Just two years ago, to this very day, I celebrated my anniversary without a mobile phone.
Not having a cell phone means, of course, no texting, no emailing on-the-go, no Tweeting, Instagramming, or Facebook Messengering. No Waze, Shazam, Spotify, Lyft, or Uber. No video camera, alarm clock, calculator, stock market ticker, fitness tracker, daily weather forecast, or Googling the name of the actor who played Fredo in The Godfather (John Cazale).
When the iPhone came out in 2005, I wasn’t among the first in line, but I did buy one. Two weeks later, surprised that my new device was doing exactly what it was designed to do — insinuating itself into all my human fears and vulnerabilities while revealing new ones, manipulating my brain’s dopamine levels left, right, and sideways, in short hooking me as slyly as any fast-acting controlled substance — I replaced it with a no-frills Nokia, which I used for the next thirteen years. On January 15, 2018, I put my Nokia in a drawer forever. Today I email, I Skype, and I’ll meet you face-to-face. But I won’t ever use another cell phone.
Why? Because I’m haunted by the image of myself looking at my phone to the exclusion of everything around me. Mostly I remember resenting that a cartoonish cube of metal and glass had taken control of my life. The “endless and proper work” of paying attention is an essential part of the work I do. Why would I use something that compromised my ability to be great at my job?
A year after deep-sixing my phone, the benefits in my life have been huge. They’re also ongoing. Here are a few observations.
Creativity. Our phones and our brains are enmeshed — they’ve become indistinguishable in many ways. Just as we’re unwilling to turn off our phones, we’re not giving our brains a chance to reboot or refresh. As a result, we pay less and less attention to our intuition, our senses, our memories, our experiences — the pattern recognition that has guided our species for centuries. We also risk losing the capacity for boredom. Boredom may seem, well, boring, but it’s also the incubator for creativity and innovation.
Without a phone, and not that I’m keeping score, my productivity has — I’m guessing — doubled in the past year. I see the world clearly (at least I think I do), and as more and more people duck inside the tent-flaps of their own cell phone addiction, I’d go so far as to say that not having a phone has become a competitive advantage.
Promptness. Even when I had my Nokia, I often ran late, but these days I’m pretty much always on time. Why? Because I can no longer call or text clients or friends and tell them I’m stuck in traffic. In my experience, cell phones have contributed to a worldwide delinquency around time, oddly enough. And yes, without a phone I’ve gotten lost—in London, New York, Thailand. When I do, I simply ask around, and people point me to where I want to go.
Likability: At first my colleagues weren’t exactly overjoyed when I told them I was retiring my Nokia. Today, they love it. They tell me I’m nicer, more relaxed, and much more agreeable to be around. In the past, if I had a spare half hour, I would use it to fire off numerous emails, most of them confirming stuff my staff already knew. Today, whatever free time I have I use to reflect and prepare. Because I spend almost no time on social media — which, to my mind, has taken the place of face-to-face meetings — my real-life friendships have become deeper, richer — better.
But what if there’s an emergency?, people ask. Well, the good news is that everyone else has a phone! Only once have I regretted not having one. During a layover in the Vancouver airport, a customs officer told me I needed a special $7.00 Canadian visa which, she added, I could download and fill out on my phone. When I told her I didn’t have a phone, she seemed incredulous (and she also refused to lend me hers). I ran to the waiting area, opened my PC, went to the website, applied for the visa, paid the fee — and got a confirmation email with a minute to go before my flight left. Sometimes we forget a Mac or PC does almost everything a smartphone can do.
When I tell people about my one-year anniversary, nine out of 10 have the same response: I’m so envious! I wish I could do that! But — they add quickly — they can’t. They have kids, a crazy job, a hectic life. Well, no offense, but despite not having children, my job and life are pretty crazy and hectic too. As a branding and organizational consultant, I work with the biggest companies in the world, and am on a plane 300 days a year. Putting aside the obvious fact that parents and children survived for centuries without texting, and the world today is by most measures safer than it’s ever been, it’s clear that if children weren’t offered up as an excuse, there would be others: My music is on my phone. So are my contacts and my photos and, uh, my meditation timer. Like the flimsy justifications alcoholics use to explain why they drink, ultimately most cell phone users don’t want to admit they won’t give up their devices because they’re addicted to them.
Today, all across the world, we use our cell phones as armor. A shield. A light saber. A one-handed defense against our own fear, anxiety, aloneness, self-consciousness, stillness, sadness, mortality, insignificance. I get it. Still, when I’m walking along the street and someone glued to their phone crashes into me, followed by a quick and rueful “Sorry…” I can’t help feeling an irrational rage. “Don’t you understand what you’re doing?” I want to say. Time, energy, the quality of our attention: That’s all we have as humans. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, is this really how you want to spend your one wild and precious life?
To anyone interested in following my example, my advice is to go slowly — and celebrate each and every small victory. Let friends and family members monitor your progress. Begin by getting rid of time-sucking apps. Consider creating boundaries around your phone time. Pledge not to look at your phone when you wake up in the morning. Extend that embargo to breakfast, then lunch, then the mid-afternoon. Experiment with a phone-free weekend.
Freedom, it turns out, was in your hands this whole time. Welcome back! To your life. Wild, precious — and best of all, attentive.