A couple months ago, a friend invited me to come hiking in North Georgia with her and a group of friends. As I exited the highway to take the winding roads that would lead to the campsite where we were to meet, my phone lost service. I’d been told this was a possibility, but I hadn’t taken it seriously. It’s very rare that I find myself in places where my phone doesn’t work. That’s the kind of thing reserved for off-the-gridders or horror movie victims.
Yet there I was, thirty minutes from the meeting spot in a state of being digitally cut off.
I felt exhilarated.
Leaving that highway, I was entering six hours of the opportunity to be fully present with the people in front of me and with myself.
Last year, I participated in a virtual Q&A with Ann Patchett about her book The Dutch House. In the interview, she noted that she doesn’t own a smart phone, isn’t on social media, and has never sent a text. My main takeaway: Yes, she’s a brilliant writer, but I want to emulate Patchett even if for nothing more than her digital boundaries.
Another American author, Joy Williams, uses a flip phone and corresponds using postcards. At the age of 77, she still writes all of her manuscripts without owning a computer. In her recent fiction book, Harrow, Williams wrote this:
“A teacher at school said that the online world—he called it the online world—employs only the part of the brain that handle temporary fleeting minutiae and bulks up that part so that deep thinking is impossible, deeper understanding becomes elusive.”
I don’t want to be robbed off my thought processes (you can read more about that in my post Practicing). That’s why I’m working hard to keep my screen time at a minimum.
Have you ever used that app on your phone that tracks your screen time? It’s fascinating, and a bit of a gut-punch, to see where the time goes. For the past few months, I’ve been playing a game trying to get my average screen time lower than the previous week. Here’s how I’m doing it . . .
I’ve created a phone drop (or two, or three). In each main living area of our house, I have a place where I put my phone out of sight when I’m not using it. For example, there’s a kitchen drawer with a little plastic divider the perfect size for my phone. That way when I’m cooking with Landon, eating a meal with my family, or hanging out on the couch, my phone is the last thing on my mind. Putting technology aside physically is a way for me to put it’s trappings aside mentally.
I only check messages at specific times. With the exception of a handful of people, I try to respond to all text messages and emails during two or three windows of time every day. When possible, I use my computer to do so instead of my phone. It’s faster, and that way I’m not hunched over a tiny screen trying to craft coherent thoughts. This approach also means I’m valuing the person on the other end by giving them my follow attention and not responding on the fly.
I turn on Do Not Disturb an hour before bedtime and ignore it until after my morning routine is finished. I value alone time. It’s good to decompress at the end of the day, give those in my home my full attention, and to wake up in the morning with space to contemplate where life is headed that day before letting other distractions creep in.
I talk to my four-year-old about what I’m doing. When he’s older and my son thinks of me, I don’t want him to envision me with a phone in my hand. I want him to see me as fully present, unflustered, untethered. He doesn’t need to know everything I’m doing online, but if I’m going to be texting in front of him, it feels right to say, “I’m sending your dad a text right now and can continue our conversation in one minute when I’m finished.”
Screens aren’t bad or the enemy. It’s just that I want to use my energy well and I can trade what happens online for the preciousness of what’s tangible in front of me—my family, a book made of paper, a walk looking at the sky. Brain space is important to me. It’s not about eliminating something bad—it’s trading it for something better. It’s scaling back the outside voices and expectations of others so I can lean into my own humanity and the offline experiences of others.
Photo credit: Antoine Barrès