A Phoneless Life

Update: here is a Q&A version if you’d rather read that.

“I can’t live without my phone.”

What is it that one can’t live without? Mindless scrolling, FOMO, the constant need to know what’s going on in the world every moment of the day?

I used a smartphone for about seven months, but I chose to go back to basically a phone-less life afterward. Here’s the whole backstory, the present story, and hopefully the future story.

My parents decided to get me a phone later than my peers. I played on my high school’s volleyball team, and I would always borrow teammates’ phones to call my parents to pick me up from those games. Clearly, this was not ideal, and finally one day during my first year of high school, my parents decided enough was enough, and I got a phone to not have to keep borrowing other people’s phones.

The phone I had was a flip-phone and only had calling capabilities, no texting, and this was before smartphones were so ingrained into society and people’s lives (hard to imagine nowadays, isn’t it?). A lot of my friends had smartphones but a lot of them had dumb phones too, as smartphones were just coming out. Sometime in high school I got a new flip-phone due to reasons I forgot, but I was on the same phone plan and still didn’t have a smartphone.

I graduated high school and went to college, during which I remember flustered and annoyed parents many times due to not being able to reach me even though I had a phone. They would call and I wouldn’t pick up because I was out and didn’t have the phone on me, or the phone was out of batteries. Even though the phone lasted for a week per charge, I wouldn’t bring it nor care it was out of batteries if I didn’t foresee the need to use it. For the most part, I would forget that I even had a phone.

By the time I was in college, smartphones had started becoming more widespread and everyone I knew had one. I still held strongly to my dumb phone, even though my parents had started repeatedly asking if I wanted a smartphone. No, I kept telling them. They’ve mostly quit asking me now but they still have the urge to bring it up every so often.

Anyhow, I graduated college and throughout my first job, I still had my dumb phone. My phone plan back then was $80 a year and pay per minute. My life was more or less the the same as everyone else’s, except that I didn’t have a smartphone. I didn’t need it, and I didn’t want it. I had friends and I hung out with people, and if we couldn’t find each other or if someone was going to be late, we would call because calling back in those days was still common. For navigation, I would either look up how to get places beforehand or I would use my GPS which sat in my car.

One fateful day two years after I started working full-time, I lost my phone. It was an awesome, slick, thin flip-phone that I really liked, and I lost it in a park when I was doing some volunteer work. No matter how hard I looked for it, I couldn’t find it. That was a sad day, because I’m almost certain that if I hadn’t lost that phone, I’d still be using it today.

I lived for the next month without a phone, and people got annoyed at me for not having one because now they couldn’t even call to find me. I mostly got another phone for safety reasons: if I got into a car crash or my parents got into an accident and had to find me immediately. I got a dumb phone that did run Android but a really, really, really old version of Android. It did have a sliding keyboard, because I thought I would start texting.

But then I didn’t, because it wasn’t necessary. I would call if needed, otherwise I was with my friends in person or communicating through other means. I happily had that phone and at my second job, I was still using it. This was my third year out of college, and I was using this (mostly) dumb phone.

Around that time, I also started traveling more, and I travel to places I don’t know. I don’t have the geography memorized and I don’t know the language and I don’t know a lot about where I’m going, but I can go without a smartphone. I did a lot of planning beforehand and each time I traveled, I printed out packets of planning documents containing my research so I knew where to go and how to get there. I brought my iPad along (no laptop for many of those trips), which contained screenshots of how to get from the train station to my hostel. Once I reached the hostel, I’d ask for a physical map, and my iPad would stay at the hostel. I didn’t lug it around, and I brought it with me on trips mostly so I could tell my parents that I’m still alive.

I moved to NYC just a bit after I got the “Android” phone although it mostly sat around not being used. After moving, I started carrying my iPad around because I needed a way to get around this city I didn’t know. I did consider getting physical maps, but I didn’t want people to mistake me as a tourist (because random brochures and souvenirs always get stuffed into tourists’ faces). I also had it so I could read on the subway during my commutes, and I got a lot of reading done. It was pretty great.

When I moved, I joined a new company and to my dismay, I was on a project that required me to be on-call. I tried to install the software needed for being on-call onto my dumb phone, but no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work. So, defeated, I got a smartphone provided by the company. That phone sat on my desk for a good 2 months until I had to finally use it for on-call one week. After that week, it went back on my desk. I didn’t like that week, and it wasn’t because I was on-call.

My brain felt constantly bombarded and clouded by technology, and perhaps I didn’t have self-control. I’m not even sure what I was doing on my phone, since I didn’t have many apps installed. I don’t read news, I don’t do mindless scrolling activities, I don’t watch videos, and I don’t have social media aside from Facebook, which I don’t check and the reason I have it is for Messenger, (travel / housing) Facebook groups, and to organize my photos as I have been for about the last decade. I don’t have messaging apps aside from Messenger and Google chat, and although numerous travelers have asked for my WhatsApp or Instagram, I have never made an account and plan to stay that way.

I had my phone out a lot of the time doing who knows what. It’s too easy to take it out when I’m bored, and instead of using my brain to think during those empty moments of waiting for the subway to come, I was checking email that I didn’t need to check or messaging friends I didn’t absolutely need to message at that moment. I felt like my brain was constantly cluttered, and it didn’t feel good.

One could argue I could’ve exercised better self control and this wouldn’t have happened. Phones are distracting, and there’s energy needed to exercise that self control. Without a smartphone at all, I don’t need to exert said energy to have self control over a non-existent addiction. I also believe even if my phone is out of sight, it’s not necessarily out of mind because I could still be thinking about what’s going on on it that I want to take care of right now.

Anyhow, I was glad when that week was over. That phone went back in its box and into my desk, and I had no intentions of using it. But then one day a few months later, I left my iPad on a bus, and I couldn’t get around the city. I had been in the city for about half a year now, so I mostly knew where places were. This was also a time when I was very much involved in Couchsurfing hangouts, which only works on mobile devices.

Long story short, I had the intention of finding my iPad but started using the smartphone until I found it. But, I was lazy and didn’t get around to it. For the remaining seven months I was with that company, I used the phone and kept putting off finding my iPad as it was just never a convenient time to go find it.

My brain felt cluttered. It didn’t feel healthy, and I did try my best to not use my phone. I was on Couchsurfing hangouts all the time, which wasn’t necessarily bad since it was an effective way for me to meet people. It did make my brain in a state of clutteredness though, as there was just all the tech, all the time, no down time, constant simulation. But honestly, I still don’t know what I was doing on the phone without any social media apps on it and really only installed email, Messenger, maps, Yelp, and Couchsurfing.

At the end of that year, I left the company, and I knew I had to finally go make that attempt in finding my iPad. I went to the NYC transit lost and found, and voila, they had it! I was so impressed, but I knew I probably had a high chance of finding it there because I lost it at the end of the bus line. Anyway, I got it back and life was back to normal: no smartphone.

My brain went back to a healthier state, as there was no constant bombardment nor addiction. It was also an interesting time because I left NYC, went back home for a month, and then traveled for the next seven months. I decided to go back to NYC afterward, and I basically stopped carrying my iPad around with me when I got back. I was at the point where I knew the city well enough to not need it, and I didn’t feel a need to bring it with me.

I was sad though because my mom decided to change our phone plan, and I could no longer use my old slidey-keyboard phone. Apparently, that phone was too old to be compatible with our phone network. So now, I have this big but thin Motorola phone that runs Android. I haven’t downloaded any apps and even deleted basically all the apps it came with.

When I make plans with people, we always meet in a specific time at a specific spot, which actually simplifies meeting up because anyone has to do this at the venue regardless, even when one does have a phone. Think about it — when you arrive somewhere, if you didn’t pre-determine a spot, isn’t everyone asking “where are you?” I only carried the phone when I’m meeting up with a friend who doesn’t know when s/he will be free that day or is joining a group of us midway through. Otherwise, my phone’s at home.

I still hosted Couchsurfers, and during the weekends when I would go out with them, I didn’t carry my phone with me at all. I was technology-less the entire time. I knew where to go, I knew where to eat, and I knew how to get places. A phone was absolutely unnecessary.

A lot of people ask what I do for navigation or how I can remember how to get places. A sense of direction can be learned. Most people say they can’t navigate without their phone, but it’s not that they can’t — they’re choosing not to. It’s using the brain in a different way, and if they tried and practiced, they’ll be able to do it.

Without a smartphone, my brain thinks more than the average person. I can’t mindlessly scroll or “look at something important” on my phone when I’m waiting in line or waiting for the subway or anything that involves waiting (or walking for that matter). My brain isn’t always thinking about something important, but because it does think more, the chances of hitting something important is higher. I’ve definitely come across really random ideas just standing on the subway or when I’m walking, and those ideas have come into fruition. I just have more time to think. Free-flowing, almost unconscious thinking.

I saw a Ted talk recently about how boredom sparks creativity. When the brain is bored, it has time and space to come up with creative ideas.

I do have technology, but when I’m out, I don’t need to be on it because I’m with people. If I’m at home, then I have my laptop and I can reach people through it and vice versa. I’ll try my hardest also to remember to remind people right before I leave home that I don’t have a smartphone and reassure them I’ll be there.

As an update, I lost the Motorola Android phone during a trip over two months after this article was published. I used it so little that I didn’t realize I lost it until a few days later, and I still have no idea to this day where or how I lost it. I had no plans to replace it, but there evidently became one aspect of life I couldn’t solve without a phone in NYC.

During the weekends there, I went out usually quite early in the morning without going back home, and if I’m meeting up with friends mid-activity or later in the day, they have no way to contact me to find out where I am nor change their plans with me. I actually don’t mind waiting for people (within reason) if they’re late, but some people don’t know when they’ll be free until later in the day. There’s no way to reach me if I’ve already left home by the time they do know.

So, I researched how to get a non smartphone which was actually more work than I wanted. I ended getting a calling-only phone so people’s schedules could remain flexible. I also felt bad one time where I really had to go to the bathroom and would be late to a dinner with a friend but couldn’t contact him. Situations where I’m late almost never happen though.

I live life really being in the moment, because there’s no other option. Without a (smart)phone, I still hang out with friends, meet new people, keep in contact with others around the world, go traveling to places I’ve never been before. I’m not just sitting at home avoiding technology and the world, and I talk to my friends all the time through the internet — I just do it when I’m at home. Even having a “phone”, it’s not charged basically ever aside from long drives or on days where I know ahead of time that friends will have to contact me for their scheduling purposes. I also found out my SIM card doesn’t receive reception everywhere, so I live my life mostly without a phone at all.

A lot of people claim needing a phone. But I ask again: what is it that is absolutely needed on there? Is it a need or a ‘nice to have’, or is addiction real and stopping is difficult? Is life really that much better with it?


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Jack of many trades, a deep thinker and lover of life, enjoyment, and happiness