How many minutes a day does your smartphone steal?
If you’re anything like me, too many. Waaaay too many.
We don’t give those moments away on purpose, of course. Our time is valuable; it’s precious; it matters.
Yet most days you realize that, by the time your head hits the pillow, you’ve missed out on some of what poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life” because you’ve been constantly digitally distracted.
For me it’s the moments stolen from my kids that hurt the most. Each time I am on my phone and look up only to notice one of the kids needing my attention, my heart sinks.
Andy Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family writes, “An awful lot of children born in 2007, turning ten years old as this book is published, have been competing with their parents screens for attention their whole lives.”
Their whole lives. Think about that.
Philip Yancey, in the recent Washington Post piece, “The death of reading is threatening the soul,” quotes, “Willpower alone is not enough. We need to construct […] ‘a fortress of habits.’ ”
But how? How can we wrench ourselves free from our digital leashes, save ourselves from the electronic abyss, protect ourselves from the hourly onslaught of pocket buzzes, pings, rings, and tweets?
Is it possible? Or are we doomed to live lives that are ever-distracted, ever-frazzled, never settled, and never at rest?
How can we make space for our families, our friends, our neighbors, our very souls in the digital age?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering for years with no real answers.
Until about six months ago, when I hit a breaking point. I was addicted to my phone, to being constantly connected, to the quick dopamine hits of likes and shares, to the distraction that is the digital universe.
It had to stop. But how?
“Maybe,” I thought, “I can just create better habits. Maybe rules can save me. That’s it! No phones at the dinner table. No screens after 9pm. No checking my email first thing in the morning. Less scrolling on social media.”
This was awesome. For about a day and a half.
It turns out that digital willpower with digital media is the same as any other type. When we rely on willpower alone, we will nearly always fail. Think about it: how many times have you tried to start a new diet, exercise more frequently, make a New Years’ resolution only to have it fail within days?
Willpower isn’t the answer.
It was the ancient Greek poet Archilochus who first said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
But I’d argue that even the best training can’t compete with beautifully engineered digital devices and the thousands of code-writers, photographers, graphic designers, and marketers on the other side of a screen invested in getting us to click, click, click.
What then, is the solution?
We can outsmart our smartphones.
Here’s the only thing that’s worked for me:
Unloading the phone.
What do I mean?
Not getting rid of a smartphone entirely – they can be genuinely helpful devices. (Though some people do that, and I applaud them!) For me it’s not the solution. I need a GPS or I’ll get lost alllllll the time, since my sense of direction is akin to that of a tipsy squirrel.
I’ve simply unloaded absolutely everything I can from my smartphone so it’s now just a phone, a texting device, a GPS, a camera, and a Bible.
My settings are changed and password protected (with a password I asked my husband to set and keep for me) so that I no longer have Internet access. I unloaded all my games; I purged my publications. My phone no longer has Facebook or Instagram, mobile email, Snap or Twitter.
It wasn’t easy. But it’s awesome.
Every app I deleted was hard. I mourned having easy Facebook access. I stressed over losing Instagram. I justified keeping it all. (“I use Instagram for the church’s college ministry!” “How will I ever know what my sister’s dog is up to without Snap?!”)
Yet with every single app I deleted, my settledness grew. My presence in the real world strengthened.
The thing about a smartphone is, it’s always easier to use it than to not. So I simply eliminated the number of things I could go to for instant gratification and distraction.
Now there’s nothing to check, unless someone’s called me or I’ve gotten a text.
I check email from an actual computer. I post to Facebook from my laptop, and I can’t be constantly digitally distracted every minute of every day any longer.
In long lines, I have my Bible app.
At stoplights I have time to pray.
While cooking dinner I chat with my kids (or, more often, referee their cage matches, because – let’s be honest – creating soul space doesn’t make your kids into perfectly behaved cherubs overnight…).
Late at night my phone isn’t a temptation because it doesn’t link me to the endless Internet. I sleep better. I feel better. I miss none of it.
Yes, it’s occasionally inconvenient. I now make quite a few more phone calls to check businesses hours or restaurants’ menus – things I used to do easily with a screen tap or two.
And every so often I get the password back from my husband to reload a web browser for a few days because I’m traveling and genuinely need my email.
But I can’t reload any apps without asking him (a necessary safeguard for me, since self-justification is real and I’d reload it twice a day if left to my own devices…). He’s been a great partner in helping me digitally detox.
So here’s my challenge to you:
Unload your phone.
That’s right: take it off. Take it alllll off, or very nearly all.
Try it for a week and see what you find.
I think you’ll find some soul space and you’ll never go back.
What boundaries have you set around digital technology? How has it been helpful for you?