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At first life without a smartphone was terrifying. Then it was beautiful

In an attempt to try and battle an addiction to my smartphone (I’m sure most of us suffer from this addiction in some measure these days), I took a pretty radical step. I went out and bought a basic Nokia to use outside of work as much as I could. This “dumbphone,” as it’s called, would only allow me to call or text.

For one week, I kept a public daily diary of Facebook posts documenting my experiment. It was a verbal commitment to myself, and by doing it publicly, I figured it’d help me stay committed. It wasn’t the perfect experiment, but it showed me how glued I was to my smartphone—and how much of my life I got back once I learnt how to put it down. That I could control it instead of it controlling me. An edited and condensed version of that journey follows.

Day 1: I’ve been hijacked by my smartphone.

I didn’t buy a yellow Nokia because it’s a fad. I bought it because I’m sick and tired of staring into my screen. Staring into it while waiting in line at a store. When going to the bathroom. Upon waking up first thing in the morning or going to sleep, the last thing at night. Swiping down with my thumb to check email for the 5000th time. Picking it up when a friend opposite me at lunch gets a call on their smartphone. Staring at it as I’m walking down the block answering Whatsapp, Facebook messages and checking out Instagram. Responding to people while my kids are playing and they aren’t looking. While I’m at a red light on my bike. When I’m bored sitting on a park bench. In the waiting room at the dentist. At the cinema when the action on screen has died down for a minute. Staring into it when checking finances.

 Any given situation where I have a moment, I choose to stare into my smartphone screen at something that really isn’t critical. Basically, any given situation where I have a moment or space, I choose to stare into my smartphone screen at something that really isn’t critical.

It’s hijacked my eyes. My brain. My life. It’s made me more uncomfortable and anxious. It’s basically been robbing me of my creativity (and I’m a creative director and writer at a branding agency) because I’m interacting with it as opposed to the real world.

Sure, my social life is suffering for it, as well. But most of all, I’m not really engaging with myself as much as I used to. I don’t let myself get bored and through that boredom create things. I don’t observe things around me. I don’t feel as much as I used to. I’m lazier. I’m hazier. I’m sadder.

I can’t keep going like this just because everyone does—it makes no sense to me to do something because, well, that’s just the way it is. People that I’ve spoken to about this have looked at me and said, “What are you going to do? It’s the way of the world now.”. And they’ve usually said that to me from behind their smartphone, too.

I guess that’s why I’m trying.

I won’t be giving up my smartphone entirely—I’ll still be on it during working hours, I have to be. But I’m going to try and stay off the smartphone in the evenings and on the weekends wherever possible. I’ll simply go to the laptop or computer as needed. And if I am on my smartphone, my already app-stripped iPhone will become more so. No games. No news. No Facebook. No Twitter. No redundant and unnecessary shit. Just tools. Nothing to entice me like crack.

Just the bare minimum so I can get back to living the bare maximum.

Day 2: Hello. I’m not feeling like myself at all.

It’s embarrassing and I feel kind of pathetic to write publicly that today was hard. Really hard. I’m super-frustrated.

I knew it wasn’t my iPhone I wanted. It was noise. Distractions from silence and distractions from my own self. (Eitan Chitayat)

Last night I went to sleep leaving my iPhone in my study, and instead, by my side was this dumbphone from Nokia. To not be able to read the news, check Facebook on a whim, scroll through Instagram, check emails and play with various other apps last thing before I went to bed just felt like torture. No games, no reading, no toying around. It was bizarre. I didn’t even know about the America led an air attack against Syria until way after it happened. I felt disconnected to everything. I can’t say in any positive way that I felt connected to myself because the only thing I was thinking was: “I want my iPhone, I want my iPhone, I want my iPhone”. But I knew it wasn’t my iPhone I wanted. It was noise I wanted. Distractions from silence and distractions from my own self.

We went out to breakfast with my wife’s folks in the morning. We ate. The kids played. I watched people. I noticed the waiter and this evening as I write this, I can actually remember what he looked like. The tone of his skin. His loosely fitting clothes and the way he held all the menus awkwardly as he was trying to take down our order. I remember little things like that during the day. I remember details, and that’s something that surprised me. Just little things. The exact colors my oldest beautiful son used while drawing in his new Lightning McQueen book. I recall the cars that my gorgeous youngest son took out and the exact reason he gave for wanting to play with them. I remember the color of the wallpaper at the restaurant we were at this evening. And sure, I don’t think I remember this all because I wasn’t looking at my iPhone all the time, but I was definitely more present. Today just felt more vivid.

But not easy. Not fun. Not yet.

I abhorred one thing in particular. And that was the feeling I had in my right hand all day. The emptiness in it. No, really—I’m not kidding. I felt the absence in a HUGE way. Physically. All day this nagging feeling—this physical craving I had to simply hold in my hand my smartphone instead of this dumbphone piece of crap that gave me nothing but phone calls (That I didn’t make today because I didn’t need to) and text messages (same thing – none needed today).

How did I get here? How am I going to make it through tomorrow, let alone this week?

Day 3: Wait a second. I think I’m actually going to be able to do this.

Day three wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, which shocked me. I was expecting the worst.

Yesterday was a weekend day so I spent just four minutes on the iPhone…very little time (I track time spent on my smartphone using the Moments app). Today was a workday and I ended up spending—tadah!—just 49 minutes on it. That’s down from last Sunday’s whopping 4 hours and 19 minutes spent on my iPhone.

I got up this morning and, annoyingly, had to go to the study to check the weather forecast on my iMac. That’s such an adjustment for me! Having to walk somewhere to see what the weather’s like sucks. I glanced at some Whatsapp messages and emails and Facebook posts on the iPhone in my study (which I then left there) before heading back to my room to get myself and the kids ready to head out for nursery school.

Before leaving the house, I switched the SIM card from my Nokia back to my iPhone and took both out with me. After a meeting and on my way work, I stopped to get a coffee and a sandwich. As I waited, I kept the iPhone squarely in my bag and allowed myself to look around and do some people-watching.

It was awful.

People use their smartphone to take photos of the L'Oreal fashion show on the Champs Elysees avenue during a public event organized by French cosmetics group L'Oreal as part of Paris Fashion Week, France, October 1, 2017.
It’s a bloody epidemic. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)

There were six individuals sitting down. One on his laptop, the other five all staring at their smartphones. Not one person had their head up. What’s the point of weaning me off this thing so I can enjoy looking around me when all I see are other addicts all looking into their iPhones? It’s a bloody epidemic. All I could think about was what are kids who come in with their parents thinking about all these people? I mean, young kids who are three, four, five, 10 years old even—this is the world they’re inheriting. No one really looks at each other anymore. They think that’s normal.

Ugh.

I got to work and told my account manager about the mission I’ve given myself. Of course, there are work ramifications to doing this but I assured her, I’d be with the smartphone all day. She asked “What about Whatsapp?” and I let her know that during work hours I’d be available and after hours, only SMS. Perfectly doable.

The rest of the day, I had the iPhone on me. And it wasn’t bad at all. The first thing I did at work was to delete all my news apps. There’s really not much left in the form of entertainment or things that can distract me on my iPhone at this stage. I’ve got Chrome and Safari browsers, and they’re serious culprits, but needed for work. I’ve got Instagram, but I didn’t touch it until later in the day at a client meeting because we were on the 45th floor over the city and I wanted to take a shot. I’ve got my Google apps for work along with the Apple ones, I’ve got a photo and movie editing app, and some various other tools, but that’s around it. And I’ve got one game, Words with Friends, and on occasion, I’d make my move.

Funnily enough, the itch, the desire, the craving to engage with the iPhone wasn’t as bad as I expected. I was actually surprised. This was meant to be the scary day—the day that, armed again with my iPhone, I’d be staring into it all day, unable to control the urge. But having stripped it of most of its power, and it being a work-day and all, it didn’t have much power of me at all—if any, in fact.

After I came home, at around 7.30pm, the iPhone went back into the study, and I proceeded to add some more contacts to my Nokia which simply has to be done. I had gotten a dual SIM for my number, so I wouldn’t have to switch SIM cards constantly between the Nokia and the iPhone. They both ring at the same time, so because the Nokia is on me now, that’s the one I’ll pick up this evening.

I’m beginning to realize that what I’m doing, it’s just another decision. It’s not an easy one to follow through on and it’ll take discipline and adjusting. But just like all difficult choices we make in life, it’s up to us individually at the end of the day. And it’s all entirely possible.

Day 4: What to do with all these free minutes?

I woke up in the morning and it didn’t feel weird to not have my iPhone at my bedside. It felt more normal after spending some time with the kids to pop off to my study to quickly glance at emails and Whatsapp messages. I even forgot to check out Facebook before I left the house. I know that sounds pathetic and I can’t believe I’m writing the words here for you to read, but yes, I always look at Facebook and I forgot to in the morning. Instagram, too, and the news and some other pointless apps. Today I didn’t. And it felt great. Instead I focused on just doing more “normal” things. I played with the kids, got dressed, forgot to eat breakfast as well, and then, together with my wife, we all left the house.

I am so grateful for all the personal messages of support on Facebook that I saw later in the day, which makes me wonder what would happen if more people did this—people who were miserable by what we’ve become—and how we could all help each other. It’s amazing to write these words down in front of my computer in my study, a contained environment, as opposed to writing it from anywhere in my house where I could easily segue-way to something else on my iPhone afterward for the next hour or two.

 I woke up in the morning and it didn’t feel weird to not have my iPhone at my bedside.  Also, we got a clock for the house. It was my wife’s idea for quite a while, but for my needs, it’s great. One less reason to have a phone on me at home. Truth be told, I’m thinking about getting a watch again, too. (My wife’s already wearing hers.)

Oh, and I’ve been a cranky motherf*#@er the last three days. Really. I’ve been irritable. I’ve been agitated. I’ve been short-tempered (rare for me) and aggravated. Patience which is usually my strength has not been my companion. I’ve apologized to my wife (bless her) for putting up with me and my moodiness and she’s been nothing but supportive. A little confused, maybe.

Why? I’ve been averaging four hours a day on my smartphone, picking it up around 70 to 100 times a day. Really, I could cut that down to one to two absolutely necessary hours during a workday. And significantly fewer pick-ups.

So when I’ve suddenly yanked myself off the iPhone like I have recently, it’s not just that it feels bizarre and surreal—it’s like, “What am I doing with my time now that I have time?” The knowledge or intuition of what I do doesn’t come back to me naturally. To think, look at the world, to reach out, to interact physically, to engage with people, to be bored and comfortable with silence and have less white noise… it’s weird. It’s frustrating.

It still feels wrong but with little, tiny, teenie increments of right here and there.

Day 5: The anti-smartphone pendulum is swinging in my favor.

At my desk. In my study. I’m writing.

The last two days of smartphone detox have been seriously positive. I’m slowly beginning to feel that this isn’t just an experience like I was feeling the first few days. It feels less like an experiment and more like a new reality. The last two days I’ve felt real change. The pendulum has shifted and I’m feeling more comfortable with the reality of truly and significantly less smartphone in my life.

56 minutes on my iPhone today. (Sorry if that pisses you off.)

Yesterday, I went to the bank to pick up a credit card. I had my iPhone on me of course as it was the middle of a workday. It was a sterile-looking bank (aren’t they all?) with not much to look at. Anemic. Uninteresting and bland. The clerk told me he had to go to the back and see if my card was ready. So I sat at his desk and waited. Must have been at least three minutes. Maybe four. I didn’t bust out the iPhone. It was in my pocket and it stayed there. Wasn’t easy.

 While there was nothing to really look at, I created space in my head to have a debate and talk to myself as opposed to letting some noise talk to me. There was nothing to look at. His keyboard. Notes with his scribbled down handwriting. A calculator. Some corporate bank pictures framed in plastic. Really, nothing. I sat there. Craving. Itching. Debating in my head all the while. “Just take it out—it’s not like there’s anything to do here. Read an article. Check your email. Make a move on Words with Friends. Hell, test the wireless Internet speed at the bank.” Those few minutes felt like an eternity.

But I didn’t take out my iPhone. I sat there and I won a little battle. And it felt good. Because while there was nothing to really look at, I created space in my head to have a debate and talk to myself as opposed to letting some noise talk to me. I did notice his desk. I did notice the calculator. I did see the awful pictures on the walls. Things I wouldn’t have noticed normally. And the next time I’m somewhere and I don’t take out the smartphone, who’s to say I won’t notice the small thing that’ll spark the fire in my head to create something beautiful out of my agency that people can enjoy? To inspire something I tell my kids? To deliver a killer idea for a logo or tagline for a client? To inspire something new and different I do for me or me and my wife?

Day 6 I’m finally, really (really!) reading a book again.

Books. I have one at my bedside. I’ve been picking it up every night. I’ve been enjoying the experience I’ve missed for so many years of not just reading through a few pages, but of the feeling that I’m not forcing myself. Even up to a week or two ago, whenever I’d try and read, it felt exactly like that—trying.

It’s shameful and again, embarrassing that I’m admitting this for the world to read, but I’ve wanted that feeling for years. The pure desire to read—the feeling of want, not the rationale of want.

It’s not like I haven’t been reading, I have. But in spurts, online, blog posts, articles, stuff like that. Not really, really, really reading. Uninterrupted. Immersed.

The pages I’ve read every night the past few nights, I’ve felt much more immersed than when I’ve tried to read the many chapters from random books over the years (except when I’ve been able to focus on vacation) simply because I feel more connected to myself. I don’t know if that makes sense—I hope so.

I guess these public posts are helping me feel, not just for myself but for the world at large, that it’s entirely possible to take back our lives from this epidemic of smartphone addiction.

Day 7: God made the world in seven days. It’ll take me longer to reclaim mine.

Today is the last day that I’ll be documenting my public journey about trying to be less connected to my mobile device.

Earlier in the day yesterday, I met with my father-in-law for coffee. It was a little difficult because at the beginning he was writing to someone on his device and I always find it hard when someone else is on the phone. That’s when the urge is most tempting to bust out my phone. If the person isn’t “with me” for whatever reason, I naturally just pick mine up. But I didn’t do anything. I just waited and when he was done we continued.

I did slip and fall though.

Before picking my eldest up from nursery school, I bought a sandwich and sat on a bench to eat. Sitting there eating a sandwich with not much to look at, I got a little bored. I’m eating, and all I’m thinking of is the news, what about some photos to look at? Facebook, anyone? The urge was really strong. I picked up my phone and I checked my email. I’m admitting it and and I’m including it here because honestly, it’s not such a big deal.

But it is.

 I want to revel in boredom…and not be tempted to reach for my phone.  I really didn’t need to pick it up. It annoyed and still annoys me that I did. Just because I want to get that stage where I can be bored. I want to revel in boredom. I want to talk to the voice in my head when I’m bored and not be tempted to reach for my phone. I want to be sitting on the bench looking around and not feel like I’m missing out on something. Because I’m not.

I want to be present. Is that so much to ask for? Is that so odd to crave in this day and age?

Maybe you’re reading this thinking I’m taking it too far and being ridiculous. That it’s just a smartphone, people check them all the time and that’s just the way it is and I should get over it and get used to it. But being on it most of my free time feels wrong on every level. I don’t want to get used to it anymore. It shouldn’t be this hard to reduce the amount of time I spend looking at this damn screen instead of being with my own thoughts. It shouldn’t be this challenging. But it is. And that says tons.

I know I’m not where I want to be with this issue yet and it’ll take more effort. I’d say I need another month of serious detox. Here and there I’m sure I’ll stumble and I’m giving myself the OK. But I won’t give myself too many breaks because it’s a slippery slope. Three minutes can easily become 30 minutes. Thirty minutes can quickly become 300.

Sorry, smartphone. Not on my watch.

Not anymore.

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