I’ve been engaged in a tough break up. It’s been a dysfunctional relationship for a few years already, but sometimes dysfunction is hard to sense when you’re deep in it. You get used to the craziness. You get used to constantly being available on demand all the time. You can’t even remember what life was like before. But you know it’s not good for you, and that you crave relief.
I’m talking, of course, about my phone.
Catherine Price’s little yellow book How to Break Up With Your Phone has been on my audio book app (on my phone) for awhile now, and I finally listened to it. No, the irony is not lost on me. But I felt so moved by it that I actually ordered it – on Amazon, on my phone – to own. It now sits on my desk in my kitchen surrounded by the books I teach daily.
The first half of the book diagnoses the dysfunction of the relationship, pointing out the obvious signs: the control, the deliberate attempt by apps to suck us in and manipulate the dopamine in our brains for their own gain. The second half is like a 12-step program for addicts, teaching us how to disengage and recognize the compulsions – where they are coming from, why we yield to them, and how to reclaim our attention spans and our precious time.
For me, one of the most powerful things I’ve gained from the book is the practice of charging my phone in the kitchen each night instead of by my bedside. For those of you who already do this, or who aren’t addicted to your phones, hurray. But two out of every three people have nomophobia – the fear of being separated from one’s phone – so I know I’m in good company here.
The drawbacks of addiction are many: I am wasting time, I am not a good role model for my kids, I feel yucky when I’m done. Social media saturation has even more drawbacks: anxiety, depression, loneliness.
The first night I charged my phone in the kitchen, I had this vague sense that Something would happen. Maybe one of my kids would need me. Maybe there would be an emergency. Maybe there would be something that couldn’t wait. I made a big point of texting my kids (yes, we do that even when everyone is home, don’t judge) that I am going to sleep now AND I AM CHARGING MY PHONE IN THE KITCHEN AND IF ANYONE NEEDS ME KNOCK ON MY DOOR LIKE IN THE DARK AGES.
I woke up and nothing had happened. I had missed nothing. No national emergences, no urgent crises. I felt almost disappointed with my own irrelevance.
But the benefits were immediate.
I read some things that had been languishing on my nightstand. I said the entire nighttime Shema prayer with no tugging on my attention. I slept better, because when I woke up in the middle of the night I fell back asleep instead of looking at my phone. I was, I hope, a good role model for my kids. In the morning, that sense of urgency to look at my phone had vanished. There was no urgency. I find myself delaying it more and more because I am enjoying the serenity.
I am practicing lengthening my attention span when I notice the compulsion to check my phone for no reason, and instead breathe through it or just think. I am reclaiming the right to uni-task. My brain and adrenaline have slowed down. I’m more likely to talk to my family members in person rather than text.
I’ve rediscovered the beautiful post-it note and jot things down as I remember them instead of feeling like I must take care of them immediately. It can wait. Most things, in fact, can wait. Our phones are programmed with a sense of urgency so we will look at them, identify with them, dress them up and personalize them, as an accessory that announces things about us. But I can challenge that urgency, which, as it turns out, is an emperor with no clothes.
Breaking up is hard to do. But staying in a dysfunctional relationship, it turns out, is often harder.