Updated: May 21, 2019
Phones make living our lives better but they are not better than living our life.
A couple of months ago, I left my phone at home by mistake when I went to work. Realising too late, with a client to meet and not enough time to turn back to get it, I spent the next eight hours in a highly anxious state about not having it with me. Some of my concerns seemed on the surface mildly rational, ‘What if my children’s school need to contact me?’ ‘What if my car breaks down?’ ‘What if I’m running late?’ - Others seemed, on reflection, nothing short of ludicrous, ‘What if I have some time to kill and nothing to do?’
During those phone-less eight hours my ‘phone awareness radar’ went into overdrive. As I waited in line for a coffee, I noticed everyone on their phones, my client checked her phone a dozen times while we worked, the radio in the car advertised data plans, people crossed the road staring into their phones, friends stood together for selfies. Arrrgghh- enough already world! I’m phone-less! Just stop taunting me.
It just rolls off the tongue.
Like homeless. Only, homeless is an actual thing. Someone without a home. That’s serious. That’s critical. That’s life changing.
Phone-less. Someone without a phone. That’s not serious or critical. That’s not life changing. I’m old enough to admit that I have spent more years of my life without a phone than with one.
If the school can't reach me, they can call someone on my emergency contact list. That’s why those lists exist. If I'm running late, I'll apologise and explain on my arrival. If my car brakes down, I'll walk to the nearest shop or pay phone and call someone to help.
So why, in less than 20 years of phone ownership, could I be at the point where having a few hours without a phone made me feel like I’d lost a limb?
It make me look at myself and call it as I saw it- bullsh*t!
I quickly realised the paradox- I declutter people’s homes and lives for a living and yet I was cluttering so much of my own life with this gadget. Enough already. I decided to spend six week’s actively trying to reduce my phone usage and become more aware of my phone behaviour.
The timing couldn’t be better. My daughters are aged eight and almost ten and devouring my example. Is my usual phone behaviour really how I want to model appropriate phone usage to them? When my daughter’s get their first phones (I shudder at the thought) I will not permit them to answer calls or texts during family dinner time. Yet, I was doing it- excusing myself in case it was urgent. Fail. I will not want them to constantly check their phones during a movie together or mid-conversation with me. How rude- am I not enough to hold their attention? But I have done it to them. Fail. I will tell them it is ridiculous to sit with one screen in front of the other, on a phone scrolling while in front of the TV. That’s madness. But you guessed it- that was a fail for me too.
Becoming aware of my behaviour has been half the battle. I downloaded an app* which tracked my phone usage, how often I check my phone, which app I spent the most time on and the percentage of my waking life spent staring at that small screen. It was paralysing. I could not believe that on average I was checking my phone 25 times a day. Who did I think I was? What was I checking for exactly? Am I really that important? No.
The app allowed me to quantify the amount of time I spent getting lost on Facebook. I’m not anti-Facebook but I would find myself being notified, opening it and then losing twenty minutes or more getting sucked into the black hole again because someone I knew fifteen years ago posted a quiz to find out ‘What kind of vegetable are you?’ Seriously.
I started by turning the notifications off and then decided that I’d just remove Facebook from my phone altogether. I still have an account, but I will only check it on my IPad, which I don’t usually pick up until after my daughters are in bed. And after a few days, it seemed like too much effort to even check Facebook daily and so I stopped. I checked it last night after not looking at it for about 3 weeks. And you know what, I haven’t really missed anything important. Now there’s a teaching opportunity. When my daughters ask about Facebook, I can tell them I have it but the opinions expressed on Facebook are not critical to my life and those interactions are not the ones that matter most to me. Bam!
I was using my phone for work sometimes. I’d use it to post to social media, to research a topic, talk to clients or to write an email. Now I try to complete many of those tasks on my laptop. When my daughters see me typing away on my laptop- they see me as working. When they see me on my phone, they see me playing, whether the task is work related or not. If I'm not actively engaging with them I'd prefer them to see me working rather than scrolling. I want them to know if I say, I’ll just be 10 more minutes, they know it is because I’m responding to a client not adding to my board on Pinterest. I want them to know that staring at someone else’s life on social media is not more important to me than being present in theirs. The message is subliminal but powerful. If my kids regularly see me choose the phone over them, what will that do to their self worth?
My journey towards intentional phone usage directed me to reading about the phenomenon of phone addiction and I was gob smacked. Studies suggest 50% of teens are addicted to their phones and the cycle read just like a medical journey detailing drug or alcohol addiction. Teens access social media sites to give them a boost and with the advent of the ‘my life is perfect’ facade which everyone is bent on displaying, teens exit the interaction feeling worse about themselves. Self esteem plummets. Then they seek it out again with the same degrading results and repeat and repeat. It is such a destructive pattern and one that has seen a huge increase in mental health issues and teen suicide (Forbes, 2017). How did we get this way?
What happened to the adults of the early 2000s who didn’t photograph and post every meal and interaction, but carried their phones for a text or call or just in case? I used to be one of them. I decided to revert. I turned my phone to airplane mode for 4 days. It was in my handbag for ‘just in case’ but honestly, it wasn’t required. So how did I survive? I twitched for it occasionally, but generally found myself with a bunch of extra time. I read more. I was free from distraction, with my work, my family, and my friends. I socialised more- seeking friends spoken words for interaction rather than their images or written words. I was really connected and not by a platform but by honest real-time communication.
When faced with a query, I would turn it over in my mind rather than type it into Google. Ideas came and went and I wrote the important ones down in my diary instead of scheduling them into my phone. The moments worth capturing were captured by every other person around me and for once I was in the photos rather than taking the photos! My family and close friends knew that if there was a ‘real emergency’ they could get hold of me via my husband’s number and thankfully there was no need. And all that other stuff, just waited. It was such a liberating experience that I will try to go ‘off grid’ more often, even if just for a day or a weekend.
So, six weeks later, experiment complete- my average phone usage is down by more than an hour a day when compared to that of 2 months ago. If you would’ve told me that you could give me back an extra hour every day I would have never believed you. But it’s easy.
Ask me what you can do to be more intentional with your phone and get some time back for what's important and I’d tell you this-
1. Be aware of your own bullsh*t excuses!
2. Remind yourself daily that you are in control of your phone and your accessibility to others. Say ‘no’. Say ‘not now’. You don’t always have to answer that call, or reply to that text immediately. People will wait for a response.
3. Forget the obligations. Just because someone tagged you, doesn’t mean you have to respond today, or even tomorrow. Take back the power of responding when it suits YOU.
4. Turn off all notifications. Stop the ping and preview displays. Every time that phone pings, it takes you out of the present moment. Focus on who you’re with and what you’re doing. Give them your fullest attention and set aside time later to check notifications.
5. See social media as a hobby or luxury activity. Liken it to reading a book or taking a long bath. Do it sometimes for fun, not constantly because it’s expected.
6. Find opportunities to break the trend. Wait in line without staring at your screen, spend the ad break of a TV show putting the dishes away rather than scrolling, ask a friend for advice to solve a problem rather than looking it up on Google.
7. Challenge yourself to spend one week enjoying the moment rather than capturing the moment. We take so many photos we don’t really need. Just be there- taste the food, appreciate the sunset, hang out with friends without a photo to prove it.
8. Have meaningful interactions. Forget texting the crying emoji. If your friend is upset, visit them and give them a hug. If they are celebrating, call them to cheer down the phone. Connect with people the old fashioned way.
9. Do not regularly choose scrolling on your phone over being present with your kids. They see you and they feel it.
10. Have a vacation from your phone. For an hour or a day. Go off grid and be liberated.
Phone clutter is incessant, unrelenting and unnecessary. Stop scrolling. Turn it off. Put it away. Your life is happening without you while you are lost in that screen.
*The app I used to track my usage is Moment and is available from the Appstore. This blog is not endorsed or sponsored by Moment or its affiliates.