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My Life Without A Smartphone

I've worked in online media for years but I've never owned a smartphone. Here's why I don’t feel like I'm missing out.

[Image via Shutterstock]

Maybe I should be embarrassed when I pull out my nearly 10-year-old flip phone, but I’m not—not even a little bit.

There might have been a time when I felt self-conscious, and I’m sure that I’ve been judged as out of touch, but I’m actually kind of proud that I’ve held out this long.

How it Started

Let’s get one thing clear right away: I’m not a Luddite. I’m on social media, I’m up to date on new apps and tech startups, I get most of my news online, and I spend far too many hours on email.

I haven’t forgone getting a smartphone as some sort of anti-establishment statement; I just never got one.

I was in good company for a long time, until a few years ago, when my world reached a near saturation point. Suddenly it seemed like everyone I worked with, all of my friends, every person walking toward me on the sidewalk, and even my less-connected Midwest family were entranced by thumbing tiny screens.

And it’s not just my anecdotal observation: Widely cited found that over a billion people worldwide now have smartphones. In fact, according to research from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, as of January, 58% of Americans own a smartphone. And when you break it out by my demographic—urban-dwelling college graduates between the ages 30 and 49—I’m in an even smaller minority of about 20%.

The Connectivity Question

One of the most common reactions I get when people hear I don’t have a smartphone is, "Oh, I wish I could do that, but I need it for work."

I understand why you feel that way: There are numerous studies about how much we check in with work on our phones at meals, in bed, when sick, and even on vacation, and worse how much our bosses expect us to.

But I can almost guarantee that this isn’t necessary.

I have a cell phone: I can be reached in an emergency when I’m not at work. I have a laptop: I can check email, social media, etc. remotely (I’ve even live-tweeted events).

But there has never been an email that needed to be read or answered in the time I’m walking between the subway and my apartment, or standing in line at the grocery store, or having dinner with friends.

The Trap of Convenience

Sure, there are some situations where having a smartphone makes life more convenient, but I would argue that they could be part of the downfalls of owning such a device—inconvenience breeds resourcefulness and curiosity.

I’m often more prepared with directions and addresses because I can’t look it up on the fly, or I’m more apt to try (and sometimes fail) to find my way on my own or interact with strangers to ask for directions.

I write things down, which has been proven to spark creativity and build a better memory.

When in conversation with friends, I’ll try to remember what actor was in a certain film or when an event took place, rather than halting the conversation to look it up. And if I can’t remember, I’m okay not knowing.

In a time when every mystery your brain creates can be instantly solved by a search query, there is a refreshing joy in not knowing something.

The Painfully Difficult Task of Paying Attention

Most of life can be so excruciatingly dull: We spend hours standing in line, commuting, and waiting. It’s forgivable that we distract our minds with email, tweets, texts, and 35 tabs open on our browsers.

The problem is, divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere. We live with a constant Fear of Missing Out; but in need to fill the moments documenting life and making sure we don’t miss an email or update, we miss out being present in life, a sentiment beautifully illustrated in the viral "I forgot my phone" short film from last year.

A recent study from Tel Aviv University of smartphone users relative to their old-school, flip-phone counterparts, came to the unsurprising conclusion that smartphone users were more detached from their physical surroundings, and, when asked about a place that they had just visited, they were far less likely to remember anything about it.

The problem is smartphones combine the main spheres of your life: your social network, your work, your news source, and your personal conversations. As the researchers found, for smartphone users, the social norms of the physical world are often trumped in favor of this device that holds it all.

The Case for Boredom

A bigger problem perhaps even than the social etiquette breaches and distracted lives that smartphones are leading us to live is the way the devices affect our brains.

Smartphones have been linked to both sleep and concentration problems, as well as a lack of empathy.

Perhaps the most detrimental effect is that we longer know how to be bored. Boredom is a gift to creative ideas; it’s time when your mind can wander and make new connections. But the easy distraction that smartphones offer kills the empty moments that make life what it is.

Of course ownership of a smartphone doesn’t make you a better or worse person; it doesn’t automatically make you less mindful or empathetic. The act of checking out of life because it’s boring or painful is an easy reflex regardless of technology that makes it easier, and like anything else in life, owning a smartphone is what you make of it.

To live and work in the world today is to be tethered by technology for better and worse. No matter how I resist it I know that someday (probably soon) my "dumbphone" will bite the dust. Then I’ll be just like you, and I’ll likely wonder how I ever lived without Instagram at my immediate disposal.

My hope is that in those moments of boredom, I’ll remember what it’s like to let my mind wander and I’ll leave my phone in my purse.