I remember in 2008, a friend of mine was almost giddy with excitement about the arrival of his first smartphone. I was aghast at what seemed like such incredible extravagance — I was still texting in a font that looked like MS DOS code writing, and running out of minutes was a legitimate problem.
“It’s so amazing! It’s just so cool,” he raved. It sounds stupid, I thought self-righteously. An expensive, grown-up toy.
In what was to be an absurd twist of fate for know-it-all me, by 2014 I was excusing myself to the bathroom to check status updates on my phone. It took seven short years for the smartphone wave to sweep across nearly every facet of society, and the devices have become seemingly indispensable for me and millions of others.
However, it didn’t take long for the phone to go from fun to invasive. When I made the heroic decision to remove social media apps from my phone, within days I found myself sidling off to bathrooms like a junkie.
I clearly had a problem. While teenagers have born the brunt of criticism for irresponsible and sometimes dangerous smartphone usage, they are in good company. Millions of adult Americans like me — responsible, professional people — text while driving and check social media incessantly.
The value of smartphones is undeniable — they aren't inherently negative. They're a miraculous manifestation of the collective knowledge, connection, and pace that we share as a planet. However, my question for myself was:
What am I not doing when I'm obsessively checking my device?
I wanted to answer that question for myself, so I started a crusade in my lifestyle to minimize smartphone usage and maximize mindfulness, which included the following actions:
1. Get the phone out of the bedroom.
Not only do the LED screens disrupt restful sleep, but what amazing internal connections, aspirations, and meditations do we miss when we don't allow our minds to wander as we drift to sleep?
2. Put the phone in the back seat … literally.
When I can't see it, I forget to check it, and I simply listen to the radio (or just think in silence). Either way, I drive attentively.
3. Turn all notification chimes off permanently.
The artificial, chemical self-esteem hit that our brains receive when we hear that exciting ding is part of the problem. The more we can transfer that feeling to authentic experiences instead of mass emails from retailers, the closer we come to putting the phone in perspective.
4. Champion the cause of mindfulness among your community.
When you're with friends and family, create social routines (or even games) that can minimize cellphone usage. For example, the entire family can leave cellphones charging in one room at a predetermined time of the evening every day, to be retrieved in the morning.
5. Finally, try being physically independent of your smartphone for indefinite periods of time.
Being data-free forces me to do things that are now relics of a bygone era, such as looking up (or asking for) directions in advance. The most surprising part of this experience is that I don't miss my phone at all when I intentionally leave it at home. The conscious decision to practice presence alleviates the anxiety (sometimes called “nomophobia”) that many experience about forgotten or lost phones.
Back to my original question: what have I discovered from these actions? What am I not doing when I am obsessively checking my device?
The answers were not as quantifiable as I thought they would be. How do I measure pondering my life and its direction in the dreamy brainwaves of pre-sleep? Or getting lost and discovering a new part of town? Or really, really listening to my husband? Or not mentally framing my experiences as status updates, or not capturing the world through a three-inch screen?
My relationship with my smartphone is still not perfect, but I am on a journey from dependence to independence, from entertainment to engagement, and from marking time to experiencing time.
Because of their true helpfulness, it may not be time to vilify the smartphones just yet. But when we practice tiny, purposeful actions that reduce their importance in our lives, we allow them to be the amazing tools they are, instead of a substitute for living.