I Broke Up With My Phone & Lived To Talk About It

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
When was the last time you had a full conversation without checking your phone in the middle of it? You know how it goes: nodding or mumbling a reply even though half your attention was on a viral video on your Facebook timeline. Would you be able to go through your workday without checking your phone at least once an hour, telling yourself that you need a break, or that the buzz is obviously a potential emergency? (Did reading these descriptions prompt you to check your phone just now...?)
Smartphones have been cast as the new security blanket, and it’s no wonder — people literally sleep with their phones on their pillows. There’s also a growing body of hard science about the dark side of technology, from studies about late-night screen use contributing to sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression in teens to research correlating the mere presence of smartphones impairing our ability to process information. But somewhere in between "Get off my lawn!" types who rail against social media (see the former Facebook executive who said the network is "destroying how society works") and people with legitimate tech addiction (see this gamer who went to rehab) are those who want to be a little less attached to their devices.
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At the beginning of the year, I promised myself I would spend less time with my phone in my hand and my eyes on a screen. Over the last several years, a lot of my reading time has dramatically shifted online: The brief period in between waking up and showering was dedicated to email. Time spent riding the train or on the bus was about listening to music, refreshing Instagram, or playing Pokémon Go. Small breaks when grabbing lunch or tea? I barely looked up. Waiting for the light to change at crosswalks? A good excuse to scroll through Twitter. I’m just glad I haven't gotten hit by a car.
I made a New Year’s resolution to read more books, realizing that my problem wasn't that I didn't have enough time to read — I didn't have enough time to read books and stare at my iPhone for hours. As journalist and author Catherine Price writes in her new book, How to Break up with Your Phone, "I claimed not to have enough time to pursue interests outside of work, but was that true?" In her book, Price dissects the way her phone has impacted her personal and professional lives, and gives practical advice on how to forge a healthier relationship with technology — without the fear mongering.
So, while taking a few days off from work at the beginning of the year, I decided to go cold turkey ... ish. I didn’t plan on locking my phone away for 72 hours straight, but I did want to see if I could break my reflexive habit of checking it for work emails or Instagram likes. I wanted to make the most of my time out of the office. Price's book takes a similar stance, introducing readers to a four-week break-up program or "technology triage" that is meant to be personalized but not punishing. “Our goal isn’t abstinence,” she writes, “it’s consciousness.”
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The first week of Price’s triage includes downloading tracking apps, assessing your current relationship with tech and social media, and deleting social media apps. I skipped the tracking apps, which I’ve never been into, and dove straight into app slashing and dashing. I knew from previous experiences that simply deleting apps off my phone wouldn't work (because I would continue creeping in the web browser), so to make my efforts more effective, I both deleted the apps and logged out of everything; typing in my password would be an extra step that could buy me more time to reconsider my actions.
The one social app I kept was Foursquare, so I could “check in” to spots I visited and review them later when recapping with my parents. I didn’t ban myself from using my camera phone either (since I was taking a solo trip and wanted to capture at least a few precious memories), but I did promise myself to not post anything while I was away.
The morning after the purge, I woke up, rolled around a bit, and picked up my phone to scroll through my Instagram timeline. It took me at least five minutes, a lot of brow furrowing, and increasingly frantic swiping to remember why I couldn't find the app. The same thing happened at least two or three more times throughout the day before I got control over myself. My memory wasn't so shot that I couldn't remember deleting those apps, I had just become accustomed to grabbing my phone whenever I was bored for even a second.
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To help myself go clear, I decided to lean all the way into that boredom. Price encourages people to get physical during the first week, and I had plenty of time to do that. I tried to spend as much of my time as possible in the real world: I went for long walks outside, refusing to look at my phone as a way to explain my solo wandering. I bought bath bombs from a local store without snapping pics of the cute names and cool colors, and then splashed around in the bath until the water went cold. I watched a sitcom in Spanish to practice my language skills. I researched outings and day trips and planned my itinerary according to the weather, allowing for small pockets of free time. I booked a massage.

Boredom, I came to learn, was just unplanned mental relaxation.

I also made my way through a 750-plus page book. At first, I wanted to cry at how little it held my attention. I would read a few pages and then think about playing Spider Solitaire — not because the book was bad but because I had become unaccustomed to committing to one thing at a time without relying on my phone for small bursts of stimulation. Boredom, I came to learn, was just unplanned mental relaxation. After I got over the anxiety of that new feeling, I began to appreciate how freeing it was and how rarely adults get to indulge in it.
By the end of my roughly four-day getaway, I was able to look at phone as a glittery lump that I was largely indifferent to. At the same time, I knew I had conducted this experiment in a vacuum, away from my normal routine — which includes working on the internet. I worried that all the impulse control and peace I had found would be for nothing once I re-entered the fray. After all, personal desires aside, it isn’t realistic for many people to break up with their phones due to work demands and being on call. I asked Price for a little help; she said setting boundaries is still key.
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"Try to figure out which parts of your phone use are truly necessary for work, and which parts are not.” ('Not' would include constantly checking text messages: "We're a lot less important than we think," she says.) Price also suggests using an app-blocker like Freedom to enforce your limits.
“Communication is key. Remember (and remind others) that setting boundaries on your phone use/availability will actually make you a more creative and productive employee,” Price says. Of course, take that with a grain of salt if that just isn't the vibe at your job. Maybe settle for tech-less evenings or weekends instead.

I became more aware of other people being on phones and laptops when it wasn't always necessary.

Setting boundaries may also mean only checking your phone or apps at certain times of the day or week. Price’s first experiment was a “digital Sabbath” with her husband: starting on a Friday night, they turned their phones off for 24 hours. “At first we were constantly tempted to reach for our phones — which we convinced ourselves was out of concern that we would miss an important call or text, but if we were being honest, was actually a sign of dependency,” she admits.
When they turned their phones back on, they were surprised at how reluctant they were to do so — and how their own attitudes toward always having a phone in hand had changed. Price advises people to note changes in how they feel or things they notice. One woman she spoke with named Beth, said, "I really hate the shifting of etiquette that has made it okay for people to use their phones during the workday — under the guise that they're having frantic work-related exchanges when it's all personal." Like Price and Beth, after I returned from vacation, I also became more aware of other people being on phones and laptops when it wasn’t always necessary, and I tried to be better about that in my own life, including with friends and family.
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In the end, although it only lasted a few days, my own tech triage was a success. The halo effect in the immediate days after my vacation has definitely dimmed somewhat, but there are a few remaining bright spots: making eye contact with friends when we talk (phones down!) and being 26 books into my reading challenge so far this year.
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