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Steve Simkins

48 Hours Disconnected

I spent two days with zero access to my cell phone or computer, and this is what I discovered

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It was a Thursday afternoon at the chiropractor. I was still on my paternity leave, helping my wife take our kids so our youngest could get some adjustments. Like most dads I sat around, waited, and scrolled on my phone. Halfway through I could tell my wife was miffed, and I thought it was due to our appointment being fifteen minutes late. In reality, my son had been trying to get my attention for several minutes, I ignored him, and he gave up. When she told me later that day I could vividly see it happen, like I was there, but I wasn’t.

This was not the first time. I had a problem, like the majority of society, having self control over my phone. There were countless other instances like this one where I really screwed up and gave my kids a mental image of what it means to be an absentminded father. It was time to stop, so I made the decision to lock my phone and computer away all weekend. What happened next has honestly become a pivotal moment in my personal life. Here’s a few things I learned along the way that I hope will resonate with others.

I spend a lot of time checking my phone

Probably a no-brainer for most, especially if you just look at the Screen Time section of your iPhone. I was one of them, thinking “yeah I spend a good bit of time on my phone and could probably do a better job with that,” but it’s one thing to see a number of hours on a chart, and something completely different to experience it. During my two days I would feel the urge to check my phone at completely unnecessary moments, like in the middle of dinner or waiting for coffee to finish brewing.

These were instances that I really didn’t need to check my phone but wanted to simply fill a gap; I felt a need to stay busy and occupied. It’s only when you’re forced into that scenario where you realize how little you can sit and do nothing. From this I also saw how much more time I had without my phone. The little moments of time between tasks or living that I filled with my phone piled up, and ultimately resulted in a large amount of time. I suppose that’s where the number of hours on Screen Time come into play.

With all these spare pockets of time, I felt the need to fill them with something, and so my reading habits skyrocketed. I can’t remember the last time I read books just to read, and that is something truly valuable. While I do a lot of reading through my phone or computer, it’s completely different to find yourself alone with one author and their thoughts. The temptation to switch from a partially finished blog post, to a garbage Tweet, to a video of something silly is completely removed. Your attention span is forced to stick with just one thing. Writing this feels ridiculous because I grew up reading books, lots of them; this concept isn’t revolutionary. However, the self-realization of how far we have come is nothing short of shocking when you experience it yourself.

My mental health is directly affected

A natural effect of not having a phone or a computer is not checking any social media of any kind. As you would expect, mental health improves. Twitter has become my bread and butter for social media intake, and while I have carefully curated my feed to be as positive as possible, I can’t deny how much less negative I was during the two days. Truthfully, it was the happiest I had been in a while. For me at least, it was enough to convince me that any kind of social media will have negative affects on my mental health. Previously I always told myself social media is fine, that how you use it defines how it affects you, but I’m not sure I can say that anymore. Of course I’m sure there are others reading this that have achieved social media nirvana, but I would challenge them to just take two days and see for themselves if that’s true.

Taking these two days also showed me how busyness was infecting my mental health. By always scrolling, always reading, always tinkering, I was more busy than productive. My hands and mind were always tending to something, but the distractions made them switch too often. Eliminating the distractions helped me realize how the clarity improved my mental state. How I go back to working on a computer every day is still something I’m working out, but I’m hoping the answer lies in closing everything but the task at hand, documenting thoughts for future ideas and projects, or just disconnecting entirely.

The final area of social media that died was self image. Typically when I post some content, I’m always tempted to check the notifications to see if people like it or not. It’s a gauge of self worth and esteem that really shouldn’t be there, and it was refreshing to have it ripped out. I just created for the sake of creating, without thinking if someone would like it or not.

I am so much more aware without my phone

As I found myself in those moments where nothing in particular was happening, twiddling my thumbs in boredom or sitting with someone, I realized how aware of my surroundings I truly was. It makes sense, if you’re looking down at your phone then you’re not looking up ¯_(ツ)_/¯ There would be moments where I would be trying to talk to my wife and she would be on her phone, and it would take her a second to even notice I was talking. I can say this because in our marriage I have absolutely been worse in this area, more than I want to admit. It gave me an understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of that fence, and I needed to feel that.

Apart from human interaction, my awareness in the outdoors and nature was also heightened. We took a day to explore a river gulf we hadn’t been to yet, and there were multiple moments while walking that I caught myself feeling the urge to check my phone. If I had my phone, I would have missed the smile on my son’s face as he saw the river running next to us, or the butterfly that landed at our feet. Those are the moments I have missed before because my habits convinced me that I was bored and needed entertainment, and that’s deeply saddening. What other precious moments have I missed?

My Apple Watch can handle almost all my needs

I made the decision that I would keep my Apple Watch during the two days away, mostly because I knew it would be limited without the iPhone paired as it’s just the wifi model. This caused me to rely on it more for daily uses, and to my surprise, it did really well! Anytime I needed the time or to set a timer, it had me covered. I could still listen to music and podcasts while doing dishes, I could use my compass and waypoints while hiking, I could check the weather while using my wifi, I could send and receive iMessages, and more.

This proved something important: when I go back to having a phone and computer, I could depend on my watch even more. If I have my phone turned on and somewhere in the house, I’ll get notifications if something urgent pops up. I didn’t have to worry about missing out, because everything else that is lower priority would still be there when I got back. I think this is the reason we get Apple Watches to begin with — to see a notification to know if you need to pull your phone out for the next thirty minutes — but actually practicing that effectively becomes rare. Having a day or two without a phone can quickly change that.

Now what?

The thought of going back to the world of overstimulating, entertainment saturated, and attention kidnapping was daunting. It was only two days, but I immediately could understand how I had changed for the better, and I didn’t want to lose that. Yet there is no good way to both free yourself of the internet and still be productive, engaging, and helpful to the people in our digital spaces.

To be honest I’m still figuring it out, but the first step for me was to physically remove my phone as much as possible. Leave it in another room, have my Apple Watch on me, and just live as much as I can without it. When I go out of the house I now try to keep my phone in my pocket as much as possible, being aware that I can pull it out if I need to. More times than not, though, it can just stay there. I now try to designate time to work, to be focused in on a phone or computer, and separate that time and space from the time I spend with my family.

My paternity leave will end in a few weeks, so how I handle being plugged in will probably change soon, but the feeling of these forty-eight hours will not. I will never forget how such a simple task of giving up my phone and computer gave me so much happiness, freedom, and clarity that I desperately needed. I still enjoy technology, the people building it, and how it ultimately improves our daily lives. Technology is neither good nor evil, it is neutral. However, how humans use it will always be in a balance of good and evil. Each day we have the personal choice of how we will use the tools at our disposal and how they will affect the people around us, and sometimes it’s as simple as leaving your phone in another room.