A few months ago I laundered my phone.
I can’t recommend it as a means for getting your phone clean. But if you want to experience life without a phone, washing your phone is very effective.
The phone was dead after only 7 minutes in the washer, which is how long it took me to realize it got into the pile of blankets I was cleaning. After pulling it out of the washer, I shook the water out and placed it in a bag of rice. But I knew better than to hope too much.
I liked my old phone. And I didn’t care that Apple was releasing the latest and greatest at the end of the week — except that it meant whatever phone I bought Monday would be outdated and worth $200 less by Friday. So I decided to wait. We still have a landline, so I wouldn’t be entirely cut off from the world for the week.
Leaving the store without a phone was like standing at the edge of a vast wilderness to be crossed carrying only the clothes on my back. I mean, not really, but that’s what it felt like. I felt both curiosity and trepidation about what the adventure would bring.
Living on the edge
It brought anxiety, as it turned out. At least for the first day or so. I was constantly reaching for my nonexistent phone and worrying about who might be trying to call me or who was irritated by my lack of reply to their texts. Plus, how would my kids let me know if their car caught on fire on the way home? And what if my car caught fire on the way home?
Minor tasks seemed impossibly difficult without a phone. How do you shop without a grocery app? How do you calculate numbers at the store? How do you answer all the tiny questions you have during the day? How do you tell the time or figure out what the date is?
At the risk of sounding like a total middle-class American, that first day without a phone was agonizing, something like going through withdrawal. I hoped this meant it would get better.
It did. By the next day, the world was still standing and I was finally convinced that a person could function without a phone.
And that’s when it got fun.
Leave me alone
Being phoneless made me realize I hate being accessible all the time. It’s nice not having a phone — although not necessarily for whoever is trying to reach you. My days were spent in blissful ignorance; nobody could bug me, no matter how hard they tried. I apologized to people about this “unfortunate situation,” but secretly it felt liberating and powerful.
I loved that people I don’t know couldn’t reach me, but — and don’t tell them I said this — I also loved that the people I love the most couldn’t reach me. My kids had to be responsible on their own, of which it turns out they are capable. I didn’t have a constant barrage of, “Mom, can I … ?” or “Where are you?” or “Can you buy me this?”
I thought a phone was essential to modern parenting, but it’s more fun without one — if only because it drives your kids a little crazy.
When your phone is on, you’re on
Smartphones aren’t just for communication, they’re productivity tools. It means you can/should get more stuff done for more hours of the day. The problem is, there’s always something that needs to get done.
Without a phone, it means you can’t.
You can’t reply to an email while you’re in line at the grocery store. You can’t answer a quick question from your coworker via text. You can’t shop or manage your social media account while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And it’s actually pretty nice.
Except for the changing cultural expectations. When I got my first smartphone around 10 years ago, it was OK if it took you a day or two to return a phone message. Going without a phone taught me standards have changed. The world moves faster, and people not only expect to be able to reach you anytime, but they expect that you’ll act right away. I don’t remember signing up for this, but perhaps it was in the fine print somewhere.
There are many things we feel we have to do right now that we probably don’t. But when you have a cell phone constantly within reach, there’s almost no chance you’ll be able to convince yourself otherwise.
A love/hate relationship
Being phoneless helped me realize that the things I love about having a phone is different than I had thought.
I often use social media on my phone. But I didn’t miss it at all. The miracle of social media is that it’s only interesting if you keep checking it. If you go without it for a week, none of it makes sense or is of much interest. You’ll wonder why you keep doing it even though your life is better without it. And then, of course, you’ll start back in.
What I did miss with my phone was having a camera and place to take notes. And there are conveniences to having a clock, calendar, weather forecast, thesaurus, recipes, etc., at your fingertips.
But it turns out they still make old-fashioned notebooks, clocks, calendars, cookbooks and calculators. You just have to do a little more work to access them. And the weather forecast is almost always wrong anyway — standing outside and looking at the sky is nearly as effective. Phones try to convince you they are irreplaceable, but they are lying.
Wait a minute
Another thing I grew to appreciate about not having a phone was experiencing the short, empty spaces between things. This is known as “waiting.”
It felt almost nostalgic to wait for people to show up. This is what we used to do in the olden days before we could tell them we’d already arrived or check their location on our phone. And the old way still works: You make the plan, do the plan and then somebody waits for a couple minutes and everything is OK. Checking in is almost entirely unnecessary.
I hate waiting as much as anyone, but waiting might be an important task. It’s a time to think about things, let your mind wander, connect with someone nearby, notice what’s around you.
Phones fill that space with distractions or productivity. Waiting without a phone is a little bit boring sometimes, but boredom can be a space with great potential. For all their claims otherwise, phones sometimes keep us from connecting with ourselves and our world.
Not that I’m good at this. Or even enjoy it. But I saw value in being forced to not pick up my phone the moment I encounter dead space.
I wish I could say everything changed when I finally got a new phone at the end of the week. But it didn’t. I’ve lapsed on almost every new habit I tried to establish following the experience, which is how my phone-related self-improvement efforts usually end.
You can say that you won’t use your phone unless it’s important, but everything seems important when you have a smartphone. Phones make us feel safe, connected, on top of things. It took a week without one to convince me they also add to our anxiety and unhappiness.
Tossing your phone in the washer won’t fix all this. Going without a phone, while possible, means giving something up. All the 8-year-olds begging for a phone aren’t wrong — everyone has one, and if you’re the one that doesn’t, you’ll miss out on some things.
I would never have chosen to launder my phone. But doing so clarified what my phone costs me, beyond a monthly bill, and what it provides that makes it seem worth it. It gives me something to think about, even if it’s an equation I haven’t yet solved.