wake up call. So I just kept going through my life for a couple years in this manner, often perpetually tired. Then one day, I figured out a solution. It was pretty simple, so don’t ask me why it took me this long to figure it out. I bought a $12 alarm clock on Amazon. For the last couple of weeks, my phone has been going to “bed” in the kitchen at 9 p.m. while I go into my own bedroom to read, journal and talk to my husband. I have been getting a solid night of sleep every night and I’ve been whizzing through the stack of books on my nightstand that I have been holding off for months.
So…when do I use my smartphone? It’s almost always next to me on my desk at work so I check it periodically. I use it for important work and personal items so long as it doesn’t interfere with my relationships. That’s really at the core of all of this — whether my smartphone is facilitating stronger relationships with others and myself or impeding them. I make sure it does the former.
I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a luddite. I love technology, the convenience and efficiency it brings and the way it connects people all over the world. But with all things that are so alluring, we must set boundaries and guidelines so they don’t consume us; so they serve us rather than the opposite. The greatest gift technology brings us at this current moment in history is its ability to connect us with one another but researchers are finding that smartphone overuse actually makes us feel more disconnected with one another. Thus, the trick is for us to leverage its power well so they aid our flourishing.
My guidelines are not groundbreaking ideas. Most of us have been told, at one point or another, by a spouse, parent, child, friend or whoever, to put the phone away. However, many of us haven’t thought through the specifics of that etiquette. Or we have a fairly narrow notion of what a no-phone time should be. I am suggesting taking stock of what all those half-present glances at our phones do to our experiences even when, as in a waiting room or train platform, there seems to be nothing important happening. I created my own set of guidelines to make my smartphone work for me instead of against me but you will want to create a set that’s tailored to your own life. What do you want more of? What do you want less of? What role does your smartphone play in those objectives? Then make it do the very thing it is here to do — enhance our lives instead of dull them.
Finally, give yourself a lot of grace, compassion and forgiveness as you navigate for yourself the presence of these important tools in our lives.