Ten Ways I Challenge Myself to Put Down My Phone Every Day

Technology is great, but balance is better

I suspect the chances are good to very good that you are reading this on a handheld device. Personally, I worship at the altar of Apple more readily and more often than I would care to admit: my family and I have more devices than we use, not to mention more than we need. My husband is as addicted to Twitter as I am to Facebook, my teens Snap and text, and we all use Instagram. What’s App is our default mode for family communication, and our family calendars are synced. On any given day, I vacillate between being pleased that we have found a method of organizing our lives using technology and terrified at the thought that we are abusing it, that we will grow to be a family who texts each other from the next room. OK, who am I kidding? We do that already.

And yet, I take seriously the argument that technology has been intentionally designed to addict us. We are addicted to the dopamine rush, to the activity itself, and to the mindless and constant release from our nagging worries, doubts, and insecurities. For many people, myself included, screen time can function in the same way that a box of doughnuts or a bag of potato chips might — the appeal is undeniable, but when we finish the bag (or, in my case, an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies), we are left feeling unsatisfied. It is no surprise that millions of dollars have been spent figuring out how to engineer those potato chips in a laboratory to ensure that we are never satisfied with even a whole bag, let alone a single serving. Similarly, Silicon Valley has launched countless entrepreneurs into millionaire status as a result of an intentional decision to get us hooked on our devices. We use and experience apps and noises and interfaces that cozy up right inside those parts of our brains that are most vulnerable to their attacks. It is no wonder, then, that we are addicted to potato chips. No wonder, then, that we are addicted to our devices.

So, we are addicted. Now what? Well, not only is technology not going away, it is only going to get more pervasive and more intimate. My goal is not to shame you into putting your device down. (Really, one thing this world does not need any more of is shame.) My goal is to share my strategies and ideas that (sometimes) work for me in the hopes that one (or more) might resonate with you. While I certainly believe that we can and should hold tech conglomerates and food conglomerates accountable for the messes they have made, I nonetheless also believe that individual, incremental changes can impact our daily lives in a positive way. Without futher ado, then, here are the ten times during my day where I aim to ditch my devices.

1. First thing in the morning

A yoga teacher recently reminded me of the beauty of the time between sleep and wakefulness. He explained it is a time during the day when we might be most in tune with our spiritual selves, and, as such, he encouraged us to embrace that fatigue instead of running from it. So many of us want to push through that fatigue — a cold shower or espresso in the morning, an iced latte or a bout of physical activity in the afternoon. But if we are constantly trying to quell our fatigue, we miss out on what that fatigue might be trying to tell or offer us. In a yogic sense, that fatigue might offer us a chance for creativity, problem-solving, or greater self-reflection. Hopping on my phone or my laptop first thing in the morning likely means I would miss those opportunities. Yes, I need to check the weather. And, yes, there might be important emails from work. And, yes, I want to see how my impassioned Facebook post or comment was received. But, it can wait. Although I am a work-in-progress when it comes to my goal of a 10-minute morning yoga practice, for now I prioritize a few moments of stretching in bed. And I find that when I don’t immediately reach for my device, I can often access, in those first few minutes of the morning, some ideas for my writing — creative bursts or breakthroughs, if you will — that might otherwise be lost.

2. While driving

This hardly bears mentioning, but, sadly, texting and driving is a real epidemic. I estimate that as I drive through my community (a somewhat confusing mix of suburban/exurban/rural), I witness no fewer than 50% of all drivers actively engaged with a screen either in their laps or in their hands. According to the CDC, distracted driving accounts for eight deaths every day in our country, and while distracted driving can take other forms, using a handheld device is likely the most deadly. So it behooves me to put my phone away, on silent, and in my bag. If I want my phone to listen to a podcast or audiobook (my current favorite here) while I’m driving, I set it up before beginning to drive, and then I leave my phone out of sight and out of reach.

3. While walking

I like to walk. As a onetime long distance runner, what I miss about my training runs is the opportunity to be outside for long stretches of time with very little internal or external expectations on me other than moving my feet. For me, walking is a way to decompress, to release emotions that no longer serve me, and/or to practice a moving meditation (although that’s hard for me). But if I’m checking Facebook or Instagram while I walk, I miss the opportunity to do any of those things. I likely miss out on some of the stress-lowering hormones that come with a visual experience of green space. Not to mention, I risk physical harm as well because I am more likely to fall, trip, or run into something if I walk while looking at a phone.

4. While exercising

I know lots of people are commited to watching Netflix or Hulu while on the elliptical or stationary bike. And, during my running days, I, too, used treadmills and television to help me through those times when, because of inclement weather or a lack of childcare, I was stuck inside. But now that I spend more of my time either in a yoga class or in a gym, doing kickboxing or HIIT workouts, I aim to leave my phone out of sight. For one thing, it forces me to more consistently priotize movement; some recent studies suggest that people who exercised while simultaneously looking at a screen didn’t work as hard as they might have otherwise. Disconnecting from my devices allows me to focus on my breathing, a favorite mantra, or my intentions for the day/week/year. Of course, there are times when I want some music. Luckily, the gym I go to has a very high-tech sound system: FM radio set to the oldies station.

5. While on a conference call

This one is a struggle for me, as I often find myself on a call that doesn’t require a great deal of my attention. Therefore, I see it as an opportunity to multitask: return mundane emails, update my calendar, or make an online purchase. The problem is that if I make a habit out of this, then I am likely to miss something important on the call, and I am also likely to make a mistake in my other work — thereby turning a seemingly innocuous activity into something much larger that will require time and effort to repair at a later time.

6. While having a conversation with anyone — whether on the telephone or in person

We all wish that this could go without saying, but I repeat this to myself constantly: Put your phone down when there is a real life person seeking connection right in front of you (or over the telephone line). Much like on a conference call, if I am on a phone call with a friend or colleague that is dragging on for too long, or if I find myself disengaging from the conversation, I might open Facebook or Instagram and scroll while I “talk.” What good does this possibly do either one of us? If I can be fully present in my conversation, even if it is over the phone, then I not only boost the quality of that relationship, I boost my own brain power. If I find myself wishing to end the conversation sooner than my friend would like, then I have two choices: I can either take a deep breathe and recommit to the topic at hand, or I can simply and lovingly inform my friend that I need to end the call to return to my other needs. The same is absolutely true during a face-to-face encounter. If I need to end the conversation, then it is my responsibility as a compassionate human to do just that, and not to scroll through my phone (and then make excuses about how my screen life is more important than my physical life with my friend/husband/child right in front of me).

7. During meal times

See number 6, above. Although I routinely listen to podcasts or audiobooks while working in the kitchen, it’s all devices out of sight/out of mind (ha! — the latter not so much for the teenagers) once we sit down to a family meal.

8. In the bathroom

It is tempting for me, as it might be for you, to catch up on the Twittersphere while on the pot (I know, gross) or in the tub. But I have found that if I reserve some rooms of my home as technology-free zones, then I have just a little more control against the powers that would otherwise see every corner of my life enmeshed in their products. Although I’m not a big ritual person, I have recently come to appreciate a lighted candle as a way to mark the end of the working part of my day. So every time I go into the bathroom, especially at the end of the day, I light a candle during my shower, my flossing, my nail trimming. It helps me stay calm and present as I perform mundane yet necessary self-care. And on the (all-too-infrequently) chance I have time for a full bath, I feel much saner, more centered with a paper book in my hands. If you’ve ever dropped your phone into a bathtub full of water, I’m sure you can attest to the wisdom of this approach.

9. During sex or cuddle time

First, let me make clear that there are plenty of times when I am in a room with people I love — my husband, my children, or other family members — and all of us are on our devices — perhaps even more than I want to admit. I’m trying to sort out how I feel about that. On the one hand, as our phones become more and more multipurpose, they are, in fact, important tools to get us through our days: I use my phone to communicate with friends and family, to coordinate with editors and colleagues, to check my calendar, to read a novel, to set a timer, to look up a recipe or meal inspiration, to research something for my writing, to make an appointment, and/or to read the news. The list goes on and on of ways that I might be engaged in productive, fulfilling work while nevertheless being on “screen time.” Additionally, there might be times when my husband and I are both on our phones or laptops while simultaneously lounging on the sofa. That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem — we have implicitly and explicitly agreed to give each other the space to use our devices in the ways that we used to agree to give each other the space to read (a physical book), or play solitaire, or write a letter to a friend. But problems can creep in when we mistake coexisting with intimacy. If my husband and I, and my children and I, don’t have some physical touch time every day, we can grow distant. So when my taller-than-I-am teenagers come up behind me for a hug and a cuddle, I put my phone down to hug them back, to tell them I am grateful for their touch, for their funny stories, for their presence in my life and in my space. I want them to know that they are loved and appreciated. When my not-a-baby-anymore youngest daughter wants to crawl on my lap for a snuggle and a chat, I close my laptop so that she knows that I see her. So that I can admire the high arches of her feet, the way her hair smells like coconut from the homemade hair masks she makes, and the art project or science experiment that she wants to tell me about. To stay on my device during these times sends the message that I am uninterested in these little daily occurrences that make up the fabric of my life. This doesn’t mean that I don’t also often miss those chances — and often it is even intentional. If I am working against a deadline, or engrossed in something that feels critical, I might simply say — ”give me five minutes,” or “I’m sorry, I need to finish this.” It’s not that there’s a right or wrong — it’s just important to me to be aware of those different opportunities. And with my husband, in spite of all the time we spend coexisting on our devices, with each passing day and year I am even more convinced that we MUST make time for ourselves to just be together — sex or cuddling or talking or laughing or crying or even fighting — but we must do more than coexist. We must experience the messiness of our lives together if we have any hope of growing up and outwards in tandem and not simply apart.

10. Before bed

As both a stay-at-home mom and a work-from-home writer and nutrition consultant, I am pretty much on my phone or laptop every second of every day. Because my day is not delineated into easy chunks of “work” and “not work,” I struggle with managing my screen time. Whereas I once wrote boring business tomes and reports, I now find myself often making notes for future stories or essays, or reading news articles and blog posts with an eye for connections to my own work. As such, I am often reticent to disconnect out of a real fear of missing out — although not necessarily in the way “FOMO” is typically used. For me, it’s a fear that I will miss an important insight or connection. But of course that isn’t based in reality: any insight or connection worth making will come not as a result of me relentlessly scrolling through The New Yorker’s archives, but as a result of me being rested, and well-read, and balanced. Although it is hard, I find that I sleep better, feel better, and get more leisure reading done if I leave my device downstairs before heading up at the end of the day. I almost always take a quick shower before bed, usually by this time in a very quiet house, as I am always the last person awake. I enjoy that quiet — that sense of knowing that all of my children (even my teenagers) are tucked safely into their own beds, that the dog has settled down for the night, that even if there are still dirty pots and pans in the sink, the kitchen can accommodate the onslaught of another day. If I don’t bring my phone to bed with me, then I am likely to make more progress on my fiction reading. (I usually allocate daytime hours to read nonfiction or technical pieces.) So then, with a sense of gratitude — gratitude for the quiet, for my fatigue, for whatever my day has been — I crawl into bed and read until sleep overcomes me. Although there were many years when I read huge quantities of both fiction and nonfiction on my Kindle app on my iPhone, I now want to avoid lights from screens at bedtime, and so it is back to a pile of books beside my bed.

Are there still days when I mess up on one of these goals? All of these goals? It’s likely. But it’s also likely that unless I am intentional about technology — both how I use it and how I don’t — then I run the risk of being used by it, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all to me.