Are you addicted to your cell phone? One of those people who carries it with you everywhere, and just HAS to answer the moment it rings (even in the middle of a meal or conversation?) My favorites are the human Cyborgs -- Bluetooth headsets sticking out the sides of their heads, mumbling to themselves like a crazed homeless people as they shuffle down the sidewalk. Does it cause you stress to be out of touch for even a few hours? What would happen if you had to give up your phone for a month?
Unplugging Won't Kill You
Let me start out by saying that I'm not an anti-technology Luddite. I love being connected as much as the next person. And while I'm not hardwired to into a fiber-optic line like some people, I quite happily use my phone all the time -- chatting with friends and family around the country, sending tweets of our travel adventures, looking up directions to places we're going. But when Matt and I recently spent a month traveling in Canada, we did it sans telephone. We had signed up for the supposed "international plan" with our carrier -- but the prices were outrageous. At our normal data and phone usage levels, our bill would have been nearly $500 for the month -- I'm sorry, but there's no freaking way! We just turned the damned thing off the minute we crossed the border, because it was not going to be economically feasible to use during our stay. When faced with the choice between going without or paying 70 cents a minute for calls back to the U.S. and $15 per MB of data (while my smartphone searched for a wireless signal, even if I wasn't actually on the internet), learning to live with one less telecommunication option for a little while wasn't hard at all!
Surprisingly, not a single pressing issue popped up during those 30 days. In reality, very few of the calls you receive could legitimately be classified as "urgent" -- defined as requiring immediate attention in order to prevent a disaster. When was the last time you got a call of that magnitude? I don't know about you, but I've never had someone die because I ignored the phone.
But it's still hard not to feel as though the world will come to an end if you don't pick up the second a call comes in. This sort of "phone stress" causes an almost Pavlovian response -- you hear that ring, your chest gets tight, your heart races, and there's an overwhelming physical pressure to answer it. Efficiency experts (like myself) might suggest letting the call go to voice mail -- but sometimes that's even worse. Thanks to our fear-driven society, you imagine all kinds of problems lurking inside your answering machine -- and your brain simply will not relax until you check those messages. Then it turns out that all your worry was for nothing -- it's just your mom wanting to chat. But even with caller ID telling you who's other end, you STILL pick up when it's inconvenient to talk and you should just call the other person back later. Why? Oh, I forgot -- you don't want folks to think you're being rude by ignoring them. And even when you have a legitimate reason for missing a call, you end up apologizing for not having been available to answer immediately -- crazy!
The real problem is that humanity can't introduce a technological advance without increasing expectations. For example, we instituted a higher standard of cleanliness when automatic washing machines came on the scene (instead of a load of laundry a week, we now have to do six to keep pace.) We demand more elaborate meals than folks did even a few decades ago (when you only roasted a turkey or baked a cake for a special occasion) -- all because gourmet kitchen machines make it so "easy." And the same is true throughout the history of communication. When no one had a phone, it might take weeks for a letter arrive -- you waited patiently, because you had no choice. Before cell phones, you accepted the fact that you might not receive a return call for a few days -- but now, we get irritated when folks aren't at our beck and call 24/7, evenings and weekends included. How presumptuous that others assume we have nothing better to do than sit by the phone, waiting to take their calls! Our inability to set healthy societal limits has turned yet another "time-saving" device into a "time-waster" -- it's really sort of sad, when you think about it.
I think our anxious relationship with the phone also stems partly from its auditory nature -- it clamors at you to answer, nagging and complaining, and that cutesy little ring tone you loved so much turns into your nemesis as it endlessly bitches in your ear. Don't be afraid to shut the ringer (or the phone itself) off when you need a break -- just pretend you're in a movie theater!
"But people have to be able to get in touch with me!" you say. You don't need to become a hermit in order to exercise a little more control over your telecommunications. For example, does your voice mail simply say, "Leave me a message?" No wonder folks get antsy when they can't reach you! Even just letting people know when you'll call them back (the next business day or 24 hours or whatever works for you) does wonders for reducing "phone pressure." And there's nothing wrong with telling folks that you'd prefer to correspond electronically, if that helps you better stay on top of it all. When Matt and I were in Canada, we weren't completely cut off from the outside world -- we simply shifted from the "answer-me-now" immediacy of the phone to the more easily-managed world of email. I changed my voice mail to say, "We're in Canada for a month and the international phone rates are killing us. Please do not leave a message. Send me an email instead -- and if you do leave a message, understand that it may be more than a week before I check it." Of course, the reason this worked for us is that we had already drawn a few technological boundaries around our email communications. You'll need to take a few minutes to unsubscribe from all those pointless listserves and advertisements that clutter your in-box, set your email program so it DOES NOT automatically download every time a message comes in, and only check your mail once or twice a day. But once you do that, I'll bet you can at least go a few days without worrying about your phone. And if you're feeling really squirelly, why not take the 30-day challenge, like we did?