A Week Without a Phone: An Accidental Personal Challenge

Sometimes I like to give myself personal challenges.  They are fun and I get to learn new things about myself.  Last month I imposed a month where I took no photos, to see if that would change the way I encountered the world.  This month I am invoking my annual "No Fun November" where I don't drink any alcohol (I thought about also banishing sugar, but then I ate a bunch of Halloween candy and decided I didn't care).

These are the challenges I plan for myself.  Of course, as John Lennon said, "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."  Sometimes I plan a personal challenge, and sometimes life (or my technology) forces one upon me.

Last weekend, my phone effed off.  Like, straight up died.  I updated the OS on my iPhone 4S (I know, I know, but I asked my friend who works for Apple and he said it should be fine) and it refused to turn or respond to any interventions.

It took from Sunday until Friday for me to wade through dealing with Apple Support and then Fido (my cell phone company) to get a new phone.  It was... interesting.


1) Phones and computers are practically the same thing.

The most interesting part?  In many ways my life was no different.  Turns out that these days we can do everything we do on our phones, on our computers, and since I have a job that keeps me on a computer all day, I was pretty well connected.

Short a couple of apps, I had it all with some slight variations: I texted from my computer (although only with people who also had iPhones), and could even FaceTime or Skype from my laptop if I wanted to actually talk to someone.  Email, Facebook, checking the weather, all on my computer.

The main difference showed up the moment I walked away from a computer and was suddenly thrown back to 1999.  I had to know where I was going before I went out and trust my friends to show up where they said they would be.  I couldn't check my bank balance before buying something or quickly text a friend to ask their opinion on something.

I certainly couldn't take any photos, which is kind of hilarious given my "no photos" challenge just ended and I was feeling super shutter-hungry.  Oh the humanity!

2) Time moves SO SLOWLY.

You know those moments waiting in a long line up when you browse your Instagram?  The boring meeting where you use the time to reply to a few emails?  The five minutes you're waiting for a friend when you scan through your Feedly stream?  Well I couldn't do that!

It felt like that Doctor Who episode with the little boxes where he can't travel to the future to figure out what's happening and has to wait and experience time like everyone else and he starts going bonkers.  You know why he goes bonkers?  Because time moves SO SLOWLY and it can be SO BORING!

I know it's good for our brains to be bored sometimes.  I've read the articles about how constantly filling our thoughts with distractions is bad - we need to be idle sometimes so our brains can process things, come up with solutions, and just plain old rest.

Yet what I wouldn't have done to fill those gaps.  I guess technically I was more engaged in each moment, but maybe some moments don't deserve to be engaged in.

Ugh, just kidding, every part of life matters, even the boring parts.  It was just annoying, okay?

3) What time is it Mr. Wolf?

This one really threw me: I didn't realize how much I depended on my phone as a clock.  I don't have a watch (well I have one, but it's broken, so only useful as an accessory) and so was left to move through the world unable to check the time.  It's weird.  I used to do it all the time, but of course then I was a teenager, and so not knowing the time had much lower consequences.  Nothing terrible happened, but it was weird.

Another fun thing?  Alarms!  Hands up if you use your cell phone as your alarm!  Me too.  You know why?  Yes, it's convenient and yes it's an excuse to keep your phone next to your bed even though you know you should have it in another room under five pillows to keep its blue light from destroying your brain.

You know why else?  Traditional alarms are like waking up to a heart attack.  Every day.

The first night I was without a phone I was being all zen about the whole thing.  I was sure I would be a superior being.  Heck, maybe I would just not get a phone at all.  I would live in the moment.  Life would be so authentic.  Then I realized that I needed to wake up on time the next morning.  Luckily, I do have an old wind-up alarm clock that I keep in my living room because it's pretty, so I was able to use that.  And wake up the next morning to such a jarring sound I felt like I was in a platoon that was under attack.

We used to wake up with the sun.  Since we've screwed that all up, gentle ring tones to ease us out of sleep are vital to our advancement as human beings.

4) Put the NO in notifications.

You know when you travel out of country and don't get notifications because you don't want terrible roaming fees, and how you feel so free the entire time?  Like you can just live your life?  It's blissful, right?  This was my week.

I always assumed that this kind of bliss would be unmanageable in real life: emails and texts and Facebook messages and everything else would add up and there would be too much catching up to do every time you sat down at a computer.  But just like the sweet disappointment of crossing the border to return home and seeing that there wasn't a hoard of people clamouring to get ahold of you while you were gone, so is a life without a phone.

Sure, with my days spent working on a computer, the only time I was left unconnected was when I went out for a few hours in the evening.  Still, let me tell you: not once did I check my messages after being out and feel like I had missed out on something.

None of the texts, Facebook messages, emails, or other notifications I would have gotten while I was out were so urgent or interesting that I wished I had received them while I was having dinner with a friend.  It was just plain nice to be out, with whoever I was with, without thinking about who might be trying to reach me.

There is, after all, something dangerous about always having a phone available.  About knowing that there's something in your pocket (or worse, on the table) that could come to life at any moment with something exciting or urgent or funny or that will just make you feel special.  While I resist a lot of claims that technology is destroying us as a people, I do feel very strongly that this does take us away from the moments and people that make up our lives.

Moving On.

I have a phone now.  After using the relentlessly-encouraging Apple chat support, visiting a Genius Bar, and a lengthy battle with my cell phone company over the ridiculous fees they wanted to charge me just for getting a phone (THAT is a whole other ball of bile), I sorted it all out and I am reconnected.

Mostly, it's great.  When someone invites me and my boyfriend to an event, I can actually contact him right away to see if he's free.  I can check where I'm going when I get lost (which is a lot), maintain my ongoing to do lists, check my calendar, and snap photos of things I want to remember or share.

I have, however, taken a lesson from my notification-free bliss.  I turned off notifications for everything except text messages, phone calls, and work-related tweets on my phone (because when you run a company's twitter account, you kind of have to be responsive).  No longer will my screen light up when I get a Facebook message or an email or a comment on Instagram.  I can look at those in my own time.

So far, so good.  Sure, I look at my phone more often than I'd like.  I check semi-neurotically for messages I know aren't there, partially out of a desire to keep on top of everything and partially out of a good old fashioned need for validation through the attention of others, but all in all, I've found a new balance.

For now.  Everything changes, especially technology.

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