No phone for 20 days… and I’m still alive

We left Salt Lake City on a road trip down to “the most photographed event in the world” in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The direct route to our destination is 575 miles and takes around 10 hours.

So naturally we planned 7 days and drove 1,195 miles to arrive at the balloon festival. No exaggeration. If you know my wife, you know she loves a good road trip. And the direct route is rarely the fun route.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta should be on everyone’s bucket list

Down at the festival, we woke up at 3:10am, spent the next 3 hours in traffic, then added 421 of our own photos to the photographic spectacle. And that number likely would have been double or triple that count if my phone hadn’t broken just 3 days earlier.

What a shame!

Or was it?

Rewind a few days back to day 3 of our road trip…

We were exhausted but happy after a day of exploring the Lower Antelope Slot Canyon in Page, Arizona (amazing, btw) en route to the Grand Canyon where we planned to spend the night “glamping” in a tent.

“Glamping” in the Arizona desert

Our planned route was through the Grand Canyon National Park where we would be able to watch the sunset on the South Rim of the canyon at Desert View Watchtower.

From there we planned to drive straight into the desert to our tent accommodations for a wishful night of rest with 3 little kids, no running water, no electricity and no cell service.

It was a crazy plan. But that’s how this family lives. And along the way we would snap hundreds of amazing photos.

Until my phone died.

Grand Canyon Desert View Watchtower © Mike Koopsen

We were about an hour away from the Grand Canyon driving on Highway 89 through the craziest lightning storm I have ever seen. Flashes of light were literally streaking sideways, then from the ground to the sky, then all around us at the same time. A quick downpour of rain and we thought this might be it. We’re not going to make it to the Grand Canyon. Heck, we might not even make it through the end of the day alive.

Then a light flashed next to me on my truck console and I thought “did lightning just strike the car?”

No, my phone just rebooted. And it rebooted again. And again. And again. It wouldn’t stop rebooting. It had entered the Android boot loop of death and it never came back. RIP faithful phone.

That was 20 days ago and I still don’t have a working cellphone.

Not because I can’t fix my phone or because I can’t afford to get a new phone. It’s because I decided to turn lemons into lemonade. I was going to turn this learning opportunity into an experiment.

At first I was forced into this experiment. There aren’t exactly a lot of cellphone stores in the middle of the Arizona or New Mexico deserts. So I knew that I would be without a phone until at least Albuquerque. That would be a minimum of 4 days before I could repair or replace my broken phone.

A fitting end for my old phone. The last photo I ever snapped with that phone was at Forest Gump Point in Monument Valley, UT

What would I miss without a phone?

I was going to miss out on life. I would be disconnected from so many things that were critical to my daily routine. Such as…

  • A camera
  • Email
  • Text messages
  • Slack messaging
  • Calendar
  • The news
  • The weather forecast
  • Instagram
  • Trending Twitter topics
  • Google Maps
  • Amazon
  • Online banking
  • Church study
  • Podcasts
  • YouTube and Netflix
  • Spotify
  • Alarm clock
  • Entertaining the kids at a restaurant with games or YouTube Kids
  • My Kindle ebooks
  • Answering the 101 daily nonsensical questions from my kids with a quick Google search
  • My wife can’t track me
  • oh ya… and phone calls. I guess it was a “phone” after all :-)

The experiment

Turned out this experiment was a lot easier than I thought it would be.

In the past, when I would upgrade to a new phone, I usually sold my old phone on Craigslist or eBay. So I didn’t have an old phone kicking around that I could use as a “burner phone” until I got a shiny new phone.

We explored Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace listings in Arizona and New Mexico in hopes of buying an old phone to hold me over for a while. But there weren’t a lot of great options.

When I returned home, I had several sympathetic offers from friends and coworkers to let me borrow an old phone they had stored in their sock drawer. I don’t know why anyone would actually store an old phone in a sock drawer, so I politely turned them down.

DISCLAIMER: Before I pat myself on the back and paint this picture that I’m some sort of anti-cellphone zealot, I should disclose that I was already planning on buying the unreleased Google Pixel 3. The Pixel 3 was already the most leaked unannounced phone in the history of phones before its pending release on October 9. So I had a pretty good idea that within a couple weeks I would have the latest, greatest Android phone ever made.

In other words, I knew this experiment would be pretty short. Makes it easier to attempt something a bit outside your comfort zone when you know the finish line is right around the corner.

Here’s what I learned without a phone

Numerous articles and studies (like here, here, here, and here) have outlined the unhealthy effects of excessive cell phone usage. My personal experiment is far from scientific, but I found out a few ways in which technology has been controlling me and changing my habits and behaviors.

  • I reach for my phone a LOT more than I thought. I found myself reaching for my nightstand, my desk at work, the arm of my comfy chair at home, my pocket as I was walking. I felt like a literal extension of my body was missing as my hand came up empty each time I reached for my phone.
  • I rely on Google Maps even when I know directions. I was driving to an event in downtown Salt Lake City, a city that I know very well having lived nearby my entire life. It’s also one of the easiest cities to navigate since it’s built on a grid system. Yet I had a moment of panic when I realized I didn’t know where the conference hotel is located. I was forced to use my brain. Instead of looking down at a screen, I simply looked up at the buildings and the name of the hotel was right in front of my face.
  • I check social media more than necessary. One could argue if social media is necessary at all, but I do feel connection to some people that I just don’t see very often anymore. I can follow those people on social media and maintain a level of friendship on these platforms. But I check social media like Instagram and Twitter to the extent that I never have to scroll more than a few posts to get “caught up” on my feeds. Not healthy.
  • I ignore people right in front of me because something — sometimes anything — is more important than what’s happening in the moment. It’s like I somehow create this happy lie in my mind that I am invisible when I pull my phone out of my pocket. I start searching for an app that can entertain me more than what’s happening in real life. Sadly that means I’m often ignoring the people I care most about, like my family and friends.
  • I don’t plan or look ahead as far as I used to. I no longer had my calendar or weather at my fingertips. I had to go old school and dust off a laptop to actually look ahead and plan a bit more. The past couple weeks, instead of constantly opening my calendar to see what’s next in life, I looked just once per day to get a snapshot of what to prepare for. I may not have looked the part, but I certainly felt like I had things together a bit more.
  • I waste multiple hours a day looking at a screen for no good reason. Advertisers spend billions of dollars a year advertising to us as consumers. Phone app companies have giant R&D budgets to make apps “sticky” so you feel the need to come back over and over again. I would know… I spend more than 40 hours a week as one of those professional advertisers. I’ve made a career out of finding ways to acquire new customers and provide something of value to keep them coming back. And I’m drinking from my own Kool-Aid.

You could almost dump the list above in some sort of bucket labeled “the difficult but honest truths” that I learned about myself. But there were other experiment findings I would drop in buckets with labels like “productive stuff” and “really useful stuff” that a mobile phone provides for me. For example…

  • I didn’t have an alarm clock so I used my Google Mini to wake me up every morning with a really loud, obnoxious alarm. My wife agrees that my soothing Spotify playlist that used to wake me up on my cellphone was a better option every morning.
  • There were times when people wanted to get in touch with me and didn’t have a way to do so. Obviously they couldn’t call me or text me. And if they didn’t know where I was, they basically had to wait until the next time they saw me to let me know about something important. That meant I took a couple return trips to the grocery store when the Mrs. remembered I needed to add something to the list just moments after I left the driveway.
  • I couldn’t snap a spontaneous photo of my kids making silly faces at me. I couldn’t snap photos of anything. I had the option of dusting off the old DSLR in the closet upstairs. But I opted to just enjoy the moment and file away the memories without any phone proof. That meant I couldn’t share those moments with my wife or others. And the way my brain is aging, those memories are likely gone the minute I file them away.
  • I didn’t respond to work requests as quickly as I usually had. No instantaneous replies to short emails or messages. I didn’t even read most of the late night emails or Slack messages until I rolled into work the next morning. Turns out work moves forward at the same pace whether I respond at 11pm at night or 8am the next day. I even felt more refreshed each morning when I came into work and had actually spent more than a few hours away from the endless list of tasks and projects.
  • I spent less money. Not having 23 discount apps, shopping apps and endless websites at my fingertips meant I spent less time scrolling through lists of products and services that aren’t essential to my true happiness anyway.
  • I don’t feel as gloomy throughout the day. I don’t have the news or trending topics at my fingertips so I found myself checking news and updates just once per day. Let’s face it… a lot of the news is not very uplifting. Murders, earthquakes, politics, riots… a lot of heavy topics that I used to read every 30 minutes or so as I refreshed news apps throughout the day. I guess you could say that ignorance is bliss?

Then there were some things during my experiment that I truly missed out on that I find much easier to do with a cellphone. For example…

  • I didn’t read as much as I usually do. I don’t own a single physical copy of a book. Everything I read is digital. And most of that is through apps like the Kindle app or my church study apps. I made the best of my time and filled it with card games with my kids or conversations with my wife. But I also watched more Netflix and TV than I typically do. I missed reading and studying a lot more than I thought I would.
  • Banking apps are 1,000,000 times better than their website counterparts. That’s a well-known fact. I basically just stopped paying bills or checking in on banking or investments the past few weeks. I’d rather get sent to collections than log into a banking website ever again.

At long last… The experiment is over

I pre-ordered the new Google Pixel 3 on the day it was announced, and it arrived in the mail yesterday. I opened the matte white box, cradled the four-figure $$$ piece of glass in my hand and tapped in my account username and password. Just moments later 144 apps proceeded to install as if my old phone had been given a second chance at life.

My new phone is quicker, bigger, and slightly more attractive than my old phone. (that notch at the top though… hmmm) But it essentially acts just like my old device.

And I paused to ask… “how many of these apps do I actually need? How much do I really need this new phone at all?”

My church recently asked us as members to “participate in a 10-day fast from social media” and from “any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.”

Technically I started the 10-day fast before the invite was even issued. And for the first week it wasn’t exactly a voluntary fast on my part. But I’ve used this time to evaluate my relationship with technology.

Am I letting technology take control of me?

Or am I using technology to make my life better?

Did I really miss out on that much when I didn’t have a phone in my pocket?

A good friend made a great suggestion this week. He said “when you buy a new phone, don’t automatically restore all your old apps. Just install a couple essential apps and then as time goes on you can add an app here or there when you actually need them. You quickly forget what you thought was ‘necessary’ a few weeks ago with your old phone.”

How did I survive 20 days without a phone?

Now before you start sending me elaborate plans with all the workarounds for how to handle things without a cellphone in hand, remember that I was intentionally forcing myself to evaluate my life without these things for a little while.

I know I can use Google Voice, Skype or similar apps on a laptop to make phone calls and send text messages. I know I can switch to an iPhone and use iMessage to keep in touch on a fancy iWatch. I know I can still print MapQuest directions to cure my lack of navigational skills (I checked… MapQuest is still around!).

I wanted to see if I was truly addicted to my phone. And I was.

It’s a good thing that digital wellbeing is such a hot topic this year. Google recently announced their Digital Wellbeing initiative. Apple announced their new Screen Time feature. Other apps like Instagram also recently announced Well-Being tools and features that will show users an activity dashboard designed to help you see how much time you’ve used that specific app or service.

The very existence of these features acknowledges the fact that we are often a little too addicted to apps on our phones. Many of these new features are even labeled “well being” which implies that excessive use is possible to the extent that our behavior is affected much like a disease would attack our bodies.

Google says “We’re committed to giving everyone the tools they need to develop their own sense of digital wellbeing. So that life, not the technology in it, stays front and center.” —

We still control what we do with the findings in our “well being” app dashboards. We can choose to turn on settings that limit our screen time. We can choose to uninstall apps that are taking time out of our lives. Or we can even just put aside the dashboards and choose to put the phone down and live a few moments without a phone.

I want to turn my personal findings from these past few weeks into a lifestyle change. Even without these wellbeing apps, I already identified and accepted the problem that mobile technology commands an unhealthy amount of my attention. And I’m not going to let a new cellphone or other device command my daily routine.

Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, UT

The road trip to the Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico was worth every mile and bump in the road, including a broken phone. Update your bucket list now. The festival is truly magical and it won’t be the last time we attend.

And who knows… next time I might just leave my phone in the car and live in the moment and not behind the phone screen.