I don’t know about you, but I spend entirely too much time on my smartphone, and it’s become an addiction. In recent years, I’ve made steps to cut back by focusing during my morning rituals and on my walks. I’ve also done some reading up on unplugging and slowing down in the past year. While in these strange times, it’s important for me to be connected to my loved ones, I’d still welcome any insights you have on cutting down on screen time.
I don’t think I want the internet all the time
Some fourteen years ago, I had my first conversation about smartphones in the depths of Boston’s Downtown Crossing T station. Apple had plastered ads for the iPhone all over the place down there, and frankly, I didn’t get the hype. As we waited for a delayed Red Line train, my friend and I stared at the signs. “Why would anyone want that?” my friend asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “I use my phone to call people. And send a few text messages sometimes.”
My friend nodded in assent. “Seriously. I don’t think I want the internet all the time.” Our train arrived, covered in more iPhone ads and strewn with newspaper.
I’ve since lost touch with him, but I sometimes wonder how my old friend feels about having the internet all the time now.
How I became a smartphone addict
While I held out on getting a smartphone for a few years (partly due to being out of steady work in the wake of the 2008 crash), when I started my job at my current company in 2010, my long-haul public transit commute out to the suburbs demanded distraction, and I broke down and got a cheap Android device.
On my endless commute, I played Angry Birds, Tweeted about the denizens of the 70A bus, and became hyper aware of current events. I finally got a Facebook account after years of refusal. I pinned my interests, and, eventually, I Instagramed. When I got home, exhausted from work and transit, I’d play on my phone some more.
My phone eventually replaced my camera, alarm clock, maps, and the newspaper. Like many of us, I stared at my screen, tapping for gratification. I stopped making calls to everyone but my mother and one or two friends who can’t be persuaded to text. My attention span turned to mush.
Morning rituals help improve my focus and limit smartphone time
About five years ago, I realized that I’d read hardly any books that year, just snippets of articles on random topics that popped up in my feed, skimmed in haste. This would not do. I am a reader. My office had since relocated to Cambridge, and, with my commute time cut by more than two hours a day, I decided that it was time to make some changes.
I brought back my morning rituals from before I started that horrific commute. Each morning, without my phone, I would read for a few minutes and then write. Eventually instead of writing on my computer, I got a ReMarkable tablet, and wrote without the distraction of the internet. I started reading more in the evenings as well. My walks have always been a disconnected time, except for the camera, and now that I have a real camera, I may stop bringing my phone on them altogether.
Reading up on unplugging and slowing down
Late in 2019, I started reading up on unplugging, and I have continued it into CovidTimes. After reading Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, written by Nir Eyal, the guy who literally wrote the book on how to get us all hooked on our phones, I turned off most notifications on my phone and uninstalled Twitter and Facebook. Admittedly, I have since brought back Facebook, because of how disconnected I would feel otherwise in these strange times. Twitter has also made a comeback during some of this past year’s most challenging periods, but I remove it promptly when the feed returns to the regularly scheduled griping.
From Indistractable, I also learned about the Forest app I recommended my Doing Nothing post, and I reupped my Pocket account to remove distractions from online articles I actually want to read. However, I can’t say as I recommend this book. Eyal’s solution to phone addiction is to schedule every last hour of his day, something, which I tried for a couple of days in the interest of science and have decided to never ever try again. Ugh.
Jenny Odell’s thoughtful meditation on resistance
At my parents’ house in New Hampshire, where I stayed for the early days of the pandemic, I read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Artist and Stanford professor Jenny Odell wrote an unusual book about our obsession with productivity and our always connected culture. Less a how-to than a know-what-it-is-you-do meditation, Odell draws from philosophy, history, literature, art and bioregionalism to point to ways in which we can resist the stripping away of place and time that is the stock-in-trade of the internet.
I found Odell’s honest recognition that we can’t truly escape from our culture refreshing. She offered no real answers, but instead pieced together different types of refusal we can draw upon, the most memorable to me was Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivner’s “I’d prefer not to.”
Odell’s insight that paying attention to nature could provide an antidote to our endless notifications also resonated with me. As I walked along the waters of my childhood, I found myself paying more attention to my native landscape and what made it unique even when compared with my home in Massachusetts. I looked up (alas, on the Internet) the Winnipesaukee watershed and learned more about its glacial origins and about the Abenaki who had fished there for some 10,000 years before the colonists.
How to Be Idle: Unplugging could be delicious (but it helps if you’re a dude)
I read How to Be Idle back at home during the dog days of summer, when Ollie and I huddled in the bedroom where the AC works the best. Such a very straight male book, this—apparently one can only be truly idle if one is a dude. Tom Hodgkinson traces the life of an “idler,” one who resists wage slavery and instead indulges in life’s pleasures, over the course of 24 hours. The only hour where women truly make an appearance is the sexy time hour.
Still, I found something enticing about the utter disregard for expectations and norms and the insistence on getting pleasure out of life by refusing to play by capitalism’s rules. That the early hours of the morning were reserved for sleeping, lazing about, and reading, sounded rather lovely.
Hodgkinson’s book got me thinking, too. I added to my reading and writing time in my morning rituals after that. And started my workday a bit later when the Zooms allowed. I also got to thinking more about purely unproductive and unconnected time (this book published months before the start of the smartphone era, and so in none of these hours does “playing mindless video games on my phone” appear). While I didn’t come up with doing nothing until a bit after reading this book, I don’t think that I would have started doing nothing had I not read it.
Still way too into my phone, but more conscious about it
Anyone who knows me knows that my phone never strays too far out of my sight. I remain a phone addict. However, especially in the last year, I have become more conscious of the time I spend with my device and have made some concrete steps toward limiting it. For now, I’m satisfied with this and look forward to a more physically connected life when I can see my loved ones more often in person and rely on my phone less for social contact.
What about you? Are you a total phone addict too? Or, do you have some insight to share on how to limit it? Either way, I want to hear all about it. Please leave a comment below!