Right off the bat, let me just say that I cheated*.
But this experiment wasn’t about rigid rules. When I bought a flip phone, it wasn’t to go cold turkey, or even to have some kind of strict smartphone diet to prove my stoicism. I did it to give myself a break. To prove that I have control over my smartphone use and that it doesn’t have control over me.
And I know I’m not alone in the quest for freedom. Just last weekend, the New York Times published not one, but TWO essays about smartphone addiction. The first is about the rise in $200/hr life coaches that help families get their children off their phones and into the world. (Their first tip: buy a ball.) The second article included a laundry list of oddball ways people are trying to rid themselves of smartphone addiction. One example included putting it in a box that was a gift from a hated ex-boyfriend.
Do we really need to resort to $200 life coaches and ex-boyfriend boxes? I don’t think so. Living with a flip phone for 40 days took some discipline, but ultimately, I’m glad I gave it a shot because it taught me several important lessons and will impact how I use my phone moving forward.
But first things first.
The biggest question that people have asked me is how I did it. So here’s a little “how to.”
Buy Flip Phone
Move SIM card from Flip Phone to iPhone
Turn off iPhone, Put in drawer
See? It’s simple. But it’s also not that simple, or else everyone would do it. So here’s a little more in depth detail about not only how I made the switch, but what I learned along the way.
Switching the SIM Card = This Isn’t A Companion Phone
The SIM is card basically is the geo-router to my phone number. Moving the SIM card was a bit trickier than I’d anticipated. You need a little tool to open the side of your iPhone and extract the SIM card. To slide it into place in the flip phone, you have to take the flip phone apart. (You can watch a whole video tutorial here.)
Originally, my hope was that after the initial 40 day “fast” I could easily change back and forth between the iPhone and the flip phone. So the flip phone could be a sort of “companion.” But after moving the SIM card once, I knew that wouldn’t be the case. It’s not like switching a credit card from one wallet to another. It’s a little more involved than that. Like breaking apart a device and putting it back together again. That was disappointing, but also, helped me to commit to the experiment.
With the SIM card properly installed, my initial emotional reaction was one of total fear. What had I done? Would anyone be able to reach me? That was the first time I realized that I had a truly dysfunctional relationship to my smartphone.
Loss of Contacts = Freedom to Be Alone With My Thoughts.
Even more terrifying than the fact that the SIM card wasn’t easily moved — The SIM card also didn’t move any of my contacts over. That meant I had to decide which contacts to program into my phone. I chose about 8 people — family, my babysitter, etc. Without caller ID, I would never know how was calling on the other end of the line. Every call felt like a surprise! Exciting, yes! Also inconvenient.
And yet, there was something freeing about having such a blank slate. It shocked me how often I’d have the urge to stop what I was doing to text or call someone, only to realize I didn’t have their number programmed into my phone. So, that momentary urge was put off. Rather than sending a casual “Hey,how’s it going?” — I just thought about that person. Maybe I even prayed for them. My urge to feel connected didn’t lead me to my phone. It led me back to myself, or to the task I was doing.
Inconvenient Texting = Most of What I Text is Unnecessary.
Texting on a flip phone (while possible) is not easy. Because the flip phone is not an Apple product, iMessage (which most people use for text messaging) didn’t work. In order to text, I had to revert to using T9 (You know, when you hit the “2” key three times to get to the letter “c”?) Also, my husband couldn’t get any text messages to come through to me except through iMessage (which I checked on my laptop). These were major inconveniences.
However, it also showed me how often I could simply just wait until I saw the person next to tell them what I thought was urgent. For example, rather than text someone that I’m running late — I could just show up late. Rather than asking if I could order someone a coffee — I could just wait until they arrive and ask them in person. The sheer inconvenience of texting on a flip phone helped me to put the thing down.
Lack of Google Maps = Renewed Confidence in my Navigational Skills
To be honest, I was surprised at how little I needed the GPS. Most of the time, I knew where I was going because my day-to-day travel is limited to my house, Ugly Mugs, and the gym. Late in the month, I made a plan with a friend to meet at the Barista Parlor in the Gulch. I looked at a map of Nashville on my laptop before I left the house, then I did what people used to do. I drove around until I found it. It was kind of exhilarating. I’d figured it out on my own. I left that meeting with a sense of accomplishment: I know my city.
Loss of “Efficiency” = Honesty about my Compulsive Spending
A flip phone is capable of so little. At times, I’d have the urge to make an spur-of-the-moment appointment (for like, I don’t know, for a facial?) — only to look at my little dumb phone and realize that I wouldn’t be able to, because I couldn’t look up the phone number to the salon. Later, at home in front of the computer, I never made time to call and make the appointment. (Maybe because deep down, I don’t need a facial, but in that one moment, I felt like I needed pampering. And then the moment passed.)
I saved hundreds of dollars this way. Instead of responding to every little urge, I had to sit there. Drive. Cook dinner. In those moments, I realized that I’d been tricked by my smartphone— I’d believed that I was being efficient when in reality, I was just being distractible and compulsive.
Limited Access to Email = Actually Responding to E-mail
With my smartphone, I’d gotten into a bad habit of reading an email on my phone, then clicking “mark as unread” so that I would address it later, when I was back on my computer. Only, I’d never e-mail the person back. I got a momentary rush —ooh, someone e-mailed me — then I’d move on to something else on my phone, and never get back to the actual e-mail.
Without e-mail on my phone, I actually was forced to sit down at my computer and respond to email. It made me realize that the smartphone tricks me into thinking I’m being efficient (because look, you just checked your e-mail while you’re checking out at the grocery store!). But in reality, it was turning me into a procrastinator.
No Instant Camera = Paying Attention with My Own Two Eyes (and relying on others)
I have very few photos of our son from this summer. But I remember sitting out on the porch, eating drumsticks on the forth of July. I remember the ice cream covering him from nose to chin and dribbling down his chest. I remember watching him stand in the yard in a diaper, splashing the water in his new water table. I remember him crawling up into our bed, getting under the sheets, and pretending to read a book. All of these memories are seared into my memory.
And honestly, so many other people have smartphones, that I still have photos of those days. Friends learned quickly simply to e-mail me a photo rather than text it to me. Once, when I had a television appearance (but no phone) — the host of the show helped by taking a photo and then e-mailing it to me. My flip phone became an avenue for discussion, connection and a good laugh.
Limited Social Media = A Dose of Emotional Allegra
Imagine spending your whole life with mild allergies, but not knowing it. You walk around feeling al little fuzzy headed. A little lethargic. But generally, you feel fine so you think, “this just must be how everyone feels.” And then, one day, someone gives you a Claratin or an Allegra, and suddenly, the world is clear and your head isn’t fuzzy anymore and wow! You can actually BREATHE!?
That’s what it felt like to have a break from social media. Don’t get me wrong. I love instagram. But Instagram had begun sucking whole hours out of my day. While using a flip phone, I resorted to checking Instagram on my desktop. (Though I was unable to post pictures, I was still able to leave comments on other people’s posts. In that way, I stayed engaged, in particular with readers who are posting about #BeyondthePoint.) Every few days, I’d pull my phone out of the drawer and check the app — in particular, to see if I had any direct messages. I rarely had messages that were significant or urgent. In fact, Most of the messages were heart-eye emojis.
In those times, I would allow myself to scroll and look around just a little bit before turning the phone off and putting it back in the drawer. What happened surprised me. More than once, I saw a picture someone posted announcing something amazing that they had accomplished. A feeling of sadness entered my brain. I’d look around my house. Think about the baby sleeping upstairs. And then I’d remember. I don’t have to look at this picture.
Being bombarded with a constant stream of everyone else’s highlights is a completely modern phenomenon. I had grown so used to the feelings of jealousy, envy and inferiority, that I didn’t even recognize that social media was making me feel that way. It’s like walking around with allergies, and then suddenly realizing, when you take the right medicine, that you’ve been feeling fuzzy for years.
When it comes to social media, my 40 days with a flip phone revealed two major truths. (1) I don’t have to engage with social media on a daily basis in order to stay connected on a professional level. (2) Social media creates emotions in me that I dislike but that quickly become invisible as I give in to scrolling.
Also… and MOST interestingly…
Taking a Break from Social Media Doubled My Influence
Many business owners and fellow creatives told me that they feared taking a break from social media because Instagram’s algorithm might “punish” the viewability of their posts. I have to admit, this worried me too. But the results of this flip-phone experiment shocked me.
Since I was no longer using social media like a drug, I actually thought before I posted. In the last 40 days, I posted six times— which amounts to about one post a week. The posts were well-intentioned. I made sure to have a good photo. Those posts got 1,833 impressions (likes + comments). The previous six posts? Only 852 impressions. By taking a break, I nearly doubled my social media influence.
The Flip Phone Illuminated My Obsessive Need for Control
In the beginning of June, I was scheduled to appear for an author dinner in Thomasville, Georgia in conjunction with The Bookshelf’s first annual Reader Retreat. Patrick and Sam planned to drive with me, but when we got in the car in Nashville and I plugged the address into Patrick’s phone — I gasped. When I looked Thomasville on my computer a few days earlier, I thought I saw that it was a five and a half hour drive. But the GPS told me the drive would be 7.5 hours. I had made a mistake.
Patrick couldn’t believe it. Are you sure? Yes I’m sure. Are there back roads? Maybe. Can we make up the time?
I could no longer hear him. I had dug into the bottom of my purse and pulled out my little flip phone. Like an addict in need of a hit, I desperately needed to move my SIM card over to my smartphone. I knew there was nothing we could do except drive as fast as humanly possible. But without my phone in my hands — to check my email, to look for alternate routes, to stare at the truth of my MASSIVE mistake — I felt completely out of control.
Sitting there in the car, I couldn’t get the battery out of my flip phone in order to retrieve the SIM card. It was stuck. I was stuck. There was literally nothing I could do except embrace that I’d made a massive mistake, and that there was nothing I could do to fix it. I cried. I had no smartphone to distract me from my failure.
Eventually, I used Patrick’s phone to look up the phone number of the bookstore in Thomasville. Rather than send a panicked e-mail about how I had royally screwed up, I ended up speaking with Annie Jones, the bookstore owner. Over the phone, she put my fears at ease.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a laugh. “Thomasville is really far away from everywhere. We will have a long happy hour. We’ll eat dinner slow. We won’t start without you.”
Six and a half hours later (we drove going 90 pretty much the whole way) — Patrick hit the brakes. I’d changed into my dress while the car while we were still driving. I’d touched up my makeup in the car mirror. We’d made it just in the nick of time. The first course had just been served. The discussion was about to begin.
So what does all this mean? How will this experiment impact me moving forward?
I am capable of living without the smart phone — and in fact enjoy my life much more without the constant distractibility.
I compulsively check my phone — even with the flip phone, I would open it, realize that I had nothing to ‘check” and put it back in my purse.
Smartphones aren’t going anywhere, but if we as a society want to have control over our own lives — we need to demand technology serve us rather than enslave us.
Here’s what I want. I want Apple to create a flip phone called iFlip. I want it to have iMessage, Phone, and GPS and that’s it. That’s all. I want to feel unchained from the addiction. I want to spend my life being engaged eye-to-eye and not screen-to-screen.
I did move my SIM card back into my iPhone. However, I’m open to suggestions. How do you see technology progressing, reverting or changing? Do you think the ship has sailed or do you think some version of a flip phone might exist in the future?
How I Cheated:
*I kept my iPhone in a drawer, powered off. But when my babysitter was leaving, I took it out, turned it on, and payed her through Venmo. Then I turned it off and put the phone back in the drawer.
*Sometimes, when I was going on a long walk for example, I’d take the phone out of the drawer, put it in airplane mode and use it as an iPod, so I could listen to an audio book or a podcast. When I got home, I’d put it away.
*My sister lives in England. The only way to call her is through WhatsApp, which is only available on a smartphone. Every few days, I’d turn the wifi on and call or send her a message. Then, you guessed it… back in the drawer.
*In the middle of June, I traveled to LA for work. During that stretch of days, I put my SIM card back in my iPhone. I knew I needed access to Uber. When I got home, the SIM card moved back to the flip phone.