Must one unplug from reality to properly observe reality?
Going without a phone for any extended period of time seems to be the modern day equivalent of a vow of silence. Two months ago I decided to 86 my phone for sixty days as an experiment, just to see what would happen, just to see if my world would keep spinning. People were shocked. Some were appalled. Some people were worried about me.
I’ll skip the overused Matrix references about unplugging from the grid and simply say that I learned more about myself than I intended to. I couldn’t have done so without disconnecting for a while, without stepping back and actually thinking about my life in a deliberate, uninterrupted way.
This is what I learned during my two months of quiet time.
We have weird expectations. I realized I needed to get rid of my cellphone for a while when I felt pressure to respond to text messages, email, and social media throughout the day. We all have different expectations. You might expect someone to respond to a text message in an hour, someone else might expect a response in ten minutes, another person might expect a response the same day. These expectations are arbitrary. When I eliminated my ability to immediately respond, I was able to toss everyone’s expectations into the ocean.
Meaningful conversations. Without the banality of ephemeral text conversations, my real face-to-face conversations have become more meaningful. While I’m together with people I’m close to I have more to talk about. I enjoy these conversations more.
People are supportive and understanding. When we make changes in our lives, we’re often afraid of what people will think of us. Will they think I’m crazy or stupid or out of touch? The truth is, people are more supportive and understanding than we think. Particularly the people who are closest to us. Especially when we discuss our changes with them and let them know we’re making the changes so we can live happier lives.
We program ourselves. Without knowing it, our daily activities have a profound impact on our future selves. I used to reach for my BlackBerry every few minutes no matter where I was—even at the urinal. Even when the phone wasn’t with me I would reach for it. I was programmed to do so. I call this the Twitch (which, for all intents and purposes, is a wimpier version of Julien Smith’s Flinch).
We can reprogram ourselves. Similarly, we can change these patterns. When we remove a habit from our lives, we become acutely aware of how that habit effected our lives. This is true for any habit: smoking, over-eating, etc. It took 22 days for me to reprogram the Twitch, 22 days of pausing and noticing why I was Twitching. After 22 days I no longer felt the urge to immediately react; I no longer felt the need to pacify my self with transitory activities like texting or responding to emails during every moment of “downtime.”
Downtime is a misnomer. We used to have precious interstitial zones in which we could find momentary solace: airports, checkout lines, waiting rooms, and other places were transient sanctuaries in which we could bask in reverie. This is no longer the case. I now notice everyone on their phones during these precious moments. They are attempting to be more productive or interactive, but I’ve discovered that stopping and thinking during these moments is far more productive than fiddling with my phone.
The world goes on. Without a cellphone, without the Internet, without a TV, the world keeps turning. You can test anything for a short period of time to see if it’s right for you. It’s not that hard to give up anything when you live in the real world. In all honesty, there wasn’t a single time when I actually needed my phone in the last two months. Sure, there were times when it was inconvenient, times when I had to fight through the frustration, but that was a small price to pay to reprogram the Twitch.
Yes, I’ll go back to using a cellphone for practical purposes—GPS, necessary phone calls, the Dictionary app I missed dearly, a memo pad, and a few other useful apps—but I’ll use it utterly differently going forward. I’m not going to use it to check email anymore, I’m not going to use it to send text messages while standing at a urinal, and I’m not going to rely on it as my primary means of interacting with the world around me. My cellphone usage will be more intentional than it was before. My phone will be a tool, not an appendage.