I’m Addicted to My Phone: An Invitation to Digital Minimalism

I’m addicted to my phone.

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.

I came across Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life In a Noisy World” last week on someone’s Instagram feed. I jumped over to my library’s website to see if I could get it there. I would have been 26th in line. So I jumped over to Amazon and bought it. It arrived on my doorstep the next day.

Oh, the irony. So many wonderful technological advancements enabled those connections to happen so I could learn (again) that our relationships with tech is suspicious.

Photo from Rowdy Kittens

I remember the day I got a flip phone. College in Florida my senior year. Friends and I got an apartment together off campus and we made a weird decision at the time to just use cell phones instead of our landline. It felt so foreign.

I remember the day I got a smartphone. Aaron and I lived in Ohio while I was going to seminary and we purchased the first generation iPhone.  A day or two later, we were riding in our church bus to a staff retreat. I vividly remember checking my email for the very first time while riding down the road. It felt so surreal to be reading my email on a device in my palm while sitting on a bus instead of on my laptop at home.

Sometimes I miss life before smartphones. Yes, it’s made life more efficient, streamlined and fun in ways. But I’ve always felt uncomfortable with how quickly it’s changing us. As I stare down the facts that I’m a part of the most depressed and anxious generation in human history, I don’t like a lot of the ways it’s changing us.

Here’s one of the disconnects for me. I currently have a pretty sweet gig. A husband who I love, two healthy children who keep me on my toes, a job I adore, a town that feels like home, time to exercise, eat healthy food and a new writing project that’s lighting a new fire in me. On paper, I should be floating on air.

But even with all those beautiful things, I have this nagging sense of busy, overwhelm, stress and unsettled energy. Yes, this is part of normal life, but also…I notice that I pick up my phone whenever I’m bored as a way to numb or check out. I check social media way too many times a day and convince myself it’s normal. I avoid difficult feelings and conversations by reaching for my phone. I miss my children’s bids for connection because I find something on my phone more interesting. I’m very aware that my relationship with tech seems to drive my life instead of the other way around.

The sheer number of things I do on my phone astounds me. I use my phone to listen to music, write down notes, set reminders, check email, look at social media, take pictures and video, connect with my family, look at my calendar, deposit checks at the bank, meditate in the mornings, check the weather, watch Netflix, back up Amazon photos, listen to podcasts and track my exercise.

And yes, I use it as a phone.

Did you know that when Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, it was supposed to be an iPod that made phone calls? Their core mission was playing music and making phone calls. Steve Jobs was initially dismissive of the idea that the iPhone would become more than that. Newport points out what many of us forget about in the evolution of smartphones and social media. “In addition to being massive and transformational, [it] was also unexpected and unplanned.”

He goes on to say, “These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade. We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn’t, in other words, sign up for the digital world in which we’re currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it.”

I deeply appreciate Newport’s invitation in Digital Minimalism to think reflectively about what elements of our digital lives are truly serving what we value and to let go of the peripheral noise. There are an increasing number of benefits to leading a quieter life when it comes to tech noise in our lives. I don’t want to miss this one life I get to live because my eyes were glued to a screen full of apps that while making my life “easier” are also intentionally designed to be addictive. I appreciated hearing of whistleblowers in the tech field and their courage to share how worried they are for our relationship with these devices. Their stories are worth a listen. Newport summarizes them well.

Newport’s invitation is to a 30 day digital declutter phase followed by intentional reintegration of tools that serve what we deeply value. We’re invited to cultivate analog activities as well. I’m arranging this phase now and will move into it in the next couple days. I’m fascinated to see what I’ll learn about myself and life around me.

I already notice one interesting difference. My life already feels quieter, richer and slower just from receiving permission to question, explore and have agency in this area of my life. Newport calls it autonomy. We’re tired of feeling so controlled by our technology. But we’re actually in charge of it and get to choose how it serves our lives, not the other way around.

Here’s to all the ways we show up to our lives and pay attention. What we notice and choose to explore could change everything.

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