Alert: Stop Hiding Behind Your Phone

Want to feel alert? Stop using your phone so much.

I sat in a restaurant this week, my chair facing a broad window that overlooked the street. People in large, squashy coats bustled by, their chins tucked against the wind. Across the street, a delivery driver for a boutique florist moved bouquet after bouquet into his car before executing a dubious maneuver to join traffic heading east.

As I sat, waiting for husband dearest to return from the bathroom, I realized how alert I felt. How alive. I was noticing things for what felt like the first time in years. I was Sleeping Beauty, awakened at last.

Now, that’s not to say I’m not observant—I’d like to think that I take in more than the average person—but had I sat in this restaurant three weeks ago, my head would be buried in my phone. I’d refresh email or check the weather. Maybe pull up the news to see what terrible headline is featured this hour.

But with my phone tucked safely in my purse, I was free to experience. I realized that, sadly, it must have been years since I’d sat in a public place without itching to check my phone. Because there is safety in our digital worlds. When we feel anxious or uncomfortable or exposed, our phones are a good place to hide.

I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.
— Sherlock Holmes

Our phones help us to feel hidden in plain sight. When we don’t know anyone in the room, we can text a friend. When we don’t want to be noticed, we can open social media and pretend to be working. When we are threatened by the thoughts that only emerge in silence, we can drown them out with a few clicks of our thumb. It’s the same reason I developed a Starbucks habit in college: when I felt nervous, it was nice to have something to do with my hands, something to hold. Something to hide behind.

The problem is that, although we feel hidden, we are still visible. The only thing we hide away is our attention. Social anxieties send our hands to our pockets, looking for our phones. But using our digital devices in this way is like taking medication to treat symptoms without addressing the disease. It might quell the nerves, provide us with an out for tonight. But in the long run, we only become more detached, more awkward and uncomfortable. More anxious. So we reach for our phones again.

I felt a strange shift inside myself as I sat in the restaurant. Astonishingly, though I’ve used my phone as a barrier against anxiety for years, I was less anxious with my phone tucked away. (This shouldn’t have been surprising—I quit Facebook years ago because it made me anxious. I’ve never missed it). Over the years, my phone has made me numb. But the fog is finally lifting.

It’s only been a couple weeks since I limited my phone usage, but I’m already noticing a difference. Behavioral patterns are starting to emerge and I am learning about my triggers—and how to combat them. There are still instances when I reach for my phone that have nothing to do with communication. The most obvious offender? The camera.

I have a beautiful, expensive Nikon, a hand-me-down from my father. It sits collecting dust, but I want to change that. For the next week, I hope to reach for my Nikon before I reach for the iPhone camera.

My usage stats are higher this week. The holidays are over and I am making more phone calls, receiving more text messages. But these numbers are nothing I’m ashamed of—after all, they’re nothing compared to what they used to be.

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Tuesday: 42 minutes

Wednesday: 47 minutes

Thursday: 57 minutes

Friday: 44 minutes

Saturday: 39 minutes

Sunday: 34 minutes

Monday: 56 minutes

That’s an average of 45.5 minutes per day. It’s just over my self-imposed five hour weekly limit, but I don’t feel bad—I’m making progress.

Photos by Nathan Fertig and Amador Loureiro