The clock says it’s 12:01 a.m. on Sunday—the beginning of a journey. I switch off my phone and stash it out of sight. I let my Kindle and laptop die. I watch each of the wireless router lights hesitate before fading to black. Admittedly, I’m excited. This isn’t the first time I’ve considered unplugging. And I’ve come prepared: Red wine, Sudoku, a 2,000-piece puzzle and a journal to record what I hope will be a week filled with pensive thought and deep revelation—seven days without TV, Internet, Netflix, Pandora, a smartphone and social media. I’m also getting paid to do this.
For as long as I can remember, my days have been fueled by a constant stream of… well, nothing notable. What 25-year-old’s haven’t? I’m just one of the 46 percent of people who describe their smartphone as something they couldn’t live without, Pew Research Center reports.
How refreshing would it be to press reset on the hours I normally waste mindlessly scrolling through Facebook? I’m going to sleep better, feel better and just be a better person, or so I’m told. Without the constant real or phantom buzz (you know what I’m talking about), I would have time to take long walks on the unused path behind my apartment. I would appreciate life’s blessings a little more, and maybe I would stop and smell the… you get the picture.
But that’s not quite how it went.
Day 1 is long—I mean really long. When I’m not feigning interest in a novel, I’m meandering around my apartment. I’m antsy and anxious, which is causing my cat anxiety. Why did I agree to this challenge? Oh yeah, I’m the new kid in the office and want to prove myself.
I rationalize at first. Maybe my anxiety is based in some truth. What if something happened to my family and no one can get in touch with me?
Early in the day I feel somehow off. I think about taking just one scroll through the newsfeed, maybe watching just one Making a Murderer episode. Who would ever know? The thought disgusts me. I’m going to give up and lie to my family, friends and new boss so I can see what someone ate for dinner?
But it feels like I’ve been kicked out of an exclusive circle. Facebook bores me, but I’m itching for it anyway. I want the distraction. At this point I’m even missing that one girl who only snaps selfies. Anything is better than this never-ending day.
My rationalizations continue: What if my boss is trying to reach me? I need to be connected for work! Snapchat stories only last 24 hours! (Trust me: These thoughts are convincing in the moment.)
I live alone in a relatively new city about 400 miles from my loved ones. But with a menu of friends, music and time-sucking articles available at the touch of a finger, I had forgotten what it really means to be alone. I figure maybe work will be easier (where computer access is limited but inevitable).
When I’ve had a long day at the office, there’s nothing I like more than melting into my couch with Season Two of the BBC series Luther and a glass of pinot. The inevitable effect of disconnecting from the digital sphere is being alone with my thoughts. I suddenly have the time and silence to process my day. So I spend an hour journaling—something I haven’t consistently done in years. Wait, this is kind of nice, actually.
The weeklong hiatus from technology served as a reminder of the important things in life.
I can’t stay home forever, though. And I wasn’t born with a natural sense of direction. I completely rely on GPS for even the most basic destinations. So when a co-worker invites me to a concert, I’m forced to rely on his directions—scribbled out next to a handwritten grocery list. After an hour of driving, I give up and let the 7-Eleven clerk direct me home. Where I can’t even watch Luther.
On Day 3, armed with more Post-it note directions, I head out for an office happy hour. Smartphone-less, I watch everyone alternate between the conversation at the table and the one in their laps. During the lulls, I’m no longer a member of the pick-up-your-phone-to-fill-the-void club. I’m glaringly present in the moment and acutely aware that the lap conversation is more interesting than mine. Do I do this? Am I this friend? I make a mental note to become a better listener.
At 5:31 p.m. on Day 4, I cheat. My editor is gone for the day, and I’ve been debating sending that happy birthday email to my boyfriend all day. They really can’t expect me to not talk to him on his birthday, right? Then the guilt sets in. If it doesn’t count as cheating, why did I keep it a secret? Why do I feel like a 15-year-old sneaking a cigarette in the basement?
To deal with the guilt, I try a novel. I’ve always been a voracious reader—magazines, local news and trending social media articles. But I couldn’t remember the last time I lost a Saturday afternoon in a book. It was an old habit that came back as naturally as riding a bike. I end up reading six before the week is out.
By Day 5 I haven’t smelled any roses (and I still haven’t walked that path). No more reading; I’m going to be active. My go-to excuse to avoid the gym is always time. Once I drive home, cook dinner and load the dishwasher, I barely have a couple of hours to relax with Netflix and go to bed. Now I’m forced to address how much free time I have and how I’m spending it, and it doesn’t feel good.
I take the long way to the mailbox. My boyfriend’s mom wrote me a letter. I had forgotten about the days when mail and bills weren’t synonymous. There’s something nice about holding the paper she held. When I was younger, I had a pen pal at a Utah boarding school, and now I’m wondering whether people still have pen pals. When communication is as simple as a quick text message, it’s easier to flake, to cancel plans at the last minute. I make another mental note to write more letters.
I’m in the final stretch of the challenge. I’ve pinpointed that the urge to check my phone is most prominent in the last few hours before I go to sleep and the hazy moments when I first wake up—as if I might miss something life-changing in the few offline hours of the night. Like 44 percent of other cell owners (according to Pew Research Center), I sleep with my phone beside my bed. It really does feel like a form of dependency. Now I let my mind wander and process the day’s events until sleep takes control. Even though the missing-limb nightmares haven’t stopped, I’m actually sleeping through the night.
It’s Saturday, the last day. I spend most of the morning organizing my closet. I have a new chicken piccata recipe planned for dinner. I’m turning over the week in my mind. I thought I would have more answers, maybe the secret to happiness. But happiness isn’t an unanswered question hiding behind the big bad veil of technology. People use technology for amazing things: from finding a lost neighborhood dog to fundraising millions of dollars for Haiti earthquake relief. It helps struggling new mothers connect with each other and share tips. It helps entrepreneurs avoid startup disaster.
I learned that technology swallows a huge portion of time that I used to spend doing things I love, such as reading and doing puzzles. But it also allows me to watch videos of my 5-year-old niece and see her devastated little face when she finds out I’m not a University of Kansas fan. Though I’m not planning another weeklong hiatus from technology in the near future (or ever), it served as a reminder of the important things in life. I like to think I’ve found a better balance.
It’s 12:01 a.m. on another Sunday—the first day of the rest of my digital life. And I’m asleep.
This article appears in the May 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.