My Stint in Mobile Device Rehab

"Device rehab" can be a challenging undertaking. But unplugging for a time can be a great experiment in being present for the people right in front of you.

I spent the last week on vacation with my family. Which means that for a few days prior to the beginning of vacation, my wife and I had our annual negotiation about mobile devices and the boundaries during vacation. In general, she and I agree on the basic premise… it is healthy to turn off work for a while, and it is important to try to eliminate anything that will distract away from fun with my family. I get that completely. Part of me wants to turn back the clock to a pre-mobile-device, pre-internet era, and have a fully disconnected vacation.

But anyone who says that this is easy in the second decade of the 21st century clearly doesn’t have a job where lots of people are trying to get in touch with them. Fully disconnecting is hard under any circumstances, especially when you work in a high-touch, customer-oriented organization… and it is even harder if you own the business.

This vacation was 8 days, Saturday to Sunday, and the plan that Emily and I agreed upon was as follows:

  1. I surrender my phone and iPad to her upon arrival at the vacation spot. She turns both of them off (so I can’t cheat and use someone else’s “find my iphone app” to locate them in a moment of weakness). Actually, this wasn’t an agreed upon rule. I only learned this later. Stay tuned…
  2. She returns them to me after four days.
  3. And for the remaining four days, I would limit my usage to a quick check-in, twice a day, once on the AM and once in the PM. I could not carry either device with me for the day. Once I did my AM check, I had to turn them off and put them away. And once I did my PM check, that was it for the night.

So how did it go? Well, I kept some notes in my journal about how I was feeling about it. Yes… I anticipated this blog post!

Saturday, July 2: I arrive in Rhode Island to meet my family, after a long trip home on Friday night from Memphis. After hugs and happy discussion over all the fun things we are going to do, I hand over my phone and iPad to Emily. Yes, it felt like I was entering rehab. And in a way, I was.

Saturday afternoon… Definitely find myself reaching for my phone multiple times. Definitely find myself annoyed by not knowing any scores, not being able to text anyone. I feel disconnected. It doesn’t feel good yet. I am highly annoyed. But I am focused on my kids. We kayak, hit the beach, make sandcastles. Our six-year-old son is none the wiser about Dad’s withdrawal symptoms.

Sunday, July 3: My first morning waking up in Rhode Island. And now I am missing more than just being connected. I use my iPad for my morning news, over coffee. I always check CNN, ESPN, CNBC, Politico… I get all my morning news on my device while I drink my coffee. So, now I am reduced to asking my father-in-law what is going in the world while he is checking news on HIS device over coffee. He might be mildly annoyed. I can’t tell. So I stop asking questions pretty quickly. He probably wants to read in silence. So would I. I am jealous.

Sunday afternoon… Another great day with the kids. Loving it. We are making the most of each day. But in all honesty, being disconnected is harder than anyone is willing to admit. If it is easy for you, then you either don’t own your company, or you work in an industry that doesn’t expect you to be connected all summer long (like teaching.)

Monday, July 4: Full withdrawal symptoms. And the annoyance now extends to Emily a bit also. Because I can’t communicate socially with anyone. Emily is now getting bombarded with texts from my extended family and friends. “What time is Dean going to the beach?” “Can he sail tonight?” “Tell him I am in for the fishing trip in August.” That got old for Emily, pretty quickly.

Monday afternoon… I start to crack. I find Emily’s phone while she is putting our daughter down for a nap. I open her “find my iPhone” app, and do a search for my devices. I just need to check for a minute. But they don’t register. She has turned them off, so I couldn’t do exactly what I was doing right then. Wow… my wife knows me, and once again proves she is way smarter than I am.

Tuesday, July 5: We are going away for the night, to celebrate our anniversary. The kids are staying with grandparents, and we are having an afternoon and a night to ourselves. We drive to Newport, RI, spend the afternoon at the Tennis Hall of Fame, drinks overlooking the harbor, a nice dinner at Clarke Cooke House. Perfect night. This was the first day where it started to feel normal to not have my phone with me at all times. I definitely missed it, but it was less annoying.

Wednesday, July 6: Emily returns the devices and we kick into stage 2. I can now use the devices, but for finite periods of time, twice a day. In general, this works for the remainder of the vacation. I generally follow the rules, and continue to spend all day playing with my kids.

It was a fascinating experiment, because it made me realize that these devices are about more than just staying in touch with work. I was disconnected from news, social planning via text, and social media as well. I keep lots of movies and tv shows on my iPad. Couldn’t watch those. If I drove into town to go to the store, and someone thought of something else they needed, we were out of luck! One time I went to the beach and forgot the kids’ sunscreen, and needed Emily to grab it from home. Couldn’t tell her. So I found someone on the beach who I knew was connected to Emily and asked her to text Emily the request for sunscreen. (And yes… she looked at me funny.) I couldn’t take pictures of the things I did with my kids.

It was hard. Really hard.

But you know what? It was also a great thing. I was totally present the whole time. And that was an amazing gift.

The lesson? Not sure there is one. We are all different and we all interact with our devices in different ways. For me, I liked the “cold turkey” or “four day cleanse” approach, followed by moderate use within specific boundaries. But the lesson I walked away with was the importance of being present for those right in front of you. I knew that was important before this vacation. But having specific strategies that will work for you in a realistic and sustainable way are critical.

Have a great day.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.