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Young woman lying on carpet using smartphone

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We are a digital society. A phone is no longer an accessory, it seems, but a requirement. Since the dawn of smartphones, the practice of using such a device strictly for making and receiving calls has been rendered ancient, if not obsolete. These days, we are not only expected to have our phones on us at all times but to interact with them as much as possible. The apps and the phones themselves are designed to force us to use them, from notifications to infinite scrolling to hidden reward systems like follower count and likes.

So when life presented me an opportunity to put it down, I subconsciously jumped at the idea. One day, after yet another battle with a bundle of nervous energy I can only refer to as mild anxiety, I caught myself saying out loud “I really need a break from my phone.” I know myself. I get into these compulsive cycles where I endlessly swipe between Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, and YouTube if I’m feeling “focused” and Monopoly, one of my favorite guilty pleasures, when I’m not.

Within an hour, the universe responded. My phone hit one percent and just wouldn’t charge. I checked the charger, checked the outlets, before checking out several different Apple stores. Due to the pandemic, it would be at least a week before I could get an appointment. A week? Without my phone? How, Sway?!

I had options. I could pay a third-party service or catch a two-hour-long train to a nearby county. Or, I could sweat it out and wait the week, with the promise of free Apple Care and the possibility of a brand new phone. I decided to take the opportunity as a sign and committed to a week without my phone. It changed me.

The first thing I gained was mental clarity. My mind just seemed to work sharper. My thoughts flowed to me freely — original thoughts, not just reactions and responses and ruminations of things I had previously experienced, contemplated or seen online. I gained back my prized skill of observation, which had been heavily diluted by my excessive phone use. I also found it easier to focus on one thought at a time and carry it into completion and/or fruition, which also reduced my anxiety tremendously. It even made my breath slower and steadier.

When you don’t have your phone, the first thing you notice is how much other people are on their phones. In a detached, non-judgmental way, I realized my partner is always on his, even when we are at home. That also made me realize that phones are definitely reducing the amount of time we spend talking and getting to know each other. Without referencing what I had seen or was doing on my phone, I found myself exploring more topics to discuss. I was asking more questions about his general well-being. The funny thing is, I didn’t even tell him I didn’t have my phone. He didn’t even notice. He was too engaged with his.

Without my phone in my hand constantly, I also became less impulsive. Whether it’s clocking in almost a full workday of screen time or averaging a hundred pickups per day, we are wildly and oftentimes blindly compelled to look at our phones. Just to check, scroll, refresh, even if there’s nothing we really need or we’re gazing over things we’ve already seen. We just want to see what the world is up to. Every minute, every hour, every second – there is something available for us to check in on. Without this pressure, I found myself pausing to reflect, taking time to make decisions, and evaluating choices in context to the current moment because I was finally present and living in the now.

Speaking of presence, I have struggled to meditate for years, which bothers me. I have practiced meditation and yoga in group settings and studied Zen Buddhism in high school. I’ve been to Vietnamese Buddhist retreats where I am the only Black woman there and meditated in temples with high-level monks. Yet for the past year or so, I can’t seem to get even a good five minutes in of stillness. Without my phone, this came naturally. I even found myself closing my eyes and just enjoying moments of solitude multiple times per day. I was more in touch with nature as well. Every leaf on the tree, every bird in the sky, every cloud, every flower, even the tiniest insects had my full attention. My peripheral opened up since my head wasn’t always down and on my phone. The world seemed brighter and more vivid.

I definitely found myself more active, too. What do you do when you don’t have a phone and you’re not really big on TV? I didn’t have my books with me since I was traveling, so I let life become my recreation. I got up and went for a walk if I was bored. I put some time into errands I had put off. I would move around the room for no other reason except that my energy was in motion and my body would follow suit. I felt overall, more alive, more human.

My compassion also increased. I was kinder and less moody. Observing my partner on his phone so much made me want him to experience a similar detox. Instead of imposing one on him, I would spark more conversation with him. Speak to him more. Ask him questions. Show more affection. I valued the quiet moments with him on his phone and didn’t resent him for having one while I was going without. I also appreciated the time we spent together, and I found myself engaging in more discussions with strangers and getting to know people more since I wasn’t spending my time checking my phone and interacting online.

But alas, life moves forward. The day of my Apple store appointment, I got a brand new phone, free of charge, and the joy I felt of having my phone back was met with a solemn acceptance that my new habits may not carry over. And I was right. I’ve since turned off screen time on my iPhone because it pains me to know I went from 30 mins on that first day I got it to right back up to the seven to nine hours that made me realize it was time for a break. I still have some of the same compulsions and impulses, but the good news is I also carry with me the compassion, observation, and mental clarity I gained from my week without. I upgraded them to values and decided I want to make this a lifestyle and not just an experiment. It’s a journey and a process, but one that is well worth the investment, even if that investment is just stillness and being present.

I would definitely encourage everyone to fast from their phones. If work, family and lifestyle doesn’t allow for weeks or months at a time, try going a day without your phone. Or set a schedule where you don’t pick it up before and after a certain time. Try an hour or impose a no-phone policy while eating or when you first wake up. It will do wonders for your consciousness, relationships and overall lifestyle. It will bring you back to yourself.

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