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Why Giving Up My Cell Phone For 44 Days Changed My Life

Julianne Wurm, EdD
Written by Julianne Wurm, EdD

After a particularly difficult year, where several things I was very invested in came to an untimely end, I decided to take a break and leave home for a six week trip to write, reflect, meditate and heal my wounds.

Before I left, I turned off my cell phone. I actually called my carrier and suspended the service. No email, no text, and the message on the voicemail said, in a voice that did not belong to me, “This caller is not accepting calls at this time.” No one could even leave a message.

I wanted to disconnect from the overwhelming insistence of technology. Each email, text or unscheduled phone call felt like someone pulling at the hem of my shirt; it was just another thing to deal with, and I had run out of emotional bandwidth.

I did not have a grand master plan about how this would play out, but I knew that not having my device was the best place to start to build a space of respite. And off I went. For 44 days. First to Hong Kong, then to Bangkok, around Cambodia, Vietnam, and back to Thailand.

I had my laptop and iPad, so I had access to the world I was pausing from, but I was careful about how I engaged. As part of this life, and helped by jet lag, I began to get up at 5am every day to meditate, write, move and have breakfast. My morning routine lasted for several hours each day and often I didn't check email until 10am.

Since there was a 12-hour time difference between me and my connections in the US, this meant that everyone in the US was finishing their day by the time I logged onto email. I realized it did not make sense to check my email again until the next day. On most days, I went out to explore the amazing cities and gorgeous landscapes that I was visiting for the first time.

Aside from the great sense of freedom, I learned a number of things about myself and changed my relationship to my device and the world at large. My biggest lesson? People will wait. I used to check my email right when I came out of a yoga class or the second I stepped out of the subway—trying to walk down 7th Avenue and answer messages right away.

While I was untethered, I was not so immediate in my responses and I received not one complaint or mention of it. In fact, I disappeared to a meditation retreat for a week where there was no Internet. It took a bit of time to catch up when I got back online, but no one mentioned my lag in response time.

Which leads me to the second point, which is that in reality, there are few things in life that are truly urgent. We get caught up in the belief that everything needs to happen asap—the immediacy of our connected world. The reality is, if there is no blood, it can likely wait.

Being untethered also gave me the opportunity to look at my life without the blinders that my device had actually become. I was reminded that what's happening in front of me is infinitely more engrossing than any device. (To think that I had been missing so many of the rich details of the people around me because I was distracted by a world that was not in front of me!) This shift in my thinking made me very intentional and present in all of my communication.

In addition to being more present in my communication, I also became more present with myself. I had been traveling alone—and although I met many wonderful people along the way—I had a lot of meals and time alone. I always thought I was comfortable in my own skin, but the value of comfortably dining alone, sitting without a device to be distracted by was an incredibly freeing and stretching experience.

Since returning to NYC, I have tried to maintain the beneficial aspects of the bubble I had created abroad, to use technology with intentionality.

Here are some of the changes that I have continued since returning to NYC:

1. While I do check my smartphone periodically during the day, I only respond to emails from my laptop.

This way, my device keeps me informed but no longer spurs me to action. Instead, I use it as a tool to keep information flowing, to maintain my calendar, and to listen to music and podcasts throughout my day. I typically engage in email and communication at the beginning of the work day and once again toward the end.

2. I schedule times to correspond.

Today I respond to email when the time and space allow it. I also schedule my calls, and when I am on the phone, I do not multi-task—I focus on what the other person is saying and the topics we're addressing.

3. I've limited the number of accounts linked to my phone.

I only have one email account linked to my phone. It's my personal account, the one I enjoy. The others are accessible via my laptop, which I check at scheduled times.

4. I got the phone out of my bed.

I charge it in the bathroom. I also resist checking it if I wake up in the middle of the night.

5. I keep my messages short and purposeful.

I remember that the purpose of these devices to make our lives easier. I now use my phone to stay informed, but for the most part communicate with a minimalist approach: short emails related to scheduled events, short texts, and longer periods of music, audio books and podcasts.

6. I schedule time to be online, even when I'm using my computer.

This has helped me focus on tasks in front of me and I no longer toggle between online and offline work when using my computer.

These are not hard and fast rules; for me they keep evolving. But they've really helped me create space to think and unplug and that has led to much greater peace and focus.

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