The first step is admitting you have a problem, no matter how embarrassing it may be. So here goes: I have been addicted to my phone. I used to deny it whenever my wife would call me out, but I have to reluctantly admit that she had a point (and don’t think that’s easy to say in public).
My phone use became out of control, and it wasn’t funny or healthy. I checked my phone constantly throughout the day, and often at unnecessary places — in bed, at restaurants, on the elliptical, golfing, in Zoom meetings, at the doctor’s office, a dentist’s chair, even while holding my baby grandkids. It became a senseless habit, and like all senseless habits, it was an empty crutch that had a mysterious hold on me.
It’s not as if I was oblivious to how absurd it was to spend so much time staring down at a mobile device. We’ve all seen people buried in their cell phones, oftentimes not even interacting with their friends sitting right besides them. That might be a common sight among middle school kids, but it’s not a good look for a greying grandfather. I’m supposed to be wiser at this age.
And as long as I’m being totally honest — and I ought to be since Yom Kippur just passed — I have to also shamefully confess that there were times when I briefly looked at my phone while driving, which is about about stupid and reckless as one can be. Last year, some 1.6 million car accidents in the U.S. were caused by drivers who were texting, which is about 1 out of 4 crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a driver on a cell phone is 20 times more likely to cause an accident, and roughly 400 fatal crashes a year are caused by a driver who’s texting.
So I’ve changed my ways while driving. I no longer check my phone while I’m behind the wheel, even for a momentary glance. If I have something to check on the phone, I pull over — just like responsible adults are supposed to behave.
And there are other ways I’ve tried to break free from the clutches of a phone addiction.
On Rosh Hashanah a year ago, I made a vow to turn off my phone during Shabbat. I know that’s not exactly the point of the Fourth Commandment, but it was my humble version of keeping the Sabbath holy (don’t judge!) and I was very proud of my plan. I thought that suspending my phone use for 24 hours each week would be spiritually and socially healthy. My plan didn’t last, although I did make it through Yom Kippur, which I considered a minor victory. But I still love the concept of a phone-less Shabbat, and I plan on trying it again one day.
Lately, I’m trying to turn off my phone and immerse myself in ambitious reading projects. I’m a Civil War enthusiast have always wanted to tackle Shelby Foote’s three-volume, 3,300-page masterpiece. It’s a slow read and so far I’m only up to the attack on Fort Sumter — only 3,235 pages to go!
But the urges to pull out my phone are still there and still weirdly powerful. A while ago, I was sitting alone in a courtroom waiting to fight a traffic ticket. I had arrived extra early and I left my phone in the car, as directed. I looked around and noticed that there were no magazines or newspapers in sight. The judge was late and I sat there for about 45 minutes in total silence with absolutely nothing to do. At first, I saw it as an interesting challenge to calm my brain and take a break from all the noise in my life.
That lasted about 90 seconds.
After that, I just wanted to jump out of my skin and not hyperventilate. I began craving my iPhone. There was no inner Buddha in me that could find peace in the silence of the moment. I was about as Zen as a 12-year-old kid in detention. At one point, I seriously considered exiting the courthouse and just accepting the traffic points and the fine. The whole thing was a miserable experience, although one thing did become perfectly clear to me — I’m not cut out for solitary confinement, unless of course I could bring along my iPhone 11.
The irony of my phone addiction is that I’m not even sure what part of the phone I actually like. Truth is, I hate talking on the phone. I probably avoid more calls than I accept, and my emails these days are mostly garbage. My most common responses are “unsubscribe” and “block this caller.” I’m not a big social media guy and I’m no longer the news junkie I used to be. I still listen to my music on my phone, but at this point I figured I’ve heard every one of my songs about a thousand times, which is about 500 times more than their entertainment shelf life.
There’s a cartoon about a guy who finally puts down his cell phone, re-discovers his wife and kids and says, “They seem like nice people.” I don’t think that’ll be me, but I do hope that by significantly lessening my phone time, I’ll be more present and attentive to the people I care about. At least that’s my plan for 5782.
And with my phone turned off more, I hope to appreciate the beauty of each day and live a more meaningful life. And I hope to complete that Civil War book — or at least get to the Battle of Gettysburg — before my granddaughters’ bat mitzvahs.
A guy can dream, right?