For months I’ve been contemplating a simpler life, one where a trip to the grocery store meant I could get in my car, listen to some songs or NPR, shop without distraction for the food on my list, get back into the car, listen to some more songs, then come home and unpack my groceries in peace. Is that so much to ask?
In my current life, my drive to the store usually includes one to two phone conversations, a check of emails and texts once I’m in the parking lot, quick responses to any emails and texts, a look at my phone notepad for the grocery list, a stop in the cereal aisle to confer via text over cereal preferences, another stop in frozen food to see what email just came in (it could be really important), and then a nice perusal of the holy trinity (Facebook/Twitter/Instagram) during my wait to checkout. On the ride home, I will return the missed call from my sister.
We call it multitasking, and sometimes it truly is a lifesaver and completely necessary. Often it is not. My need and desire for constant communication among my friends and loved ones was turning into my undoing. Somewhere along the line, I started to feel resentful of the expectation to respond to everyone and everything ASAP. It’s a little exhausting, and it was beginning to diminish my quality of life.
As a teenager growing up in the dark ages, I loved to pass notes to friends and boyfriends. I know that seems positively Laura Ingalls Wilder, but back in the 80s (1980s, not 1880s), it got the job done quite well. The anticipation of a response was even part of the fun. I could not imagine a future where every very important thought in my head could be instantly transmitted to my intended recipient. What a dream!
Just as I was pondering all of this, I received at text from a friend saying sorry she hasn’t been in touch, but her cell phone was out of commission for a couple weeks, so she couldn’t respond to my last text. She then went on to say how NICE it was, and that was all I needed to hear. I knew I had to make some changes.
In typical fashion, I had big plans for myself. Let’s make this a real experiment, I thought. I will gather some friends and we can record our life-changing observations, and together we will CHANGE THE WORLD! I solicited a group of friends from different parts of the US with different backgrounds, and I proposed that they sign up for one of the two cell phone usage levels detailed below for at least 48 hours:
Level One, AKA Dawn’s Mom: You have a cell phone, but it is turned off. It is a true “emergency only” phone. Unless you get a flat tire or run out of gas or get stranded somewhere, the phone remains OFF for up to one week. You do not check it for any reason unless you are experiencing a true emergency.
Level Two, The Drastic Reduction: You may devote up to thirty minutes a day of being on your phone. You can break it up into three ten minute units, two fifteen minute units or one thirty minute unit.
I received several responses, most which could be summed up best by my friend Bonnie: I feel panicky just thinking about that. Couldn’t I just give you a kidney or something?
Fittingly, she typed that response while on her phone.
I certainly understood everyone’s hesitation about taking a trip back to the early 1990s, but I was still determined to go there myself. I told my husband and kids that they could reach me at work in case of emergency, and with fear and exhilaration, I turned the power off and headed to work.
It was surprisingly pleasant to be at work and only think about work. I knew my friends and family were carrying on with their own lives, but those lives remained a little more mysterious during my work day. It helped knowing, of course, that I could be reached if needed, but that no one would be reaching out unless it was super duper important. There were a few times I mindlessly reached for my phone out of habit, but instead of feeling twitchy, I just repeated my mantra for this experiment: Be where you are.
My poor, battered, overstimulated brain thanked me. You are here, it told me, and your only job is to focus on where you are. Not the school emails, not the texts, not the Instagram pictures of other people living other lives, but right here. Frankly, it felt like a little vacation to not be so easily reachable. It was a very good day.
I allowed myself to power back on for ten minutes as I was leaving work, just in case something important happened, but there was only a message from my husband Ed: I know you’re on blackout, but could you pick up vanilla ice cream on your way home if you see this? As I exited the store with the ice cream, I saw a beautiful pink hot air balloon landing with the sun setting behind it. What a winning picture, I thought, and reached once again for my phone to get the shot (and inevitably post it somewhere for others to admire). But then I stopped. No photos today. I just stood there in the parking lot appreciating the magical beauty of my hometown, feeling lucky and grateful to be right there at that moment, watching a pink balloon land at sunset.
It’s hard to say how my habits will change, but I know they will. With three children in school (one in another state), it’s not realistic for me to go full-on emergency-only mode. It is my responsibility to navigate technology in a way which enhances my life, and I was not doing a very good job. Somewhere there lies a happy medium between the woman who keeps her phone turned off 99% of her life (hi, Mom!) and the woman who wears the phone as an appendage, and I was veering dangerously close to the latter. I plan to continue with my drastic reduction plan several days a week for a while and see where it takes me. One thing I know for sure: the world will continue to turn, with or without me being reachable 24/7. Sooner or later, I will get back to you…perhaps not instantaneously, but in a timely fashion. I promise.