I sit on a rock along the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, assembling a camp stove and filling a pot with water to make oatmeal and coffee. I’ve been awake for about 30 minutes. It’s Saturday, and I haven’t checked my email or any social media yet—not because it’s Saturday, but because I have no cell phone signal down here. My phone is in my pocket, on airplane mode, but down here, it’s basically just a camera with a GPS navigation app.
My girlfriend, Hilary, said that it was important to get me out here because this is the only way I’ll relax and stop thinking about work. She’s a smart lady. After 30 minutes being awake on a normal day, even a Saturday, I would have already looked at my phone at least once to check my email and Instagram, something I’m not proud of.
Like you, I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. Like you, I find myself looking at it way too much, and I’m totally conscious that I’m looking at it way too much even when I’m doing it. I check things that don’t need to be checked more than once a day (or at all), including (but not limited to) email, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, for no reason, except that I want to avoid something else for 30 seconds to five minutes. So I pick up my phone and basically cure micro-boredom for a while. And the more I do it, the more often I get micro-bored.
Like you, I pick up my phone even though I know there’s nothing worth looking at on it. And I scroll, and I click, and I lose seconds and minutes of thinking time doing it. And then I put it down, and do something for a few minutes, and pick it up again.
I have looked at my phone while brushing my teeth, which takes two minutes. I have looked at my phone while waiting in line for coffee. I have looked at my phone while eating pizza, which is one of my favorite things in the world and something I would like to be 100 percent present for. I have looked at my phone while standing astride my bicycle waiting at a stoplight I know changes every 30 seconds.
We now have an average attention span that’s shorter than a goldfish’s, and technology is actually lowering our IQ. When I read that second fact a few weeks ago, I deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my phone. I turned off all notifications besides the vibration for phone calls, tired of having my attention disrupted during dinner when my phone buzzed with a new text message. My phone became boring, not as much a source of emergency entertainment and news, and no one seemed to notice that I wasn’t responding to text messages as immediately.
After a week, I re-installed the Instagram app, because I justified it by needing to upload Instagram Stories to my account, which I guess is important in keeping a brand presence or something like that. This seemed to be an OK compromise, and that’s where I am currently: e-mail, one social media app, and no notifications besides phone calls.
I have always struggled with addictive tendencies, and an addiction to information is no different than anything else I’ve experienced. But just like I would like to avoid jail time because of a lack of control over drinking behavior, I would like to avoid lowering my IQ and destroying my attention span. So, like you, I’m trying to find a way to figure out smartphone usage. I’m not going to live completely without it at this point, because of great things like being able to quickly check my email and see if any emergencies have arisen while I’m at my favorite breakfast joint, and driving directions when I rent a car in an unfamiliar city, and the half-dozen books I’m reading on the Kindle app.
So I have a few safe spaces, the White Rim Trail being an example of a more long-term one of them. Just before a wilderness trip, I find myself refreshing all my information feeds just before I lost cell coverage, and after that point, I have zero anxiety about anything until the end of the trip. I don’t care about information because I can’t access it. When the trip is over and I reach cell coverage again, I procrastinate turning my phone back on as long as I can, having a hard time believing anything earth-shattering has happened while I was away. And then, I eventually text my mother to let her know that I’m OK, and then I gradually slip back into the manic world of high-functioning information addiction.
But I can’t go into the desert and hide every week, so I do other things to get away from my phone. I don’t take it running, except on long trail runs where I might need it in an emergency. And even then, I don’t look at it or listen to music on it. I give myself 45 minutes or 3-4 hours to just run, and to think. Yes, I get bored, but, as smarter people than myself have pointed out, being bored is a very useful tool for developing original thought and creativity. And I hope that regular stretch of boredom is keeping me sane.
Hilary and I spent four days riding the White Rim, carrying all our water for the trip, spending almost all the daylight hours pushing and pedaling our bikes, and almost 12 hours each night in our sleeping bags. Although I was excited to finish the trip and stop worrying about whether we’d run out of water or if I’d break a spoke or get another flat tire, even when we got back to civilization in Moab, I felt like I could have gone another week without turning on my phone. And when I finally did turn it back on, after three minutes of scanning all the new information on it, nothing important had really happened. Kind of makes you wonder if you actually need to check it 100 times a day after all.