A few years ago, after chucking my television and jettisoning home Internet, I locked my cellphone in a drawer for a few months. Boy oh boy did I learn a lot about my lonely, distracted self after removing those pacifiers from my reach.
Addiction. I was addicted to my smartphone, constantly twitching for the next “important” email, viral video, or Facebook message—ignoring the world in front of me for a universe of zeros and ones.
(Dis)connection. Our technology is wonderful: it has enabled us to connect with the infinite expanse of this world, but it has also given us a weapon to sever our deepest connections. True, we can tweet with folks on other continents—I’ve met most of my closest friends online—but in doing so we sometimes isolate ourselves from the person sitting across from us.
Dependency. Like a child’s security blanket, I needed my phone to feel safe, calm, whole. And, like that child, when I lost it, I lost it: panic struck each time my hand involuntarily breached the pocket where the device normally waited for me.
Impulsivity. The opposite of intention is impulse, which accurately described my former relationship with my smartphone: I acted primarily on impulse, always reacting to what my phone instructed me to do. I wasn’t using the phone—it was using me.
Urgency. My cellphone came equipped with a false sense of urgency, which helped me construct a facade of spurious self-importance: of course I needed my phone on me at all times because I’m so damn important that, you know, what if someone needs to get ahold of me right now? In reality, that’s nearly never the case—because most emergencies aren’t emergencies. Truth be told, I am an outstanding friend, but if you have a real emergency, I’m not the best guy to call: if your water heater breaks, call a plumber; a burglar strikes, call the police; someone gets injured, call 911. Once the professionals have quashed the crisis, leave me a voicemail—I’ll be there soon to help pick up the pieces.
When I eventually reintroduced the cellphone into my everyday life, I realized the phone was never the problem—I was. So I developed a framework to help solve that problem. Today, while I’m not perfect, I do my best to use my smartphone intentionally.
Distractions. Email and Facebook no longer reside on my device, nor does anything else I perceive as a waste of time. And apps I haven’t used in the last month are deleted, too.
Interruptions. Notifications, both visual and auditory, do not exist on my phone—no banners, sounds, or alerts of any kind. I don’t need to be “notified” (read: interrupted) every time someone double taps a photo on Instagram.
Barriers. In the presence of friends, I leave the phone in the car or at home because I’ve realized when we place our phones on a table in front of us, we send a subtle message to our loved ones: you’re important only until something more important interrupts us. Removing the phone, however, removes an invisible barrier from our interactions and shows the people we care about that we do, in fact, care about them.
Tethers. At home, my phone has its own home: docked on a charging stand. I use it only in that location when I’m home, allowing me to otherwise untether from the device, which helps me tether myself to more important tasks: writing, reading, sleeping.
Tools. The phone is a valuable tool, but only if it adds value to our lives. Nowadays I use the phone for texts, phone calls, music, podcasts, audiobooks, GPS, and anything that truly serves a purpose: Uber, hotel and flight apps, a notepad, the dictionary app, and the glorious Kindle app—which is now located in the spot formerly occupied by the Facebook app. Now when I feel that twitch, I automatically focus on something worthwhile: reading a book instead of getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle of Likes, Notifications, and Status Updates.
Nevers. And, of course, as a reformed man there are a few things I’ll never do with my phone: I’ll never text and drive (again). I’ll never reach for my phone while standing at a urinal (again). And I’ll never use my phone in bed (again), because the bed is meant for two things, neither of which involve call logs or text messages.
We are all fighting our own battles with technological inundation: look up from your device and you’ll see a sea of lonely people lost in the tantalizing glow of their screens, trading intention for impulse. Our wonderful gadgets have given us access to overwhelming convenience, but if we squander that convenience, we’ll find ourselves crushed by the weight of our impulses, searching pixels for meaning when there are countless reasons to live on this side of the screen.
Yes, technology has undoubtedly made our lives better—so much so we wouldn’t want to live without it—so we must find ways to live with it.
If you’d like to hear an expanded, half-hour discussion on this topic, listen to “Cellular Exodus,” episode 23 of Rob Bell’s RobCast, from which the title of this essay was borrowed. And if you find value in The Minimalists, consider donating a dollar.