Those who know me personally know I haven't carried a smartphone on a regular basis for a long time. That isn't to say I've given up the smartphone entirely, I still find utility for it, but it's a dangerously tempting device for me to keep around. The motivation for this post is that I've noticed it consuming more of my attention again, so I thought I'd share my experiences giving up the smartphone and some new strategies for managing the general distractions of the internet.
At the time I gave up the smartphone, I noticed myself waking up in the middle of the night to grab my phone and check email ("Gasp! Did someone contribute to my Kickstarter campaign?"), or reaching for my phone first thing in the morning to check the news, email, Facebook, etc. My goal then was simply to stop that behavior and regain a measure of control over my life. While giving up the smartphone certainly helped with that, I still find the internet as a whole to be a general distraction, and my goals have since shifted. Now, I'm seeking a state that I achieved as a kid when I got new Legos. I could lose track of time and literally build and play for hours on end without stopping.
I want that feeling back.
So, when I first gave up the smartphone, I had real, physical symptoms that lasted about a week. I would feel phantom buzzes, or I'd idly reach into my pocket during meetings or car rides, only to be shocked that my phone wasn't there.
The symptoms subsided and I found that when I stayed off the internet, I'd get bored, but then I'd turn to thinking of ways to fill the time, and I'd amuse myself with activities that were fundamentally more satisfying. I rediscovered a love of reading, I'd putter and fix more things I'd been meaning to get to around the house, and at least during COVID, I've taken up blog writing, ukulele, and now guitar.
Even though I loved switching back to my old school LG VX-9800, (Full QWERTY keyboard with physical buttons! They're the best!), and wasn't scared to keep it by my nightstand (in case someone called with an emergency in the middle of the night.), the smartphone does have some pretty killer features for me that I wasn't ready to give up. Specifically, the camera, Google Maps, and ride share.
I turned off my entire data/talk/text plan for the smartphone, and essentially used it as a tablet. The camera clearly works offline, Maps works offline if you download the area ahead of time, and ride share works with wi-fi, which meant I needed to find wi-fi at a public shop, which was often annoying, but not an every day occurrence, so worth it to me overall.
My strategy was to keep the phone in my bag for when I needed it, which worked fairly well, up until I'd need to charge it, and then temptation would come calling, because now the phone was plugged in and visible.
I'd have something small to look up, or tell myself I was just going to read the news for a little while, and then I'd be using the phone to check the news, or check Reddit again. I'd tell myself that I'm not checking it first and last thing before or after bed anymore, but I'd start charging it in the kitchen where I was grabbing it to read during breakfast instead of paying attention to my kids. (Or, worse, once I was in that habit, I'd just steal my wife's phone to read during breakfast instead.)
The most effective way to counter this was to charge my phone by the downstairs entryway, rather than in the kitchen, office, or living room, where it was out of site and out of mind, but temptation still calls, the phone gets charged upstairs, and I'll catch myself backsliding, and I'll need to reset again. Which is part of why I'm writing this post.
Even when the smartphone addiction is under control, I still find the internet as a whole (and email), incredibly distracting. Achieving that Lego maniac state of concentration takes a little time to power through some discomfort and to let your mind settle in. When the internet provides a moment's distraction and instant relief, yet is essential to 90% of the work I do, it's a recipe for real struggle.
My latest strategy is to use separate devices for separate purposes. I'm not giving up nytimes.com, reddit.com, or gmail.com, but they are now blocked from my work laptop. I'm now experimenting with blocking them from my personal laptop as well (where I'm currently writing this post), and only accessing them from a tablet, acquired as a hand-me-down for the specific purpose of reading the portions of the internet I enjoy, but want to keep separate from professional and personal work.
The focus I achieve while working is fantastic, and when I hit the "webpage blocked" notice without even realizing that my mind has wandered, it reminds me to stick with it a little longer until my mind slips into a groove.
The downside of the tablet, now, is that its siren song is essentially as bad as the smartphone charging on the kitchen counter and I'll need to find a new physical location for the tablet.
So this blog post is my way of acknowledging the internet for what it is, a powerful thing and a fun thing, but also a terrible distraction for someone with a curious mind like me. Time to reset and hide the devices again.
Addendum #1: I studied abroad my junior year of college in Africa, in Namibia. We were staying in the dorms at the Polytechnic of Namibia. They had no TV, wi-fi, or ethernet drops in the rooms. We only had slow dialup from our "offices" during the day. During the work week, instead of staying up late until I was bleary eyed, I'd just... go to bed. There was nothing else to do. I've never been more rested in my life, other than on a vacation to Hawaii. I proposed a timer based shutdown on wi-fi and all artificial lighting in my house, but that encountered the spousal veto as well. A longer vacation to Hawaii might receive funding approval from the executive advisory committee chairperson though.
Addendum #2: The LG-VX9600 has since been replaced by a Lightphone 2, which is able to get emojis and text messages from iPhones without crashing. I like the small form factor (remember when phone getting smaller, ala Derek Zoolander was a thing?), but I still miss the fold out keyboard. Maybe they'll bring it back for a Lightphone 3.