Let Go of Habits That Increase Your Suffering (Or, “Have a DTR With Your Phone”) (Guiding Principles of Slowing, #4)

Photo by Andre Gaulin on Unsplash

I titled this post “Let go of habits that increase your suffering” because I think my message can apply to a wide range of compulsive habits. The main point is, let’s be reflective and honest with ourselves about patterns in our lives that are crushing our souls rather than giving us life. But I wanted to focus specifically on our relationship with our phones because it seems to me that this is something that nearly everyone in our society has in common. The parenthetical title, “Have a DTR with your phone,” reflects this focus. (If you’re not familiar with the term “DTR,” it stands for “Define the Relationship,” and refers to a conversation between two people who need to clarify their relationship status.)

I struggled to write this post because I’m often considered an extremist on this topic, so I wasn’t sure that what I had to say would be seen as relevant. I am also aware that people can feel judged by my lifestyle choices, and when people feel judged they become defensive, and defensiveness is not a posture that leads to transformation. With this in mind, let’s both do our best to check our judgment and our defensiveness at the door and enter instead into a space of honest reflection, where learning and change are possible. My aim is simply to pose reflective questions and to cast vision for different possibilities. What you do with those questions and with that vision is up to you.

Let’s be honest with ourselves about the patterns that crush our souls rather than giving us life.

Let me begin by sharing my own story. Last year I wrote a post about the impact my smart phone was having on my life – the primary symptoms being increased anxiety and losing my ability to be present with people. At the time, I was considering making a drastic change, but I failed to report back. So here’s my update: Shortly after writing that post, I decided I’d had enough and started researching smart phone alternatives. I’d originally thought I wanted a landline, but realized the expense outweighed the benefits, and that I still wanted the ability to make a phone call on the road in case of emergency. I ended up with a $25 flip phone from Fry’s Electronics, which I use with FreeUp Mobile’s $0/mo plan. I needed to purchase a $5 SIM card to switch to FreeUp, so in the past 9+ months, I have spent a total of $30 on phone use, and will not need to pay anything more until my flip phone bites the dust. It requires no phone case or screen protector, and is still more or less in mint condition. When it does stop working, I suppose I will have to shell out 25 more big ones for a replacement. In the meantime, I have a phone that perfectly suits my needs and costs essentially nothing. (To put this in perspective, this study estimates that the average smart phone user spends $1,250 annually on equipment, service, and accessories. That is $75,000 over your lifetime!)

How do I survive without ________?

In case you’re getting the impression that I’m basically Amish and live without all the comforts of modern life, let me give you a few more details about my day-to-day technological existence. I still use Facebook, I can watch YouTube videos, I send emails and texts, I check the weather, I look things up on Google, I read the news, and do New York Times crossword puzzles. I use GroupMe and Instagram, I can access online portals for doctor’s appointments, and online accounts for banks, bills, and other service providers. I can shop on Amazon and Etsy, use Google docs and sheets and forms, read Yelp reviews, and do pretty much anything I can imagine wanting to do.

How do I do all these things? I do them on my computer, with the convenience of a larger screen, and a full typing keyboard. I do them intentionally and generally thoughtfully, rather than compulsively and unnecessarily. (Don’t take that last bit personally – I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about my former smart-phone-using self.) I do them on a device that wasn’t created with the explicit purpose of fostering addiction, and I feel the difference. I do them when I choose to, rather than when I have 30 spare seconds waiting in line at the grocery store, or at a red light, or during a meal – and I feel the difference.

Now, again, I want to push back on the idea that I’ve become some kind of Zen master when it comes to technological addiction, because I definitely still feel its pull. It’s not that I’m free from the tendencies of addiction; it’s that I have removed the tool that was primarily responsible for enabling that addiction. I can still fall prey to the “never-ending scroll” while on Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube. The difference is that I’m so rarely on those sites that they take up a much smaller portion of my life than they did previously.

It’s not that I’m free from the tendencies of addiction; it’s that I have removed the tool that was primarily responsible for enabling that addiction.

I also feel the need to confess that I do still have an old iPhone 6 that I use occasionally for a few specific purposes. The phone doesn’t have service, so only works on WiFi, and I have it set on monochrome mode, so it’s honestly not that fun to look at, which is an effective deterrent against using it for too long. I don’t take it with me anywhere except when I travel, and the primary way I use it is for texting via Google Voice, which is where I send and receive 95% of my texts. (This is how I can still send and receive group messages, photos, videos, etc.) But even Google Voice I mostly do on my computer, using the phone only when I travel and to quickly check texts before bed. My one guilty pleasure is New York Times crossword puzzles, which I can do on my computer, but have gotten into the bad habit of doing on my phone. (The addictive pull of the device is so strong!)

I use my flip phone for the following:

  • Making and receiving phone calls
  • Sending brief, time-sensitive texts
  • Checking the time
  • Setting alarms/timers

And that’s it.

If you are still wondering how I do ________, or how I survive _______ scenario, please leave a comment below and I will respond in detail. (Alternatively, I would love to hear what smart phone apps/functions you consider to be absolutely indispensable. As in, “I could not live without ______.” Please share your thoughts in the comments!)

Changes I’ve noticed in myself since ditching my smart phone:

  • More present to people and to my environment
  • More in touch with my own intuition and problem-solving skills
  • Feel less anxious/overwhelmed at the end of the day
  • Feel less weighed down by unnecessary compulsions (e.g. checking the weather, checking traffic)
  • More space for mind-wandering, which leads to better memory recall (pregnancy aside) and more creativity
  • More patient, and greater ability to tolerate emotional discomfort
  • Greater impulse control, and the ability to discern between needs and compulsions (e.g. do I need to look up the meaning of this or that baby name right at this second, or can it wait until later?)
  • Greater productivity, as a result of the impulse control (can focus on the task at hand instead of getting pulled down a dozen different rabbit trails)

I did not have to work at any of these things, they were simply the natural fruit of removing the device from my life. Do I do them perfectly? Not at all. But I notice a huge difference between my current state and my former state.

Drawbacks? Sometimes people get confused about which phone number to call or text, or don’t recognize my phone number when I call them from my flip phone (because it’s different from my Google Voice number). Overall, this has not been a huge deal, but I acknowledge that it might be frustrating at times for people in my life. And of course there are other minor inconveniences in a world created for smart phone users, like not being able to pull up images of concert tickets, or use QR codes, or…I’m struggling to think of another example, though I’m sure there are more. The point is, these things feel so minor to me compared to what I’ve gained that I hesitate to even call them drawbacks. Call me an ascetic, but I believe a little inconvenience is good for me.

Regrets? None. Zero. Zip. Nada. I can’t imagine myself going back.

What I’m Proposing

I said at the beginning that my hesitation in writing this post was getting clear on how to challenge you without completely losing you. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you should drive to Fry’s right now and buy a flip phone. I’ve had a couple friends try to make the jump cold turkey and they were back to their smart phones within a few days. (But hey, if you’re feeling the urge to give it a try, go for it!)

My guess is that most people reading this will want a smaller step to start with, and there’s probably wisdom in that. I could offer some suggestions, but the coach in me says that, with the right questions, you’re in a better position to discern what steps are right for you. So in lieu of suggestions, let me offer some reflective questions. My encouragement to you is to wrestle with them and to be honest with yourself. Be open to the idea that change is possible. Think of any change you might make as an experiment for a clearly defined amount of time (e.g. I will try ______ for 2 weeks, and then evaluate how it went), rather than as a lifetime commitment.

Reflection Exercises:

To begin:

  • Make a list of all the things you use your phone for.
  • Circle the items that feel absolutely essential, that you can’t imagine living without.
  • Star the items that you enjoy in moderation, but that you tend to overuse.
  • Underline the items that consistently drain you and leave you feeling like crap.

Assessment of current practices:

  • How does my phone impact my ability to be present to myself when I’m alone?
  • How does my phone impact my ability to be present with other people when we’re together?
  • How does my phone impact my ability to be sensitive to God’s voice and calling in my life?
  • How does my phone impact my ability to focus on work?
  • How does my phone impact my ability to notice and pursue creative impulses?
  • When I have no boundaries on phone use, how do I feel when I get to the end of the day? How does this compare to how I feel when I limit phone use during the day? (If it’s been awhile since you’ve had a day with boundaries on phone use, you might need to try it so you can do a side-by-side comparison.)

Next Steps:

  1. A year from now, what would you like to be different about your phone use?
  2. What’s something you can imagine changing in the next 1-2 months?
  3. What’s one step you can take in the next week (in terms of phone use) that would have a positive impact on your mental health? Remember, think of it like an experiment. Once the week has passed, evaluate the results and decide how you want to proceed. You can always return to former practices if you genuinely find them preferable.

For specific suggestions of exercises you can try, check out the “Experiments in Living” section in my post “Our Invisible Sickness.”

Why does this matter?

This series is about “slowing” as an antidote to consumerism, and perhaps nothing in our culture embodies the essence of consumerism more than our smart phones. I can think of nothing that obstructs our creativity, health, and human presence more than these ubiquitous devices. And because of their ubiquity, they have become invisible to us. That is why I share these thoughts, hopefully with humility and love, but certainly with concern. If we can’t get a handle on this addiction, I fear what is to come in just a generation or two in terms of our inability to connect and empathize on a human level. If I sound crazy to you, I challenge you to spend one day without your phone and simply observe how many times you share a physical space with other humans who do not seem to notice or acknowledge your presence in any way. Do this and you will see what I see – compulsion, dependence, disconnection. You will see why our culture is plagued with anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

But another way is possible, and I invite you to join me in reclaiming our most basic gift as humans – presence. Spend a day being present to those around you, present to the creative longings within yourself, present to the suffering of your neighbors, present to the love of God. And when the day comes to an end, ask yourself, “Is this not what it means to be alive?”

Further Reading:

2 Comments

  1. Sharon Thomson on March 4, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    I’m really enjoying your slowing series. A few months ago I deleted the four news apps I had on my phone. I was spending too much time and energy reading the news on-line. It was distracting me from my own life and making me too obsessed and outraged by current events. It’s like I got burnt out from it. I had a hard time adjusting to not knowing what was going on in the world. Eventually I started to relax and not feel like I had to know everything that was going on. I eventually did add one of them back but I am much more careful to not let myself spend crazy amounts of time on it. Youtube is also something i was spending a lot of time on. I am trying to put boundaries around that too. So I generally am limiting my Youtube time to when I am on the treadmill in the morning and then after dinner. In conjunction with all this I am trying to practice slowing by multitasking less. Particularly when I am eating. I just eat. No more watching videos or reading news or ebooks, etc. I am having more energy and less anxiety. Though at first I was more anxious while i was just eating and not doing all that other stuff at the same time. I felt anxious because it seemed like I was wasting time. It took about a week to relax and enjoy the time of just eating. Now I generally prefer to eat in peace without all that extra stuff. Not always. I still feel the pull sometimes and have to remind myself of the benefits. It also helps if I promise myself I can do those things later. It’s kind of like I’m a little kid who has to be told to eat her meal first and then she can go play. It is surprising how much better life is feeling. I have more peace and am getting more done. But it is still a work in progress. In fact reading your article feels like a guilty pleasure since I have other things I probably should be doing.

  2. Greg K on March 2, 2020 at 11:47 am

    I enjoyed reading more details about your phone switch and the difference it’s made for you. I’m going to try out the reflection exercises and see what I come up with. 🙂

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