Reaching for Something
Earlier this month, I went on a trip with my family to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. We stayed at a campground situated between the two parks. We use an MVNO (Ting) for our cell phone service to save money and, therefore, had no service at our camp. In fact, during the few days we spent exploring that magnificent part of the world, we had little or no service at all.
Without cell phone service, my smartphone became a PDA (personal digital assistant) with a camera. Tasks I took for granted suddenly weren't possible. No random web searches. No checking the weather. No catching up on the news. No email, IM, or social media.
I did use my phone to take photos, keep my journal, jot down notes, and use Google Maps (I had the sense to download a local map of the region in preparation for the trip and I was glad I did because it came in handy).
I caught myself, however, regularly reaching for my phone and trying to go through my routine of catching up on news and social media. It's something I do multiple times a day. I don't have any social media apps installed – I check social media via the mobile browser. And except for direct messages, I have notifications disabled on my messaging apps. So instead of being pestered by notifications, I check my social media and IM groups manually. In theory, this is to encourage intentional use of my phone – to use it on my terms rather than as one of Pavlov's dogs conditioned to salivate at the chime of a bell. Being without a data connection for a few days made me realize that, in practice, I have just formed a habit of regularly checking my phone to compensate.
I'm confident the way I use my phone has resulted in fewer distractions and less screen time overall, but even in the absence of distraction, I still seek it.
I'd like to think that by the end of our trip, I was reaching for my phone less. But I couldn't help but wonder why I had been conditioned to reach for it so much in the first place. Was it simply a habit? A behavior so natural and normal that it has become a part of my behavior? Or was I afraid of being alone with my thoughts? Was I uncomfortable with quiet reflection or observation?
What am I really reaching for when I reach for my smartphone? Knowledge? Comfort? Companionship? Entertainment? Direction? Hope? A smartphone can provide all of these things and more to some degree, but it is rarely the ideal source or medium.
Take companionship, for example. Email, messaging, phone calls, video calls. There are so many ways to communicate with others and stay connected with them. Yet, if I had to choose between those digital methods and interacting with a loved one in-person, I'd take the in-person option every time. There simply is no substitute for being in the same room with those you care about. Yet there I was, reaching for my phone for no reason, when the most important people to me in the world were already there with me.
Since the trip, old habits have returned, “real life” has resumed. I'm reaching for my phone, but not thinking about what I'm really reaching for. Maybe I'll say it out loud. Every time I reach. Ask myself “what am I really reaching for?” Just take a couple of seconds to really think about it. I bet most of the time, the answer would be: something more important than this.