The things that happen when I put down my phone

August 2021
Abiella King

When people talk about phone addiction, the focus is often on the ways in which apps are designed to keep us engaged. We are Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the ding of each notification, scrolling through the lives of those we know and many we don’t until we buy something or fall asleep, whichever comes first. These apps are enticing, it’s true, but that wasn’t what worried me most when I read each week’s dreaded screen time total (a total that jumped by hours per day with the birth of my son). I thought about quitting and I knew it wasn’t the phone I would miss, it was the escape hatch the phone provided from a state I was furiously avoiding — boredom. 

I could not move the laundry from the washer to the dryer without a podcast playing. I began every walk by unlocking a screen. In the stillness of waiting for a TV show to start, for the water to boil, for a checkout counter to open, I was kept company by strangers whose voices took on the intimacy of a long acquaintance. I knew I had a problem when I started bringing my phone into the shower with me, unwilling to spend a single waking minute in quiet contemplation. Something had to give. 

Writing for the Globe and Mail, Benjamin Leszcz offers three simple rules for a life in which a phone is a tool instead of a vice. We should put our phones down when we are paying attention to other people, ideas, and nothing at all. 

Step one was easiest. The joy of living, breathing company has never felt as precious as it does now. I am grateful for the ability to see loved ones through a screen when that is all that’s available, but in their presence I can’t allow the distraction. 

The second rule was tougher to follow. I know I am not alone in finding reading harder than ever, my attention span reduced nearly to oblivion by a steady diet of bite sized content. Reading books again was like a workout that I willed myself to start, knowing how good it felt to finish. With each book the muscle strengthened, and it is becoming less like work, and more like sustenance. 

The last rule proved most difficult. Paying attention to nothing was exactly what I had been avoiding each time I reached for the screen. The first time I got ready for work without my phone, it seemed uncomfortably silent. Making coffee was tedious. Vacuuming was a chore. 

It was uncomfortable, because for the first time in years, I was choosing to be bored. 

The shiny escape hatch beckoned, but when I managed to resist it, even for a few minutes at the bathroom sink, I was surprised by how good it felt. Slowly it came back to me — the awareness of what I had been missing in my campaign to avoid boredom.   

I lost the silence that makes space for a curious mind to wander, unbound by the banter of podcast hosts; the patience to wade through a book’s early chapters, before it’s impossible to put down; the willingness to listen without distraction, to allow conversation to move as it often does between quiet lulls and raucous laughter; the ability to take comfort, and even respite, in doing absolutely nothing. 

I went for a run last week and my headphones never left my pocket. The sound of my breath and the forest waking up was enough. I am not ready to claim victory over my phone addiction yet, but this feels worthy of celebration. 

I watch my son marvel at the simplest objects, every surface a playground, and I want that for myself. I may never get it back entirely, this childlike thrill at simply living, even through the most banal of days, but each time I leave the phone untouched I inch a bit closer.  

Abiella King is a senior manager who recently moved back to her childhood home of London, Ontario with her husband and son.