“Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Thus began my address as valedictorian of my high school class — along with, probably, the valedictory addresses of hundreds, if not thousands, of teenagers around the nation in the late 80s and early 90s. (What do you want, I was eighteen.)
My tender teenage point was that as we raced forward toward our futures, stiving and achieving, we should stop to smell the roses now and then. Be present. Look around.
Still a pretty good point, I think. It’s one I try to remember, but frequently fail to — along with a lot of us these days, methinks.
A few weeks ago, I was at the T station, on my way in to Boston. In many stations, you enter through the same gates people are exiting, so there’s a bit of a dance to make sure you’re not going in the same gate someone’s about to come out of, and vice versa. I was on the brink of putting my fare card into a gate that appeared to be clear, when a woman started barreling toward me from the other direction. She was completely engrossed in whatever was happening on her smartphone, not looking up.
“Excuse me!” I said as she got close.
“Hey! Coming through!” I said, louder.
I had no choice but to step aside.
“That’s OK. Don’t worry about me!” I said as she zoomed through. I’m not in the habit of being loudly sarcastic with strangers, but come on.
She didn’t hear me, of course.
Pardon my French, but I’m sick of this merde. I’m sick of having to dodge pedestrians looking down instead of up. Sick of everyone being so glued to their mini screens that they’re oblivious to the world and the people around them, zoned out, rude, distracted, and isolated. And I am FURIOUS when I see people looking at their phones while they’re driving.
I hate it when I get reeled in by my phone, too. Like most people, I’m weaker than that little thing. I’m easily hooked by the feedback loop of mild, immediate gratification that comes with hearing the ping of a text, seing an email in my inbox, and finding I’ve gotten a “like” on Facebook, or a reply to one of my tweets. I can always think of something I “have” to look up on Safari (What was the name of that movie I wanted to see? Where can I buy some winter coats for the girls? Is Dick Van Dyke still alive?) and it’s like this little bubble of pleasure when I do. But then I want more. And more.
Sometimes, yes, having a smartphone on one’s person is incredibly useful. I can check my schedule, figure out what to make for dinner, text the babysitter, and even read the New York Times on the fly. (I don’t have as much of an issue with reading on the phone, but it inevitably leads to other things….) I can send pictures and have fun text conversations with my dearest friends.
Being self-employed, my phone also allows me a measure of mobility I wouldn’t otherwise have. I can reply to urgent emails from my clients while I’m at the grocery store, or review documents while I’m waiting to pick up the girls from school.
Plenty of studies — which I won’t link to here, because I am too lazy to go look them up, but Google them yourself sometime while you’re stopped at a red light* — have shown that our phone addiction leads to a reduced ability to stay focused, affects short term memory, and causes generally dickish behavior around your children, your family, your friends, and your fellow humans. (There may not be a study on that one…)
Moreover, it keeps us from being present here and now. From daydreaming. From connecting with others. From coming up with new ideas and insights and plans.
I don’t want to go through my life that way. I don’t want my daughters to see me behaving that way. I don’t want to be controlled by a small machine and I don’t want to get to the end of my life realizing I’ve spent more time taking Buzzfeed quizzes than being in the world, as difficult and ugly as it can be sometimes.
So here’s what I’ve done to try to shake my dependency. Maybe some of these will work for you, too.
They say that bad habits are broken and new ones established bit by bit, via achievable, incremental goals. So it’s probably not wise to try to do these all at once. And it’s probably good to set a timeframe for a phone “diet,” like 30 days or something. And then hopefully you can stick with the new phone behaviors you’ve established. And you can enjoy vegan-like feelings of superiority.
1. When you have down time — you’re waiting in a line, riding the train, stopped in traffic**, standing in an elevator — wait 30 seconds before you look at your phone. Look around. Smile at someone if by some chance they’re not looking at their phone. Count silently to 30 in your head if you have to. Then pull out your phone if you must — but you may find by then that the urge has passed. Work up to 60 seconds. Work up to a million. (Unless you’re at the DMV. At the DMV, all bets are off.)
2. Set alarms or timers on your phone to regulate when you check your email. Use the little dog bark sound, ’cause it’s fun. Every hour. Every two hours. Whatever. I’d wager that there’s pretty much NO email that can’t wait for an hour. I mean, fine, if you’re expecting an important email from work or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, do what you have to do. I know how it goes, because the Joint Chiefs never freaking leave me alone. But otherwise? You can go without the gratification. And remember: It’s not love. It’s JUST EMAIL.
3. Likewise, set alarms for when you can check social media. Three times a day, say. Four if you’re nasty. You’ll survive. Really.
4. Or, if you’re feeling really brave, take Facebook, Twitter and other social media apps off your phone altogether. I know, it sounds scary, but I took a deep breath and did it a couple of years ago, and have never looked back. And I am now a better person than you. But no I’m not. Because sometimes I really, really miss it. I have mega urges to Tweet or post something, or see who retweeted me or gave me a “like” so I can feel more awesome and loved. But the urge passes. And I can always feed my social media jones when I’m back at my computer. (There, I sometimes use an app called Self Control to block social media sites for a period of time. I’m going to turn it on right after I share the crap out of this post on social media.)
5. Use an app like Forest, which helps you cut down on how often you look at your stupid phone. As a reward, you get to add little trees to a virtual forest, and earn new types of trees the longer you go without “cheating.” It sounds silly, but LITTLE VIRTUAL TREES! Bam. There’s your gratification. (Thank you to my friend Cathy Elcik for this recommendation.)
Perhaps you’re reading all this and thinking, “This was a nice thing to read while I was waiting to get my license renewed, but now I’m going to go on Facebook and get in a political debate with my right wing cousin, and then look at beautiful photos on Instagram, and then check my email, and I’m OK with that.” I totally get it. It’s fun. It’s an escape. It’s like Doritos. And it can be enriching in its own way.
But do me a favor? Please at least have the courtesy to put your phone down when you’re coming through the subway gates. Or I will fucking trip you.
*Illegal in most states. Hooligan.
**Still illegal. And a really bad habit when your kids are in the car. I’m trying hard to stop, and so should you.