Confessions of an iPhone Addict: How To Free Yourself from Your Smart Phone and Still Be Relevant in the Twenty-First Century
An iPhone Addict Fesses Up and Shares Tips to Help You Get Your Life Back
By Christopher Hopper | Monday, December 17, 2018
AS PART OF a recent sabbatical, I took six weeks to unplug from my iPhone X. The act was not only something I thought would be a good idea for the sabbatical but something I needed for my mental health. It turns out that the only person I was fooling about being addicted to it was me.
In this post, I’ll share the steps I took for my sabbatical, the results of this experiment, and the resolutions I have since set in place to maintain the sustainable level of health that I achieved while being ‘off grid.’
Personal Goals of My Sabbatical
I knew that I needed to find ways to reduce anxiety and depression in my life, focus on only a small number of meaningful relationships, and seek direction for the next decade as I’m months away from turning forty. I also knew that I wanted to see two different counselors—a mental health therapist and a spiritual director—to help sort out normal life-happenings. Through everything, it was painfully apparent that the device in my pocket was inhibiting all of these pursuits in various ways.
My iPhone behavior before going on sabbatical consisted of checking social media throughout the day, especially first thing in the morning and last thing at night; responding to hundreds of daily text messages on a near-constant basis; checking in on the news, particularly in bed; watching YouTube videos on the hobbies that interest me; listening to Audible and podcasts; and taking pictures of nearly all notable events of my day, if nothing more than for posterity. In short, my iPhone was either in my hand, in my righthand jeans pocket, or on my nightstand where it charged before going in my hand or jeans pocket. While I hate to admit it, my iPhone was ruling my life despite my self-assertion that it wasn’t.
1.) For starters, I deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter from my phone. They were the largest draws to the ‘incessant phone check’ that people like me have become famous for. Because I didn’t want people to wonder what had happened, nor feel the need to text me, I posted the picture of a simple handwritten note on each account saying I was going to be away from the platform until a specific date. This may have been unnecessary, and a sign that I was too concerned for a large group of people whom I owed nothing to, but I felt it was helpful for two reasons: (1) it would be a kind thing to do for those family members and friendships that keep in touch primarily via social media and (2) it would limit questions as to my absence via other methods of communication.
2.) Next, I set auto-replies for all incoming emails, texts, and phone calls. This included removing myself from several text groups whose members would get annoyed with the auto-replies. The messages informed people that I would not be responding to any communications, not responsible for cumulative (back-dated) messages, and provided them with an alternative contact for all pressing needs. I recognize that I have a wonderful wife who was able to interface with many of the day-to-day needs of managing our household as well as an understanding and gracious employer who absorbed the added strain of my absence.
3.) I decided to stop checking the news. I’d already stopped watching the news on TV and listening to talk radio years ago, so those were already out. Their absence had an added bonus: forecasting the added level of peace that would come when I stopped checking news aggregates online.
4.) You might be asking, how did this guy stay connected with anyone then? The funny thing about our phones is that they’re telephones. Ironically, the phone is the least-used feature on my device. So I decided to use it. I also resorted to using an older non-social-media non-iMessage-related app called Voxer. For one, I like that almost none of my thousands of contacts use it, so there were no automatic notifications associated when I was on. For the few close friends willing to keep in touch with me over my sabbatical, I asked if they would download it just for me. No one objected.
The first week was the hardest because I came face to face with just how dependent I was on my iPhone: dependent for entertainment, perceived connection, and what I thought was helpful information.
Moreover, because this technology-fast coincided with a cease from labor, I got bored. I actually sat on the couch with nothing to do. At one point I found myself staring out the living room bay window fixated on nature. Imagine that.
It was then that several quotes from French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) came to mind:
“Evil results from our inability to sit quietly in a room by ourselves.”
“Without distraction we should be bored, and boredom would force us to search for a firmer way out.”
It was in boredom that I started to rediscover my first loves. I wrote several songs. I journaled and wrote a few poems. I painted two large canvases for my wife. I read a dozen books and even started writing a new novel of my own. I took walks without distractions, had lunch dates with friends full of meaningful talking points, and felt distanced from the buzz of the world’s unquenchable demands.
Statistically, my iPhone usage dropped from several hours a day to less than twenty minutes a day, and I had at least two sub 90-minute weeks. It found a new home plugged into the wall and on airplane mode except when I wanted to look something up or watch a specific video about my hobbies. The most substantial usage, by far, was for Audible, something I actually felt proud of.
After several weeks, I slowly became happier because I had no one else’s life to compare mine to but my own. My focus started to return, my brain felt less preoccupied, and my disposition was less distant. In short, I got busy living my own life.
I left home without my iPhone several times. This startled me for two reasons. The first was that I hadn’t noticed that I’d forgotten it until after I was halfway down our street; one time I was halfway to the city. That almost never happened before. And second, when I realized I’d left it, I kept driving. I had the startling realization that I didn’t need my iPhone and—here’s the big one—that everything really could wait.
Tips for Getting Back On-Grid
All sabbaticals must come to an end and life returns to normal. But can normal be different than before? Can someone actually rule over their cell phone instead of the other way around?
The answer is yes.
Here are several of the main takeaways from my iPhone fast:
1.) Sleep with your phone in the kitchen.
This started as an agreement I made with our teenage daughter when she got her iPhone. Her mom and I didn’t want it going in her room late at night, so part of the deal was that she had to keep it in the kitchen when she went to bed. Feeling the need to lead by example, I decided to do it with her. The reality is, however, I should have been doing it all along.
Keeping my phone in the kitchen has made my bedroom a sanctuary. There, nothing can touch me except for my wife (and, yes, that is definitely a double entendre). The world and all of its problems can wait. My last thoughts are not about someone else’s status update or a fleeting news headline, they’re on how I spent my day and what I’ll do differently tomorrow. Likewise, my first thought in the morning is spent on my agenda for my life and not someone else’s.
Pro Tip: “But how do you wake up on time?” There’s this old-fashioned $10 thing they still sell at department stores and on Amazon: an alarm clock.
2.) Batch check texts, emails, and voicemails.
I realized early on that if all text messages were the equivalent of someone tapping me on the shoulder, I would go insane. Yet I had allowed just this sort of intrusion to take my attention away from whatever else I was doing. The result was scattered attention and lackluster production, not to mention a general worldview of chronic anxiety.
This lead me to adopt the way that computers sort through incoming data: they process information in batches. (For more on this, check out Algorithms to Live By by Allen Lane). Rather than a constant one-after-another method, I have set specific times of the day to check incoming communications that need my attention. I allow fifteen minutes, and only fifteen minutes, to wade through the information according to perceived priority. If I can’t get to it in that fifteen-minute window, it gets put off until the next scheduled batch check. And what if it doesn’t get checked then? It goes unanswered. I am only one person and I have limits. Without this diligent framework, I will always exceed my limits, and that is not the way I want to live my life.
3.) Save conversations that need detailed attention for the phone or in person.
Texting is great for short bursts of one or two items, but it is a time suck for anything else. Let me say that again: if you can’t share what needs to be told in under three text messages, you are throwing your time away by not chatting with that person in a real-time auditory format. For one, we were born with a mouth and ears for a reason. For another, we all can communicate faster, with more nuance and more emotion with our mouths and ears than we can with our keyboards.
This is one reason why Voxer is attractive to me. While text, pics, and video are all options, it’s primarily a voice communication app. (I also like it because you can 4x someone’s message which means you can get through a long-winded communicator’s message much faster).
4.) Check social media once a day for fifteen minutes.
Here’s my new rule: If I can’t learn it about other peoples’ lives, industry tips, or hobbies in fifteen minutes or less, I don’t need to know it.
Even for the businesses that I help oversee, I can prepare content in advance and schedule posts. Time-limits have the added benefit of making me focus on concise replies and resist the temptation to get sidetracked.
Ironically, perhaps one of the iPhone’s latest iOS features is its best feature: Screen Time. In it, you can monitor your device usage and even set limits for specific apps. If you struggle in this area, then this feature should be the very next thing you explore when you stop reading this article.
I’ve finally realized that, like anything in excess, my cell phone is not good for me except in small, limited doses. A recent study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking concluded that constant connection to our cell phones creates a form of ‘online vigilance.’ While this might sound like a positive thing, Dr. Marlynn Wei notes that:
“[Our] mind is automatically monitoring communications like email, texts, or phone notifications. This state of constant alertness does not give your mind a time to rest and focus on what happened in the past or future—in other words, the opposite of mindfulness or training the mind to focus on being aware of the present moment.”
There is just no way I can live a peace-filled anxiety-free life and sustain that type of constant vigilance. My brain was not built for it, and, I suspect, neither was yours.
I’ve also realized that I am not meant to have hundreds of emotionally, intellectually, and socially intimate relationships. My wife, Jennifer, and my buddy, Josh, recently pointed to some research which corroborated this, concluding, in effect, that the most number of people that we are able to contextualize and rationalize is two-hundred—and that’s on the extreme end. Secondly, before the digital age, most people only preserved about twenty detailed relationships on a regular basis; that is a far cry from the hundreds of images and status updates our brains process every day.
Accordingly, the amount of time I give people must be in proportion to the importance of that relationship to me. This sounds logical enough, but it’s amazing how social media, in particular, can distort and even invert this equation faster than we realize. We spend time browsing people’s lives who we owe nothing to while forgetting to spend time with our spouses or family members who we’ve committed everything to.
The hard truth is that I was so busy watching everyone else live their lives that I was not present enough to live my own.
I also never realized how difficult it is to get ‘off grid’ responsibly until I tried. When I say responsibly, I mean departing from the culturally acceptable methods of social communication without leaving people in the social dark.
In my case, Apple has worked in conjunction with a broader social expectation that we are ‘always on’ and, therefore, required to reply according to the unwritten rules of the universe. While features like ‘Do Not Disturb’ help mitigate some of the distractions and accessibility, Apple has yet to write software which allows you to set up an auto-reply to all incoming iMessages. In other words, you can’t tell everyone to stop texting you—the software won’t let you. Instead, I had to turn off iMessage so that my phone only accepted SMS texts, and then download Verizon’s app (my provider) which contains an auto-reply feature for SMS texts. This didn’t work across the board, however, and lots of iPhone users got snubbed without knowing I was on sabbatical.
I understand that not everyone has the luxury to go off-grid like me. However, I’ve since determined that no amount of exterior connectedness is ever worth the sanctity of my soul, and if I have built any mature relationship, business, or organization on such a high level of dependency that it is doomed to fail without constant oversight then it must change if both of us are to survive.
Regarding therapy, I would recommend counseling for everyone. Ironically, as a counselor, I had never really taken my own advice to heart until this year. Even if you feel that you’re ‘okay and don’t need therapy,’ the reality is that you probably do. We all need wise, objective people outside of our immediate world to mirror our behaviors and help us examine our souls.
Lastly, I challenge you to embrace boredom. If you don’t have time to be bored, I suggest that is part of the problem. Boredom is what forces us to find a way out of our misery whereas distraction perpetuates the illusion of satisfaction. Force yourself to be bored. Put yourself in situations that compromise your brain’s desire to be entertained all the time.
While we cherish the texts of the late Jack Lewis, I hope and pray we are even more quick to apply his methodologies:
“I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude. Also, of endless books.”
—C. S. Lewis
Set it down. Turn it off. Live your life.