Phone Smart: How to Live Untethered (realistically)

Humans have existed for millennia without being accessible at the drop of a text. But knowing that red number sits on your message icon brings instant anxiety and our minds dart away from the present. Has the buzzing screen glued our attention to the point of no return?

In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each OtherSherry Turkle explains our new fascination with smart phones and social media as the illusion of community without the fear of intimacy. Have you ever felt the need to tell others you “won’t be on Facebook” for a period of time?  Do you believe people will miss your status updates? That’s the illusion of community without the fear of intimacy.

It was taking a lot of my attention and time, so I decided to untether…at least a little. Sure, going “off the grid” looked attractive, but it’s not at all practical in our world. Here are three things I did, and it paid off:

  1. Be present. This is more of a mindset shift than anything. I make it a practice to not pull out my phone at every still moment. When I finally tried our city’s new Thai place for lunch a few months ago, it was by myself. Instead of scrolling Twitter, Facebook, or email, I did something antiquated. I waited for my food. No pressing notification stole that moment. Pad thai and silence were the shining stars. It sounds crazy, but when was the last time you just sat somewhere? I like what Jim Elliott said, “Wherever you are, be all there.”
  2. Install a landline. I have a wife, young children, and a church that needs access to me, but there are limits to everything. We decided to get a landline as a buffer. It did a number of things for us:
    • We can turn off our smart phones at home but still be accessed in case of emergencies.
    • We can limit who gets our number. Friends and family know they can call us if they want to chat or go grab last minute Mexican food. Remember the ’90s? It’s basically like that.
    • As our kids get older they can give the number to friends who might want to ask them a question about homework or invite them to a birthday party without giving out our cell numbers.
  3. I made guardrails for smartphone use. During work hours (8AM-5PM), it was game-on. A lot of my job requires email and text/calls. But after work hours, I have a system:
    • Emails: answer them the next day. People will be able to sleep not knowing what date a conference starts next month, but it could distract me from my family today.
    • Texts: check them before bed. I answer if it’s an emergency (which it never is…because they would’ve called our landline). Otherwise, I answer them the next day.
    • Voicemails: same as texting. 

Here’s what sealed the deal for us:

“Those lucky children who have intact families with stable incomes can experience other forms of abandonment. Busy parents are preoccupied, often by what is on their cell phones.”

Through research, Turkle explained how kids whose parents were constantly “connected” to everyone (except the people at home) showed signs of abandonment. Being home, but not being “present” is damaging. My kids should never have to compete with an iPhone.

Staying in a “be where you are” mentality and getting a landline helped. Remember, nobody needs you that bad. We’ve made it until 2005 without smartphones. It’ll be okay. At home, put that thing on Airplane Mode, stick it in the other room and live untethered.

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