Picking Up Dandelions: Lessons From 10 Days Without a Cell Phone

There is a yuppie restaurant called Public House in National Harbor, MD. It was 2011 and my wife and I were still dual-income-no-kids, so we had the tendency to indulge in such things on weekday nights. It’s odd how the exact moment has stuck with me for all these years, but it is still clear in my mind.

My then-fiancé and I were at a two-seater at the side of the restaurant facing Gaylord National. Not ten feet away from us was a group of college-aged ladies. Six of them as I recall.

Maybe it’s because my wife and I completely waived the traditional college experience in lieu of military service, but we don’t understand such things. We were then (and still are now) in constant amazement at how a half-dozen unrelated adults can get together at a given point in time just to eat dinner. Or have coffee. Or do whatever. It’s a scene from Friends that we will never have in our own lives.

These six girls, though, made it happen. They coordinated schedules and all arrived at Public House for the sole purpose of being in each other’s company for 90 minutes of food and conversation. I can only imagine the innumerable text messages that transpired in the days and hours leading up to this moment.

One of the girls must have started it weeks ago, with “We should all get together 🙂 !”

Certainly this was followed by more.

“What day works?”
“Who’s coming?”
“Any place suggestions?”
“I can’t afford Fogo de Chao.”
“Does the new roommate want to go?”
“Anyone want to drive?”
“No guys allowed”
“Dress for the weather?”

Much hubbub undoubtedly went into making this event happen. I would have expected that during the brief period when the event was actually occurring, all six girls would be fully engrossed in each other.

But, and perhaps you’ve guessed this already, no less than all six of the girls each had her head down, facing her lap, and was staring blankly at a cell phone. Minutes would pass without a word crossing the chasm of the table. Despite the hurdles they each overcame to arrive at this moment to be with each other, it seemed they all  wished to be anywhere but there.

“I don’t want that ever to be me.” I said to my wife.

Famous last words…

The iHate 5

I was late to the party when it comes to cell phones. My first one was from Alaska Cellular when I was stationed near Anchorage in 2004. I recall my amazement of lying in bed and talking to somebody thousands of miles away.

It was a crude device, and it would be mistaken for a child’s toy in 2016.

Things progressed from there, and I finally bought my first smartphone, the iPhone 5, in 2012. I was now connected everywhere to everything, but I never foresaw just what a slippery slope that connection was.

As the years passed, I slowly became everything I ever hated about cell phone users.

Phones at Air & Space
I took this photo at the National Air & Space Smithsonian Museum in D.C. I’m sure these kids’ parent’s would be thrilled to see how they passed the time at such a boring place…

I watched, disembodied, my slow descent into smartphone hell. The phone replaced books. It replaced interaction with my wife. It replaced people-watching and housework and laughing and random pushups.

When we first had our baby two years later (in 2014), I penned an essay called “Too Many Screens” as an homage to my new face-to-face interactions with our little addition, and lamented my preoccupation with screens.

That vigor didn’t last long.

The phone became a fixture of my being. It was the first thing I looked at in the morning and my security blanket at night. I would seldom forget my wallet in the morning, but I would never forget my phone. I had it next to me in the shower, on the couch, in the car.

Everywhere.

I texted and drove. I texted and walked. I would surf the web while putting the baby to sleep.

What the Hell had I Become?

In January of this year I finally admitted I had a problem—the extent of which I still didn’t know. So, I downloaded an app called “Moment” to track my usage.

The verdict: an average of 230 minutes per day* of active screen time. Never less than two hours. Sometimes as much as eight.

This was not happening. Where did I find eight extra hours to sit on a phone?

Emboldened with this new information and a clear notion on my phone addiction, I took action.

And then I didn’t.

I was soon back at it. Back on the phone in excess. What would it take to break the cycle?

As it tends to do, fate stepped in to save the day.

*Note: Before you start judging, even me, a self-identified phone addict, still uses his phone less than the average American (at 257 minutes per day).

A Missed Connection

A few weeks ago my wife was having a conversation with somebody. The memory has since faded, but I believe the “somebody” was me. I could be wrong, but archival footage shows myself as the only other adult in the room. Like always, my attention was split between the conversation at hand and phone in hand. In somewhat uncharacteristic behavior, she took the phone from my hand and tossed it. It wasn’t a “this-thing-is-going-straight-through-the-drywall” sort of toss, but more of a “best-believe-that-next-time-this-thing-is-going-straight-through-the-drywall” sort of toss.

Apparently, though, the phone landed in the perfectly wrong way. The Screen was fine. The Case was fine. It was still connected to wifi. But, the screen had no response.

Bricked.

In a flurry of panic that I’ve seen only replicated on episodes of Intervention, I ask if we can go to the local phone fixer. “I have like three telecons this afternoon. I need my phone.”

My wife, who apologized later, didn’t mean to break the phone, but it happened.

Hours later, after I drop off the brick, I get a call. “Hello Mr. Eric. Yessir. I’m not sure what the problem is. Digitizer is fine. Connections are fine. We did a full restore, so software is fine. The only explanation is the logic board. That repair here is over $200, so it probably makes more sense for you just to buy another one.”

Buy another one…

If you’re new around here, you’ll know that those words hung over me like a cloud of thick ash.

I can’t just buy another one…

Ten Days With No Phone

I briefly flirt with the idea of going phoneless for the remainder of my life. But, Wife29 quickly put the kibosh on that little idea. I am a father now. I drive a car. I have a job. I sometimes pick people up at airports. People expect to be able to get in touch with me. “No phone” is a romantic thought, but such freedoms are reserved for honeymoons and cruises, not for your modern workaday grind of life.

But, I still have my processes. I’m not prepared to abandon all reason and buy retail. I start a long process of research and comparisons, looking for a good price that will work with my discount provider RingPlus**.

I slow-roll the buying process, and get accustomed to being without a phone. My wife keeps gentle pressure on me to replace, but when it was all said and done, I had gone a full ten days without a phone of any sort while still living a normal life.

**Note: I should clarify right now that going without a phone was not at all a money-saving idea. I pay just over $5 a month now for 1000 texts, 1000 minutes, and 1.7GB of data on my iPhone. The savings of going phoneless are non-existent with the proliferation of low-cost providers like RingPlus.

The Lessons

Smartphones are the sort of thing that was never needed, and is now indispensable. Like washing machines, pants, or the Kardashians, smartphones are so embedded in our lives that going without them is a thought we (myself included) fear beyond rationality. Two-thirds of Americans admit to having mobile-phone separation anxiety.

Lesson #1: I Didn’t Need My Phone

40% of iPhone users would rather give up their toothbrush than their phone. 43% would rather give up shoes. The average adolescent would rather give up their pinky finger.

I needed my phone. It was how I read e-mails, deposited checks, made calls, took photos, checked my stock quotes. I needed it, until I didn’t have it. Then I, like my ancestors before me, simply adapted to the situation.

I would make calls over Skype. I would deposit checks using any number of other devices. I have a perfectly better Nikon camera. I would (gasp) NOT READ terrible internet garbage to pass time. I used my laptop for some tasks, which created a slightly higher barrier to entry, and ensured the need for the screen was actually a need rather than a fallback. I would call my wife using my office phone. She even picked up me up from the park ‘n ride a few times. How could such a monumental task be done sans phone?

“Honey, I’m about to leave work. I’ll be at the park ‘n ride between 6:15 and 6:30 depending on traffic. If I have to wait a little bit, no problem.”

Granted, the phone does relieve us of some minor inconveniences. But, it’s not essential. Believe me.

Lesson #2: I Found New Life

My toddler and I walked around our neighborhood the first night I didn’t have a phone. We picked up dozens, maybe hundreds, of dandelion tops from our yard and others.

We put them in a glass jar and gave them to mom. We called it “Potpourri.”

This wasn’t intentional. I didn’t go outside and say, “Alright hun. Daddy lost his phone, so let’s do something carefree and whimsical so that I can tell my readers how great life is without a phone.”

Quite the opposite. I felt a longing for my phone, and was preoccupied with what was happening on my Facebook*** while I was away. But, in a naturally father-ish way, Shortstack and I just started doing other stuff without really realizing it. It wasn’t until ten minutes in that I actually stepped back and said, “I’m actually out here picking dandelions.” The jar is still on our countertop.

And such is the tendency for humans to want to occupy themselves doing things they enjoy. Take away that which was crowding out our natural tendency to be creative and happy, and suddenly the pent up whimsical activity can spew forth.

***Note: Nothing important was happening on Facebook. Like me on Facebook.

Lesson #3: The Phantom Vibration Is Gone

Perhaps one of the more practical items on this list, the phantom vibration I felt is now gone. Like a war veteran scratching a missing limb, I was fully afflicted with a phantom vibration of my phone. This has been the case for months. My phone could be in another room (although that rarely happened) and with a sixth sense my upper thigh would somehow mimic the vibration sensation to alert my brain to go retrieve my phone.

It took about two days, but it happened, and it has not since returned.

Lesson #4: I’m Not That Important

My cell phone addiction hit a turning point, for the worse, when I enabled my phone to under my company’s mobile device management program, thereby syncing my work e-mail onto my phone. I was now “on the clock” 24/7.

There were some benefits to this. I would never have a pile of unread e-mails when I arrived in the morning. But, this also create a false sense of importance.

I would receive an e-mail and feel the need to respond right away—regardless of who sent it. I equated the e-mail with my own importance, oh boy, somebody needs me. I drank the Kool-Aid, and I drank it heartily.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The measure of importance is not the person who gets those e-mails and feels the need to respond. Rather, the true important people in your organization are those who send an e-mail and get the quick response. Of course, while I’m busily typing up e-mails while the baby is nodding off to sleep, nobody on the receiving end of my sent items seems to be in any hurry to reply to me.

Humbling.

Lesson #5: Life Right Here is Better Than Life Over There

How much time have I wasted over the past few years, looking mindlessly at a screen and hoping to find something worthwhile to look at?

I don’t want to know the answer.

“Worthwhile” is all around me, all the time, and I just lost focus on it. If I take my eyes off the 4-inch screen right in front of me, I suddenly see the miles-wide screen all around me. God created a pretty nice screen, no clicking around necessary, and ever-changing and auto-focusing. The content is better too. Sure, it might be exciting to see my beloved Twins boxscore****, but that certainly can’t be as nice as my wife, the baby, the grass, the rain, the stars, and all in between.

Not to get all mushy, but what are we looking for in the phone that isn’t right here in front of us?

****Note: It is rarely exciting to see a Minnesota Twins boxscore.

So, What Now?

I have a phone again. I bought a used iPhone 5 for $92 and swapped in my SIM card. I was up-and-running on RingPlus in about ten minutes. For now, at least, I am holding onto my newfound ways and hardly feel the need to pick up my phone.

Balance is key. Having a GPS is nice. Having some music is nice. Being able to easily take photos of my family is nice.

If managed properly, this new technology can be a beautiful, powerful, positive thing. However, it’s far too easy to let it take control of you. I saw this happening to me, and I didn’t intervene until my hand was forced.

A gradual lessening of phone usage wasn’t working for me. I needed cold turkey. Drastic times drastic measures and all that.

If you, or someone close to you seems to have a phone addiction, maybe consider the same. There’s a lot more dandelions out there.

Thanks for reading Retire29.

Eric

7 Comments

  1. Eric,

    Thx for sharing this story. It is amazing. It might be a good idea to fake this myself. At least during time with the kids. I do see the advantage. In weekends, while in the road with kids, I use the phone to check email, blog comments, my RSS reader… does all of this matter? Nope, especially not when compared to a little talk to the girls!

    ATL
    amber tree recently posted…Would you change job to earn less?My Profile

  2. I have been taking a bit of step back in terms of using my phone the last few days. Feel much better to need to constantly checking my phone and ignore what’s in front of me.

    • That’s great news. Going cold turkey definitely isn’t necessary for most folks. I needed it, though, as my attempts at “taking a step back” repeatedly failed.

  3. I totally agree with you; balance is key. It’s okay to be connected with the outside world via cellphones, but it’s important that you don’t let that detach you from your surroundings or the people you are with in that moment. Nicely said! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Hey buddy,
    Nice Post … !

    On average, people check their phones 34 times a day, sometimes with only a 10-minute break between checks.Honestly, when my phone died while I was out , I definitely felt the faint flutter of panic. And when I came home, placed it into the charger.I liked your idea of going 10 days without a phone. Thank you for sharing !

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