Powering Off: A Week without my Phones

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May 10, 2018
 

It’s been a little over month since my experiment to turn off my phones for a week. It started out simple enough: I was just going to eliminate social media for a week – apps like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram - while on an international trip. But then an idea took hold…what would my vacation week look like if I just shut it all down? 

The more people I told, the more I could picture what I really wanted – to vacation like it was 1999.  The bad Prince reference aside, I realized I was craving the simplicity of a vacation that was just a vacation. Not one where I felt pressure to look “selfie” ready at any given time, or tempted to check news, weather, work email, and social media. The world did not miss me…I don’t think.

It began as a practical decision. My husband attends an annual conference for his job – often a destination outside of the United States. I blocked out my work calendar to be able to go with him. Not having an international cell plan for either my work or personal phone, I quickly weighed the perceived time to research how to get an international plan for one week out of the country against the stress it was creating, and decided my work phone was definitely staying home. 

I can’t tell you the last time I’ve had a vacation without my work phone with me – maybe literally and truly it was 1999?! Then, I started thinking about packing. I love a good “real” book (or two or three or four) on vacation, not one downloaded on an electronic device…so that put my iPad at home on the shelf during my trip. In the end, I took only two electronic devices on my trip – my iPod Nano shuffle loaded full of only classical music (with a determined commitment on to only use it sparingly and only to listen to the music on it) and my personal cell phone. I left it off, in the hotel safe, for the entire trip. 

And…what did I learn or experience with going “phone-free” for *gasp* an entire week????

I was expecting an epiphany – an earth-shattering, once-in-a-lifetime epiphany…that would change me forever. That did not happen. Sorry to disappoint you. It disappointed me too. But, I did learn a few things about myself and much about others. Here are a few observations and thoughts about the experience.

1.    I crave quiet calm. 

Having no access to social media, news, work email, personal email and all the other mindless things we use our smartphones for throughout our days helped me realize this loud and clear. My cell phone use is definitely over the top most days, and curbing usage in front of my kids, during meetings, and other life situations would probably do me a world of good…BUT, this phone-free week experiment did not provide the wow factor I anticipated. What I really need and really crave is quiet. Big blocks of time to think and work and read and process and reflect without the chaos and noise of the world around me. That’s on me now to figure out how to schedule this into my week – it’s not about blocking the time – it’s about finding the right locations at the right time so quiet can prevail. Even sitting down with a morning cup of coffee hoping for reflection time goes out the window if a lawn crew is just firing up their equipment at the same time. It might not be practical to tackle this need head-on, but I’m making small steps to figuring this out in my day-to-day life. 

During my week of disconnecting, there was a point early in the week when I was sitting on a beach chair by a beautiful lagoon.  Despite the scenery, I felt restless and annoyed. It didn’t take long to realize it was because I could hear the loud pool music and the music piped into little speakers by the trees at the same time – playing different songs. I walked the entire property looking for a place where I could enjoy the beach and have quiet at the same time, but there was not a spot to be found. In the end, I found swimming in the lagoon was the one thing that solved my problem – I had the quiet and calm I needed when I was alone in the water. I also found reading on my balcony in my hotel room, while feeling a bit isolated at times, gave me the respite needed from all the noise and input coming from the common areas. 

While this might not seem significant to you, it was a rather profound “ah ha” realization for me – even with a break from my phones, laptops and gadgets, what I really craved was a break from the noise around me. 

My days are usually brimming with noise and activity. With a heavily committed travel calendar and a jam-packed call/meetings schedule when not on the road, it seems I am bombarded with input – some days literally leading calls, webinars and video meetings for 10 hours straight. And that’s just at work! With a household of six people, it’s loud almost all of the time – with music, conversations, horse-play, and the dog barking. The week of no smartphones magnified that it’s not so much the phone that I needed a break from, it’s the noise.  It’s no wonder I seem to recommend Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking to many of my friends and business associates. 

2.    I can read many pages without a phone glued to my hand.

I love to read. Almost everyone close to me knows this. I visit my local library weekly, and sometimes daily, and   I follow authors on Twitter. I try to take a book everywhere I go…and have even given away a purse or two when it was cute but couldn’t fit a book inside. I usually have a bookmark in several non-fiction books at once so I can choose based on my mood (right now, I think I have four non-fictions in my active “pile”!). This trip was a perfect excuse to create a new list of must-reads. Asking for book recommendations on my Facebook before the trip, I received quite a few suggestions from friends, and quickly amassed the books I’d be taking with me. Since I wasn’t taking any phones or computers (or all the chargers!) lots of space freed up for books in that little suitcase of mine. 

I read and I read and I read. 

I wasn’t texting anyone, checking the weather (it was sunny and warm…didn’t need my phone to tell me that!!!), scrolling through sensationalism “news” and I wasn’t on my social media apps. If I needed a distraction, instead of grabbing my phone (sound familiar?!), I people-watched, let my mind wonder, or went for a swim. 

It’s not like I rediscovered my love of reading on this trip. What I realized though, is that I rarely allow myself to be fully immersed in the experience. With my phone almost always close at hand in day-to-day life, I read a few pages, check my texts, read a few pages, look something up on the Internet, and so on. Do others read like this? Always multi-tasking? Always wondering if I’m needed? Always trying to do it all? Not ever letting myself relax and just be in the moment?

3.    It was sad to observe so many people around me glued to their phones.

If you’ve never observed or noticed this phenomenon, next time you are in a nice restaurant on a “date night,” just look around. There will be a couple next to you, and she’s all done up to look lovely and he will be scrolling through his phone, maybe even under the table, instead of talking with her. Another couple might both be scrolling through their individual phones, maybe even with their entrées at the table, never conversing together at all. There are countless other examples. When you put your own phone down and look around, it’s overwhelming to see how many adults are not at all participating in the world around them.  The average American spends nearly half a day staring at a screen. A report shared by CNN in 2016 revealed that adults in the United States devoted about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day to consuming media. 

Sitting by the beach one day, the man three chairs down from me was watching a movie on his iPhone (with his headphones in thankfully), and his female companion was FaceTiming someone from her own iPhone. I had to pick up and move. It was just too much. As our addictions to our phones increase, our social etiquette and manners seem to drastically suffer in direct correlation. This is my own opinion of course, but some might argue as verifiable fact. 

4.    I didn’t have a camera with me, and didn’t miss it.

This one shocked me. I didn’t take one single picture in seven days and the only pictures I think I appear in from that week of my life were during an off-site swimming with the dolphins experience, and I didn’t even purchase the photo package. 

I was considering ignoring the “my phone is my camera, so I take it everywhere” element of our current culture; but alas, I think it’s worth a few comments. I wasn’t taking a picture of every drink, every meal, every moment to post for my friends and family to see. I wasn't taking countless selfies to "prove" to others I was having a great vacation. I wasn’t rushing to document every single piece of my life to validate my existence. I just existed, in the moment. And I liked it. 

5.    I need to work much harder at giving someone my full attention, my time and my focus.

I’m feeling quite vulnerable to even be sharing this observation here in this post. Giving someone my full attention…is HARD. It doesn’t matter how much I love you – friends, family, colleagues – it takes an incredible about of time, energy, and focus to give you my full attention. It feels like I must pour a lot of myself into the effort. But when I do, I know it’s worth it! Even with my phones completely out of the picture, this was no easy task.

I wonder sometimes, as maybe psychologists and sociologists do, if we are all going down an irreversible path or if the pendulum will swing back. Observing so many others glued to their phones (see #3), I wonder if is this now ingrained habit, a response to others around us, a need to quell any inkling of social anxiety or awkwardness by just grabbing our phone and looking down? What will it take to turn the tide? 

In my own day-to-day life, especially in face-to-face business meetings since my return from my trip, I’ve purposely left my phones in my briefcase and sometimes noted it to those I’m with to help keep me honest and to call out that their time and my attention to them means more than looking at my phones constantly.

I Took a Vacation from my Phone

My experiment was seven nights/seven days. My parents were holding down the fort at home and only two people had the front desk number of the hotel – the old-fashioned way to reach me in a true emergency. I was not contacted. I was not needed. The Earth did not stop spinning.

I’m guessing a week without one or both of your phones (if you carry two like I do) might not work for many. Some might even be dismissive of the concept. Others might be scared to try. I do know this…there will be a next time for me. It might be for a shorter period, like a weekend here and there, or it might turn into an annual ritual, especially if I continue to attend my husband’s work conferences with him.

In the meantime, I will continue to read (albeit at a slower pace than on the beach). I will continue to seek quiet, calm and solitude in the fleeting moments between work and family. I will continue to work to be more self-aware.  And, I will look at my calendar and plan the next time I will commit to shutting it all down!