My cell phone is killing me

I started to suspect my phone’s intentions late last year, but ignored the mounting evidence. How could a device that kept me connected me to my loved ones, well-informed of my work and social schedule, and captured my life’s memories be out to ruin me? It was inconceivable, especially given the more than 10-year relationship we’d fostered, albeit across different devices and platforms.

Yet…

The constant “ding” of text messages as they arrived into my phone started to feel like an unruly dog at the end of a leash, dragging my attention in frantic circles without warning or regard. The constant pull of email sang its sweet yet deadly siren’s song, “Check me, check me, check me.” I had an unshakable feeling that I was on-call and accountable 24–7, like the consigliere to a mob boss.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, lulled into a stupor from staring at that little screen. But at 4 a.m., my mind would wake up — BAM — my hand reaching for my cell phone to start doing before I could even articulate what I needed to do.

When I left for my honeymoon in mid-November, I had only minor suspicions of my phone’s culpability. I arrived to our island destination to discover I could not connect to the Internet or get cell-phone service. My phone was reduced to a brick that told time.

After some initial frustration, I realized this was the most I’d ever enjoyed my cell phone, excepting the 10-minutes I spent in wonder on my first iPhone. Somewhere along our journey together, my cell phone had turned from a convenience into an obligation — an albatross around my neck. Suddenly, without the never ending responsibility of texting, emailing, and Facebook stalking, I was free.

My energy started to return. Don’t get me wrong — the vacation certainly helped, too. But disconnecting from my cell phone forced me to relax on that vacation. Life started to move more slowly — a welcome relief after tying to keep up for so long. By putting the phone down, I looked up more. I soaked in the scenery, thought about life, and processed feelings — a luxury not afforded when I was busy reporting everything to my phone.

Louis C.K. once observed that people would rather text while driving than have to process feelings, especially feelings of loneliness and sadness. Unfortunately, we’re missing out on valuable self-reflection by doing this.

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones have taken away. The ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”
Louis C.K. on Conan, dissing cell phones long before it was cool to do so.

Without my cell phone, I started to feel like a person again. I returned from my honeymoon suspecting the damage my phone was having on my relationship with myself, but I still didn’t realize the effect it was having on my relationship with others.

However, Simon Sinek — ever the picture of a condescending yet hypnotic detective who cracks the case with extra swagger — confirmed my suspicions. In his brilliant interview with Inside Quest, Sinek explains why Millenials are so hard to manage in the workplace. But, alarm bells went off in my head as he talked about cell phones.

Simon Sinek, the detective who cracked the case

He describes a familiar scene that could be pulled from any company, any meeting room: We’re waiting for the meeting to start with our faces glued to our phones. Once the meeting starts, the phones are put on the tables — a constant reminder to the room that the people in it are not your only focus.

But what are we missing in those crucial moments before the meeting? We’re missing an opportunity to connect. To plant the small seeds that form deeper meaningful relationships.

To paraphrase Sinek, relationships are formed in the moments that happen in between. The small talk you have with a co-worker as you’re waiting for a meeting to start. The morning exchange you have with your partner over coffee. The conversations around a restaurant table as you wait for the bill. I thought about all the situations over the last few months where I’d used my phone as a wall. Where I chose to check and respond to email, instead of having an interaction that would push me outside my comfort zone, but also enrich me.

In particular, I thought about my morning breakfasts with John, where he’d read the news from his phone, and I’d stare out a window. I began my day feeling ignored, and John began his day dealing with the stress of the world by himself, his phone acting as a similar barrier.

One morning we switched to reading the newspaper at breakfast, and the most amazing thing happened.

Did you see this article here?” John shouted at me (his default volume, on a scale of 1 to 10, is always 11). He proceeded to share some highlights of the article with me. I listened to him, and then shared what I was reading. Suddenly, even with a newspaper in front of us, we were talking.

What is the difference? Why does conversation over a newspaper flow, but conversation over a phone screen stalls? My working theory is that our cell phones, while making things easier and more accessible, aren’t designed to encourage connection between people in the room. They are designed to transport us elsewhere.

And not just in the manner of regular old landline phones. Instead, we now have a host of Internet, video, and social media rabbit holes we can choose to dive into, and we dive into these alternate worlds with gusto. Worlds where our own viewpoints are often mirrored back to us. It’s how we can be surprised when the world goes sideways. I can’t help but wonder — if we had collectively put down our devices, would we have been less surprised at the outcome of our recent election? If we put down our phones and talked to each other, instead of reading the latest headline on our phones, would our country be less polarized?

In her amazing book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit unapologetically states (one of my favorite features of Solnit is that she is always unapologetic):

We are…encouraged by media and advertising to fear each other and regard public life as a danger and nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from media rather than each other.

However, during disasters, we put media aside, our devices aside, and we reach for each other. In her book, Solnit examines a number of natural and man-made disasters, including September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. She emphasizes not only the community and connection that arises in disaster, but the antithetical joy that radiates from people in these post-disaster communities. Why is this so? Because most of the time, we live in a world that is the exact opposite of community. And, our phones are not encouraging a rekindling of that community.

I don’t want to miss engaging with the world because I’m staring at my phone. However, this resolution only works if other people put down their phones, too. Let me be clear — I’m not suggesting you throw your phone off the side of a cliff. What I am suggesting is that you spend less time on your phone each day and break the addiction. If you’d like to join me in this quest, here are a few things that worked well for severing the umbilical cord with my phone. I hope they work well for you.

  1. Remove apps from your phone that are the biggest time sinks, like social media.
    I still have my social media profiles, but I check them on the computer. Because my computer isn’t as easily accessible as my phone, I’m spending less time mindlessly checking and reading my social media feeds.
  2. If there are apps you check frequently, but consider necessary to have on your cell, move these to the second page of your phone. 
    My email fell into this category. When it was on my home screen near my thumb, I would check it dozens of times a day. By having to open my phone and swipe to the correct screen, I’m more thoughtful about the times I check email.
  3. Turn text notifications off on your phone.
    You will have to go into your text message app to check your messages, but trust me, you won’t feel so exhausted responding to every little “ding!” I set times for myself to review my text messages that begin after 10am and before 8pm. Same for email. I’ve shared this with the people who text me regularly, and I suggested they call if they need an immediate response. No one has been offended. People still text and talk to me. At least for now…
  4. Try to make it through your morning and evening commute without looking at your phone (or any time of day where you spend a lot of time staring at that little screen). 
    I don’t always make it, but I spend a lot more time observing what’s going on around me. Generally, this starts and ends my day in a more positive and thoughtful way.
  5. Buy a watch, buy an alarm clock, and subscribe to a newspaper.
    Like a paper one. With ink. To be delivered. Make sure said newspaper is delivered on time by setting your alarm clock, because your cell phone will not be next to your bed, but in another room far far away. Continue monitoring time by looking at wrist watch. Then, talk to someone about what you read — like, in person. It’s the dark ages, I know.

All of this is hard. As Sinek points out, our phones are addictive. They distract us and make us feel less alone, and loneliness is a difficult feeling to embrace. Our cell phones are far from the only barrier we face to human connection. But, putting our phones down and looking up at the world — as scary as it is — will only serve us well. Perhaps our eyes will meet, and we will be friends.