Living

Could you give up your cellphone?

Heather Marrin's cellphone habit was so bad, she forced herself to go cold turkey for a month

woman redhead, looking at her phone in cafe

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I was at a cottage in Haliburton, Ont., when it happened. Nature called, and I found myself in the bathroom, phone in hand… until it slipped from my fingers into the toilet bowl. I felt hot and panicky. I’d lost my lifeline—never mind the fact that I was on vacation and surrounded by friends. I realized I needed to detox and promised myself to try to live without a cellphone for one whole month.

When I told people about my self-imposed break, their responses varied from the sarcastic — “Oh yeah? Good luck!” — to the selfish “Wait — how will I get hold of you?” Everyone was incredulous. I was the person who half listened during dinner while I texted, who had the phone on the table at Christmas, who was the annoying passenger redirecting taxi drivers with my Google maps. (So what if they had GPS?)

I ran into my first roadblock nearly right away: Dinner out suddenly became a matter of faith. “I’ll be there at 7 p.m.,” I told my friends, and hoped for the best. Normally, a few would flake. But my lack of technology had pushed them all to commit, and everyone actually came. I realized that when I left the house, that was it: If people wanted to find me, they had to stick by the plan. I discovered who my real friends were by who showed up. I ended up liking the “When I’m out, I’m out — find me!” mentality.

To my surprise, that wasn’t the only thing I enjoyed. My life as a freelance writer felt less frenetic without my phone buzzing with email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I no longer needed to make excuses if I didn’t want to be somewhere, and I stopped getting caught up in message threads when I was already in good company.

I couldn’t get over how many practical adjustments I needed to make: A giant planner replaced my iCal notifications, and instead of reading the morning ‘news’ (Twitter feed) from bed, I actually bought a paper.

The weirdest part was being alone in public. Normally, I would have updated my Twitter status, texted and gossiped. Now I was bored and self-conscious: What was I supposed to do with my hands? I jotted down my thoughts and even got a real camera.

And my big fear — that my work would suffer, as I couldn’t respond quickly — was soon eradicated. Without the distraction of my cell, I managed to meet all my deadlines and actually turn things around faster. But when I took on a new job contract that required that I be in constant contact with a team, things did get tough. I practically moved in with my co-workers and had to ask them if I could borrow their phones all the time. Not very professional.

I’ve since gone back to using my cellphone, but I’m not going back to my old ways. After being on the receiving end of people tweeting while they’re talking, I’ll never be the person with her mobile on the table again. Seeing my mother’s joy at having my undivided attention at dinner — she said, “Heather, you’re more engaging like this” — hit home the most.

I’ve noticed that my friends have changed their habits as well: My being without a phone made them think about the way they interact, too. We usually take our etiquette cues from our parents, but because this technology developed during our adult lives, we’re responsible for creating our own code of cellular conduct.

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