Like many Millennials, I spend a substantial amount of time on my phone. Be it for texting or social media use or the newly coined pandemic-era term “doomscrolling,” my phone is too often at my side. The logical part of my brain knows this is unhealthy behavior; after all, the adverse physical and psychological effects of phone addiction have been widely documented. 

However, my little pocket computer is the messenger that delivers news from loved ones, funny GIFs from my godson, the Taylor Swift quarantine album, and notifications of money heading my way. These and other reasons are why I regard my phone fondly. And in equal measure, it can be a source of stress for me, too. 

As someone who runs slightly anxious, I have the propensity to get frustrated by a slow reply or a lack of reply. And that frustration is just masking my anxiety, as I wonder: Did I say the wrong thing? Is that person mad at me? Are they ignoring me?

I’m quick to assign narratives where there is no narrative other than telling myself, “They’ll get back to you when they can. Just chill out, Anne. Go meditate or read a book or something.” 

The Breakup Catalyst

Like many, the foundation of my emotional stability has been worn somewhat threadbare during such a year of mass, all-pervasive uncertainty in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fun, light pastimes like ballet class and travel have been replaced by heavier ones, like, oh, say… warding off existential dread, or making my way through the collective works of Nirvana. (Grunge music: An excellent pandemic soundtrack!)

As time goes on, and we’re all adjusting to this new reality, I have looked for ways to make small improvements in my life. The call to improve one area of my life and well-being was stark and undeniable: Loosen your attachment to your phone. 

My rapid response rate time (a product of my time spent working as a customer service rep) is appreciated in business. But I could stand to ease up on it a bit in my personal life, and I’ve had friends tell me as much. 

My focus on my phone was also depriving me of any kind of enlightened, present-moment Eckhart Tolle-like mindfulness existence to which I’ve always aspired and continuously fallen short of.  

The Breakup In Action

For me, breaking up with my phone simply meant not having it around all the time. 

It also meant keeping the ringer on silent and slowing my response times to lower the bar for myself and allow others to adjust to my new standard. 2020 has been a year of bar lowering for me, and for most. I had big goals in January but they’ve all been crossed out; the only substantive goals on the list for this year and next are: Survive global pandemic. 

My phone addiction stems from wanting to be someone who people can always count on. In theory, this is a noble aspiration. In practice, it’s exhausting. I was worried that a loved one would text or call me when in crisis, and I wouldn’t be there to catch them. But that attitude and approach was ineffective in the end because my friends would probably prefer me at my best and I can’t be at my best if I’m so wired in all the time. 

Ironically, the thing that I thought would negatively impact my relationships  lessening my use of my phone  improved them substantially. 

Improvement #1: I loosened my expectations of myself and others.

In lowering my communications standards, it gave me more compassion for myself, and for others. 

Friends over the years had joked about my response time. “It stresses me out how quickly you reply to my texts and emails,” a friend once said and laughed. I laughed back but inwardly felt wildly superior to her and everyone else with a sub-standard response time. The admission of this baseless superiority I felt leaves me wondering: How do I even have any friends at all?

Another friend once texted me after he’d scrolled through Facebook. I’d posted something that had gotten a lot of positive comments, and I replied to each one. He noted this and said: “Your communication skills exhaust me by proxy. And legit I was just telling another friend I admire them earlier. I really do. But I want you to know if it’s secretly killing your spirit every time you talk to someone you barely knew ten years ago, it’s okay to stop. I do want you to appreciate that you have a lot of energy to offer, and people will abuse that. You are not responsible for anyone else’s fulfillment.”

Improvement #2: I enjoyed my life more, and my social time.

Not being tethered to a little device every day meant I could be more present in my life, and thus enjoy my downtime, playtime, and work time more effectively. Divided attention is substandard attention. 

The myth of multi-tasking has been widely exposed as ineffective. Task-switching is tiring for the brain, and after breaking up with my phone, I noticed a substantial improvement in the quality of my time spent working, playing, and nothingness-doing. All were of deeper and better quality.

Improvement #3: I was more authentic.

Striving for perfection in all areas of my life wound up being very exhausting. “I just want to be someone who always has their shit together,” I said to my therapist one day this spring, as I numbered the ways in which I was exhausted and how I didn’t see any areas in which I could cut myself slack.

“No one has their shit together all the time,” she said. I laughed, and insisted, jokingly, “Well, I do!”

I don’t, but I try to. And for me, that previously included replying to texts and emails with a rapidity that was unsustainable. “Hustling for worthiness” is what Brené Brown calls this type of behavior, something that’s based more on externalities than internalities. Hustling for worthiness is closely linked with perfectionism, something one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, calls “fear dressed up in high heels and a mink coat.” 

Brown corroborates this, writing: “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

Improvement #4: I slept better.

At the start of the pandemic, I fell into a really horrible habit of reading/“doomscrolling” the news on my phone while in bed before I fell asleep. Post-breakup, I now sleep with my phone on the other side of the room, out of arm’s reach. And unless absolutely necessary, I don’t allow my phone in bed with me. I’m better rested, and more awake for the people and relationships in my life. 

Improvement #5: The ability to see the Big Picture better.

Breaking up with my phone enabled me to see the Big Picture. In the past, I’d placed a disproportionately large amount of importance on who wrote back to me and how quickly. I was focused on the wrong things. The Big Picture isn’t “who wrote back to me right away” but it more so now includes, “who consistently shows up for me,” and there are many ways to do just that.  

Like all the most necessary breakups, this phone breakup has led me to a better, more complete version of myself. I’m a kinder and more understanding friend now that I’m not keeping score all the time; but most of all – and best of all – this breakup made me a better friend to myself.

(If you’re interested in scaling back your phone time, How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life by Catherine Price offers practical, research-backed support and guidance.)