What Happened When I Went Without a Phone For a Month
“I’ll come to you,” she said before we hung up. After getting lost in St. Louis on the way to my friend’s house — a city that always causes me to feel uneasy anyway, thanks to past trauma — I was lucky enough to find a gas station where a friendly worker let me borrow the phone. Afterwards, visibly shaking and about to cry, I thanked them for their kindness, bought a bag of Doritos, and waited in my car until my friend arrived about half an hour later.
That’s when I decided to get another smartphone instead of downgrading to a flip phone. Before that fiasco, I was ready and eager to return to the days of T9 texting and only checking social media from my laptop. I knew a flip phone was all I needed to ease the anxiety and vulnerability I felt while commuting to and from work and other local spots, and within days of my previous smartphone’s demise, everything from my general anxiety to my attention span to my ability to be alone with my thoughts had noticeably improved. The longer I went without a smartphone, the less I wanted another one — so I went four weeks without having a phone at all.
That first smartphone-free day, not being able to check my email regularly made my anxiety skyrocket and I felt perpetually irritable.
The day after my smartphone plunged to the bottom of an Epsom salt bath I’d ironically prepared to lower my stress, I realized just how much I’d been checking my email every day. That first smartphone-free day, not being able to check my email regularly made my anxiety skyrocket and I felt perpetually irritable — but within just a few days, my tech withdrawal symptoms dissipated, and a great deal of general anxiety left me, too. I remember telling a friend at one point: “I still have plenty of anxiety, but it’s a lot less.”
I fell into a new rhythm of checking my email just a couple of times a day, and if an email wasn’t urgent, I ignored it until the end of the week. Rather than stressing over getting my inbox down to zero daily, I committed to doing so once a week, usually on Fridays or Saturdays. My Instagram usage decreased quite a bit, too — I went from easily spending an hour or more on the app daily to checking it once or twice a day. I went from having to force myself into a few minutes alone with my thoughts each day to welcoming long stretches of peace and quiet, especially in the mornings. With no distractions aside from the birds in the trees, the coffee in my hand, and occasionally Pandora playing in the background, my phone-free mornings consistently set a peaceful tone for my day.
As my attention span grew, I started reading more as well — I read Women Don’t Owe You Pretty over the course of one weekend, and You Are Your Own in less than three hours. When I was with loved ones, it was easier than usual to actively listen to them, and I found myself noticing — with some irritation — how often people checked their phones during our conversations. One weekend, I realized I’d completed everything on my to-do list and read an entire book by noon on Sunday.
One weekend, I realized I’d completed everything on my to-do list and read an entire book by noon on Sunday.
My improved mental state, coupled with a seemingly never-ending to-do list and a touch of procrastination, led me to take my time replacing my device — but after I got lost in St. Louis, I started feeling unpleasantly vulnerable anytime I drove, even if I knew the route well. I might not have been obsessing over my email or Instagram, but I couldn’t stop worrying about the possibility of my car breaking down on the highway, or somehow getting lost on the backroads after dark.
I also found myself taking fewer walks when I didn’t have a smartphone — because, at least for me, exercising is more fun when you can listen to a podcast or your favorite tunes — and my decreased physical activity didn’t do my mental health any favors. I realized how inconvenient, and even stressful, it would be in today’s world not to have access to Venmo, and I missed having a camera. I missed having access to the white noise app on my phone as well, because it often helps me fall asleep. Most importantly, I knew I wouldn’t feel safe and confident during road trips without a solid GPS, and I love road trips.
With my sister’s help, I finally got my replacement device set up a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, I’m already experiencing an increase in general anxiety, and I feel like my attention span might be decreasing somewhat as well — but I’m happy to report I haven’t downloaded any email apps, and I’m still using Instagram way less than I did before my smartphone-free experiment. In fact, I’ve managed to keep my smartphone out of my morning routine for the most part. I use it as an alarm clock sometimes, but unless I need to keep an eye on the time, I don’t even bring it on the porch with me while I’m enjoying my morning coffee. I’m still spending plenty of time alone with my thoughts as well.
I feel like part of me will always be nostalgic for the days when flip phones reigned — but for me, it’s crucial to have a reliable GPS, and the general convenience of smartphones can’t be denied. I’m grateful to be privileged enough to even have a smartphone, and in some ways, they do make it easier for me to stick with healthy habits, like regular walks. I’m hopeful I can maintain a healthy relationship with my smartphone usage, and tech in general, because there’s no doubt in my mind that it significantly contributes to my stress and anxiety at times — but for now at least, I feel like the benefits outweigh the negatives. Maybe someday I’ll live the flip phone life again, but not now.