Modern day professionals like me rely on our phones so much. They’re so much more than a simple piece of technology. We can practically run our businesses and our personal lives on it. It’s communication, information, connection, navigation, entertainment, an external brain, and so much more, all at our fingertips. As amazing as our phones can be, many of my clients seek ways to make their phones a less dominant presence in their lives. Phones can become a bad habit that gets in our way. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort through trial, error, and reading other people’s tips to build better phone habits. After several clients mentioned struggling with this issue, I started a blog post titled “How to become an email ninja” that began with recommending deleting the email app from your phone (or at least hiding it from the home screen).
And then, last week, my beautiful, wonderful, shiny, red, one year old iPhone was stolen by pickpockets on the subway in Rome! I’ve been entirely phone free now for 14,000 minutes (9 days, 17 hours, 22 minutes). And it’ll be at least another 24 hours more before I can buy myself a new one. Despite having decent, though humanly imperfect, phone habits to start, I’ve had 14,000 minutes to learn from my experience. These are my top three lessons.
Lesson 1 - Moving Through Emotions by Feeling Them
That first day, my emotions flipped between anger towards the pickpockets and frustration at my own foolishness for being such an easy target for their well-rehearsed crowded subway routine. After locking my personal data, I helplessly watched Find My Phone as the last few desperate pings came in from my phone (“Help! Save me!” she cried) as the thieves disappeared with her into the wilderness. Argh!!!
When I went to the Apple store to try to buy a new phone, not only did I discover that it would cost over $300 more to replace my phone in Italy than if I waited til I got home, the phones sold in Europe aren’t compatible with my cell service anyway. So I remained phone less, simmering in a stew of unresolved frustration, annoyance, disappointment, and grumpiness.
This was one of those time there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t channel my frustration into something productive other than file a police report and protect my data which took just a few hours. I couldn’t take out my aggression on the pickpockets who were anonymous and long gone. And I couldn’t suppress my emotions because I was twitchy. I kept reaching absentmindedly for my phone when it wasn’t there — in the quiet of dawn when I woke up, on the street trying to choose a place for dinner, in the transition times between meetings. Every time I caught myself, it brought the anger and annoyance right back up the surface again.
With no other options available, I simply allowed myself to feel. There’s great research on the effectiveness of mindfulness based emotion regulation through strategies like naming the emotion, conducting a body scan, or using a RAIN meditation. These practices invite a person to just recognize and feel emotions in real time as they are happening, and allow yourself to accept that these are normal, real, okay parts of the human experience. That’s it. Just feel. It sounds overly simple, but it’s actually extremely effective and commonly used in hospitals, police departments, board rooms, therapist offices, and more.
By allowing myself to feel, it wasn’t long before things started to shift. The cloud of negativity lifted gradually, but steadily, to allow more and more rays of sunshine through. When filling out the theft report at the local carabinieri’s office, I started to grin as I realized I was just like Audrey Hepburn in one of my favorite movies, Roman Holiday, caught up in an unexpected adventure. When I wishing I could take a video of my daughter staring up into a tree full of squawking rosy-cheeked parakeets in the park, I paused to soak in the sights and sounds to encode them firmly into my memory instead. Soon, weirdly, I was even feeling a tinge of compassion towards the pickpockets instead of anger and resentment.
Lesson 2 - Staying Present
One of the most initially annoying parts of not having my phone was the inability to access a camera and the map app while I was still out visiting Rome. There I was, on the arena floor of the Colosseum staring in awe at the towering 2,000 year old stonework above and brilliantly engineered underground backstage below, and I couldn’t capture it in a panorama photo. Or I was out for a walk on the twisted, winding, cobble stoned avenues, not entirely sure of my way home and Google Maps wasn’t there in my pocket to be consulted. Honestly, it was also really annoying not to have something to fiddle with and occupy my mind when waiting around.
What I learned was how to stay present and breathe in the experience that was right there in front of me. At the Colosseum, I realized that I’d just have to remember the moment and take a multi-sensory picture in my brain. I spent a full minute doing a slow 360 rotation, noticing the color of the earthy brown stone against the gray sky, the scratchy feel of the gravel beneath my feet, the rain-tinged scent in the air. I liked it so much, I spun around again. When I longed for my Google Map to find my way, I resigned myself to noting landmarks and the position of the sun and staying oriented to those. I discovered that there was a nascent map of Rome in my head that had landmarks like the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and restaurants I’d tried linked with memories of a few well wandered paths. I hadn’t noticed the map in my brain before, so dependent I was on Google Maps. Using my mental framework, if I wandered into new territory, I could attend to my sense of place and the direction of the sun to stay found.
All in all, staying present in the moment and letting my brain do the work helped me enjoy my last days in Rome far more than before. I’ve got memories instead of photos. I’ve got a sense of place instead of a Google map.
Lesson 3 - Changing Habits
Remember that post I’d wanted to write about becoming an email ninja that got interrupted by becoming phoneless? It’s even more relevant than I thought. One of the quotes I planned to include came from Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero website — offline but still available in an archive. He said:
It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.
Being phoneless made me realize that a lot of my brain lived in my phone when I didn’t want it to be. I thought I was pretty good about my phone habits. Turns out, once I had no phone and could only gaze longingly at my husband’s, I discovered there was plenty of room to grow. I had somehow developed the habit of checking my phone right after a zoom call, AND the habit of reading or using my favorite meditation app on my phone in bed when I woke up in the morning, AND the habit of checking messages right after it pings (just like Pavlov’s dogs!), AND a bunch of other bad phone habits besides.
I like who I am better without my phone. I like being more present. After zoom calls, I connect with my kids or made a cup of tea. In the mornings, I roll over to cuddle and chat lazily with my husband. It’s made me reconsider which habits and strategies I’ll keep and which I’ll lose when I go out to buy a new phone tomorrow.
Yes, I will buy a new phone. Smart phones are so useful. However, now that my habits are cleaned up, I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.
What can you do about your phone habits without inviting someone to steal your phone? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post which will offer specific strategies that might be helpful to get your brain out of your tech. It should drop early next week.
Here’s the preview of the strategies I’ll cover!
Investigate your habit.
Satisfy your underlying need in a healthier way.
Break the bad habit.
Make it intentional.
Set up good habits.
And if you have any of these symptoms, you may have have a more serious cell phone problem. Consider seeking professional help if you experience:
Trouble meeting your responsibilities at work or home.
Isolation from the people you love.
Sneaking off or lying about your smartphone use.
Regularly experience a “fear of missing out” (or FOMO).
Experience severe anxiety or a panic attack if you leave your smartphone at home or if it runs out of batteries.
I’m almost ready to release an online course to offer leaders the content nobody teaches you in university, training programs, or even while being mentored by the person you’re replacing. Stuff like:
Self management to avoid overwhelm and burnout.
Streamlining your workflow, delegating, and setting boundaries for peak performance.
How to quiet your inner monsters, get unstuck, and navigate uncertainty and risk.
How to deal with the hard stuff: difficult conversations, big challenges, and moving your dreams forward.
The course will be offered via short 20 minute videos delivered to your inbox every Monday from January to June 2022. There’ll be a live monthly hand-on practice session, discussion forums, and other support. Best of all, the first 2 months of foundational leadership skills (“Leadership Boot Camp”) will be completely FREE! Subscribe to this blog or send your email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll be the first to hear about the course once the sign up page launches.
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