Smart Phone, Dumb Life?

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When I got my first Blackberry, the first thing I did was disable the message that said, “sent from my Blackberry.”

Because, waaay back then, most phones didn’t do email. There was no expectation of 24/7 reachability, unless someone had your phone number. And, even then, you didn’t abuse the privilege by calling someone “for work” on a weekend or late at night just because you could.

Flash forward to 2010.

Pretty much every phone receives and sends email, surfs the web and texts. More and more allow you to get messages and notifications from Facebook, twitter, foursquare and other service that can don an app. You can create, read or edit documents, stream live video to the web or a conference and we’re just about to crack the edge of quality video chat.

Very Dick Tracy.

Which allows us to get sooo much more done. We can bang out a few emails in a cab, reply to a few DM’s at the kids’ soccer game, text and receive orders at the theater, tweak presentations on the fly and share them with the team.

But, along with the capability to be hyper-connected comes a certain disability…

We’ve lost the expectation of disconnection.

People expect us to be accessible all the time, to be reachable, to be responsive, to be on call…24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Disabling the message on my iphone that says “sent wirelessly from my iphone” is now meaningless, because there’s been a change in public consciousness. People assume unfettered reach. They assume our perpetual state is instant reception.

And, that’s not always a good thing. Because, we all need space.

We all need the opportunity to tune out the world and have the world expect not to be able to tune us in.

To pause. To enter that uninterrupted state of that yields the greatest creations, the greatest innovations and, at times, creates the space for recovery we all need on a fairly regular basis, yet rarely set ourselves up to take.

To just be able to step away and take full ownership of random moments, daydreams and experiences that belong to nobody but us.

When technology was more limited, it made these moments far easier to come by.

There was no expectation of constant access. And, no addictive taunt on our behalves to “check in…and in…and in.”

So, now that technology has reversed this expectation, we have a new choice to make. To set our own brain-based, rather than tech-based limitations on the expectation of connectivity. To turn off certain “push” notifications on our smart-devices. To choose how, when and where we decide to “pull” that information into our ever-expanding basket of digital stimuli.

We need to understand that the technology gives us options galore, but we are still charged with how we allow that technology to interact with our lives. We still get to set the rules and expectations. Curmudgeonly as it sounds, the only thing that rings, beeps, braps or vibrates on my iphone is phone calls. Everything else comes to me only when I ask it to.

And, once we remake our own rules, we need to take one more step…

Make our rules of digital engagement clear to those with whom we interact.

Question is, are you ready to do that?

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50 responses

50 responses to “Smart Phone, Dumb Life?”

  1. Amy Harrison says:

    Having it on hand all the time makes it far too tempting to constantly dip in and dip out.

    I love the fluidity of having technology on hand, but there’s a whole different kind of bliss that happens when your tune out of the distraction and tune into yourself.

  2. Jean Sarauer says:

    I set up digital boundaries a couple years back. Some people didn’t like it then and still don’t, but that’s how it is. I grew up without all the gadgets and didn’t miss them and don’t miss them now when I’m enjoying my unplugged time.

  3. ami says:

    There’s a reason some call them ‘crackberries.’

    For me, when I was still at the Big Company, getting a blackberry was a signal that you had ‘arrived’ – for a time, only very senior employees had them. You wanted to be important enough to pull out the BB in between meetings – purportedly to check all of those highly critical and urgent messages from other highly important people. Pulling out the BB meant “I’m Somebody.”

    Then everyone got one – and the Important People had implied permission to pull out the BBs in the middle of lesser people’s meetings. Then everyone started pulling out the BBs in the middle of meetings – suggesting (we hoped) that we were all so busy and important – and SKILLED – that we HAD to multitask at all times.

    24 hr accessibility was an additional sign of significance. Seeing that little light start flashing red created a Pavlovian reaction – a message! I’m Somebody! And made it hard to resist checking the BB constantly, even at home, even at night.

    The fact is most of us don’t multitask well, and most of us don’t function at peak capacity without a respite from work. When we feel compelled to pull out the BB at all hours and in every situation, we are answering our own need to feel significant and not the business’s critical need. Time to start changing the expectation, to be thoughtful, rather than compulsive, to focus, rather than multitask, and to make conscious choices rather than react like a hungry dog.

    • Gibb says:

      Liked the post and liked Ami´s comment too.

    • Rob says:

      Very much enjoyed this post and your reply, Ami.

      “we are answering our own need to feel significant” resonates deeply as I often witness folk pulling out their BBs wishing to be elsewhere, attempting escape from the moment, whilst ‘engaged’ in one on one conversation and I consider “what could be MORE important than giving that someone your undivided attention”

  4. love this “To just be able to step away and take full ownership of random moments, daydreams and experiences that belong to nobody but us.”

    i can honestly say that i love my BB, and that i could not run a business and be a mom without it.
    That said, i savour times without it, not only alone but with others, and i make sure to take them often.

  5. RJ Weiss says:

    Really liked this post and it helps to know that I’m not alone. I love technology but I haven’t become more “productive” with it. Yes it allows me to answer emails and reply to DM’s, but is that really being productive.

    The most productive time during my day is when my phone and Internet are turned off. It’s the only way I can get a few hours of work done anymore.

  6. Hey Jonathan,

    I think it’s quite unreasonable for people to expect us to be reachable 24/7, simply because technology gives us this option. It’s an option, not an obligation.

    I periodically disconnect completely from communication for at least half a day, so I can focus on writing or creating. It’s a boundary I set and others just need to learn to respect.

  7. Laura Click says:

    Great post, Jonathan. I think this is an important topic that is starting to gain more traction. I’ve seen several other bloggers mention the need to disconnect and some have gone so far as to ditch their smart phone altogether.

    While I think that is a noble idea, it’s not practical either. I think for many on the go, a smart phone is essential to business. However, we must learn to have some restraint.

    My question is this – I think we all need to disconnect, but how do you let people/clients/vendors know about our own rules for interaction without appearing like a total diva? How do you draw the line without damaging your business in the process? Any suggestions?

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s a tough question. Most people will be cool with you telling them that you’re doing a serious bit of rebalancing in the name of being able to both serve them better and create a better balance in your life. Because, we all strive for that. You may even serve as an example for others to follow. But, then, there will be those few folks who’ve come to expect you to be hyper-connected 24/7 and they won’t want to give that level of access up.

      The challenge there is to explain how you’ll be able to take care of all of their needs on an equal if not better level, even with a more restricted level of access. Maybe even set up a trial period to prove it to them. Then, make sure you actually DO serve their needs on your terms equally well. And, hey, I’m open to more ideas from others in our tribe, here.

  8. Kevin Kuzia says:

    Great post. I think what’s interesting is the extent to which people can find that life goes on and the world does not stop when they unplug for a bit. The funny thing is that this most often happens when someone loses or breaks their smartphone, not because of a conscious choice.

    Laura does make a fine point in her comment – once the expectation of perpetual access is placed, is there a good way to scale it back? My gut tells me that it is a matter of taking it in manageable chunks and pushing the response time out a little bit at a time. Maybe it starts with hours and eventually work itself into the next day later down the road (provided it’s not a true emergency versus something someone manufactures).

    Very curious for the thoughts of others on this.

  9. Sami Paju says:

    I find it to be a good thing that people are buying into this always online, always responsive thinking. This means that most of them get way less done than I do when I shut off my IMs, email, and phone, and for me that spells a competitive advantage.


  10. Naomi Niles says:

    I don’t own a mobile device for this very reason. I don’t want people contacting me while I’m out shopping for groceries or whatever. I know they are useful for emergencies, but we did manage to survive before them too.

    However, I feel like I need to be available as much as possible too. And I don’t want to seem like a person that doesn’t value clients/family/friends, etc. by not being available enough.

    It’s a struggle finding that balance between the two.

  11. Nicole says:

    I have to consciously unplug and do so when I can. I make sure family time is just that and as tempting as it is, try not to check e-mail during flag football games and the like. I make sure I turn off my Blackberry from vibrate during certain hours in the evening and only check that red blinking light once in awhile. When I’m at lunch with a friend, I turn my Blackberry over because that red light “calls” me and has almost fully modified my behavior to make it check it just to stop the light. LOL The vibrate annoys me when every e-mail, spam or not and Facebook message “makes” me look, so I only use vibrate when something is going on or I’m expecting something. I only respond to e-mail on my BB if it’s important. I don’t like to give the illusion that I will do that any ol’ time and so far, that’s been just fine. Good post to relate to!

  12. Donna Lehman says:

    Amen. And make sure we teach our kids the same ‘personal time’ etiquette.

    • Lubinrho says:

      Thanks for this great post!

      It isn’t just us “very busy adults” that need to relearn about down time. Teaching our new generations, those that have been plugged in since birth, will be a great challenge. I grew up with the beginnings of entertainment tech, Commodore, Atari and Nintendo 64,(this makes me almost ancient in some eyes). Young as I am, I’m baffled by this huge gap between my willingness to be available and my son’s need to be available, he’s 13. Trying to keep life in the real world and out of the virtual data stream is a constant struggle. I schedule time where phones/netbooks/laptops aren’t allowed just to stay connected to family.

  13. Jill Lena Ford says:

    wow, what a timely post Jonathan! I am just now trying to reset my own boundaries of availability and responsiveness. I have recently come to realize that I have been way too generous with my own time and freedom and people have come to expect this of me. It has become depleting to me in both my personal and business life. So it now it time to scale back. Pull it in to a balanced place. Sometimes it seems that the only way to do that is to tip the scales a bit until you find the happy medium that feels right to you. I do try not to offend or shut out anyone in the process but it is not always an easy thing to accomplish. I think that myself and many of your readers are answering an enthusiastic “YES!!!” to your question of are we ready to make our new rules clear to others. But now the question is…”How do we do this in a graceful and respectful way?”

  14. Jill Lena Ford says:

    By the way, I forgot to say thank you for another insightful post 🙂

  15. Yup, I’m with Naomi. This is EXACTLY why I don’t own an iPhone or Blackberry. If I had one, I know I’d never turn it off because I’m always getting emails or followers or requests or whatever. If I’m away from my computer for too long I start to hyperventilate because I know if I’m away for more than a few hours the emails start to pile up. It’s hard to control that, so instead I keep my centuries old phone so that there’s at least a small part of my day when I can be “unplugged.”

    I also really like what Eduard says about being reachable is an option, not an obligation. So true, man.

  16. Thanks for the post.

    What you’ve written here mirrors exactly what my wife said to me the first few weeks after I got my first IPhone; since then, I’ve learned to the leave the phone in its place.

    Although, I’ve always tried to be very conscious of the amount of influence I let technology have over my life, I do make mistakes. Each time I start playing with a new device or interesting application, my former boundaries disappear and I lose time to the mechanism that I could be spending elsewhere.

    It’s good to remind yourself that technology has its place and that place is not always in your pocket. Eternal vigilance, John Philpot Curran, and all.

    Thanks again for the post.

  17. Dave Soucy says:

    Back when I was in the corporate world living in airplanes and hotels, I was connected 24/7. Pager (remember those?), cell phone, laptop. Psycho bosses and demanding corporate clients who didn’t bat an eyelash about calling on a Sunday morning.

    I left the corporate world in January of 2002, haven’t had a j-o-b since, and revel in my disconnectedness.

    Yes, I still check email at nights and on weekends, but I’ve never sent one from my phone. In fact, I can’t because I refuse to have my phone enabled to even access email. It’s got a qwerty keyboard, and I had the thing for over a year before I sent my first text with it. And, I’m going to say fewer than 15 people actually have my cell phone number. My mechanic does, but my clients certainly don’t.

    That’s how I run my business. If I chose to give 24/7 access, then my business would be running me, just like my j-o-b did in the past.

    Laura, the way to change the expectation of 24/7 access is to simply choose to change. If you’re answering clients at 9PM, that’s your choice. Me, if someone emails or leaves a voice mail at 8 or 9PM, I choose to answer them in the morning. My perspective isn’t that making them wait until morning makes me a diva, but on the contrary, jumping to their beck and call at 9PM makes me their doormat.

    And you know what? Everything is fine. Business is great, especially because I can keep it separate from the rest of my life if I choose to.

    And don’t even get me going with people checking their facebook updates every 5 minutes. Guess what, two years ago we all got along fine without knowing in real time if our friends got their nails done or what they had for lunch or if they just stole a pig on farmville. If someone is so addicted to twitter or facebook that they have to constantly check those updates on their phone, I honestly feel for them. There’s a lot of real life that happens when you decide to escape from the bluetooth/blackberry/iphone cage we put ourselves in.


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Agree, you can publicly disclose your policy (like I’ve just done in this post) or just let people realize what it is by your course of dealing over time. For example, I don’t usually respond to certain calls or emails over the weekend. People learn it’s not personal, that’s just the way I define my boundaries.

  18. Excellent–like someone else said, glad I’m not alone. I’ve made conscious decisions all along to not get caught up in availability. Though I love tech stuff and was an early bird on email and listservs and forums etc, the only purpose I’ve ever had for the mobile, really, is emergencies.

    When I call people and they become anxious because they’re driving, I think OMG why did you pick up? Plus, when I talk with someone, I like to know I have their full attention. It’s distracting to me when I talk with someone who is driving. I mean, I start thinking of or imagining what I’m hearing–horns, sirens, trucks, etc lol Plus it’s illegal here in NJ.

    I did have internet access for awhile on my Treo, but it’s so small, I just can’t get into it, and it wasn’t worth it to me.

    Oh and I don’t text either lol Well rarely; I’m not totally against it. If people want to contact me they know they’re get novel-sized emails 🙂

    Good one!

  19. I did a similar posting recently on my blog:
    Unplugging = Enlightening

    I think it’s important for us to create rules for ourselves around what is accceptable for OUR lives in terms of “screen time.” For example, I value family time at the dinner table so I decided the rule is no screens during dinner – no TV, phone, computer, etc and everyone leaves those things behind to come eat together. I felt it was important to set that now when my kids are only 3 and 1 so it becomes a part of our family norms when they get older and use those technologies. Also my son already watches a little TV (sesame street) so I felt it was important to set that rule up.

    I also purposely don’t answer my phone during certain times of my day, especially if I am with friends or co-workers, unless its an emergency. I think there is a disrespectful aspect of answering a call or email during a meeting or social call. I think there is something to be said for showing the person/people you are with that they are the most important thing you are doing right now.

    Lastly, I think its important for self-reflection to force yourself to “back away from the computer” and just BE. It doesnt have to be a fancy yoga class or a meditation session. You can sit down and just think or use a piece of paper or journal to capture any thoughts or ideas.

  20. Ross Hudgens says:

    I don’t think it’s arguable whether or not we need the phone upgrades – we do, they help life. But this article is an interesting introspection into the “counter-punch” of the benefits of cell phones. All I can say, really, is “Interesting point. That sucks. True.” and move on.

    We’re stuck in this world of hyper-connectivity and are forced to deal with it unless we make public pronouncements that we’ve given up our cell phones.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Can’t agree. Many of the most creative, productive, downright brilliant people I know don’t lean on increasing level of connectivity as part of their processes. In fact, many run from it, because they “can’t think” when it’s around. We build it into the way we work, then teach those around us to expect we’re part of the ring of connectivity. But, it’s far from inevitable, just takes work to establish our own ground rules, then make sure others know and respect them.

  21. deborah says:

    My cell is from 1890 and doesn’t do much besides phone calls. I can’t surf the web, text easily, or review documents. For now, I like it this way. I’m extremely connected as it is and sometimes shock people by calling them on the phone…to talk. Several people told me how much they like it that I call (as opposed to text/email/smoke signal).

  22. Topi says:

    It used to be that being able to do email from your phone, 24/7, was a sign that you were “uber” important. Now I think it’s a sign that you’re uber important if you can’t be reached all the time – if you’ve evolved to the point where you’ve made that decision to switch off, unplug, become unavailable. It’s like the limited time that you do make available to work is more special because it’s limited. Anyway, I choose to put my phone down when I walk through the door at home, and to pick it back up only when it’s time to get back to work, and I respect that in others.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting question about “connective scarcity” leading to a sense of being more important and creates more demand, gotta think on that

  23. Erin Verbeck says:

    Given how technology has encroached upon our uninterrupted state for creation, do you see a trend toward society producing less creative work? Or, has balance has been achieved by the creators and the drones…well just drone more often thanks to technology.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Not so much, I just think it may end up requiring more total hours to create equivalent creative output when you factor in ramping time, though. Meaning…longer days for equal work

  24. It sure is great to shut the world out at times. It is one of the healthiest things to do for someone who is often connected. An hour that would have been wasted can be replaced with an hour full of interesting thoughts and openness when disconnection happens. When we are always connected to X, we lose connection with Y or Z or whatever else we have missed out on.

    The people that set boundaries are always the ones on top. We can only handle so much of any one thing.

  25. Joel Libava says:


    I’m getting close. Part of it is burnout-overload. The other part of it, for me, is what if it’s a major media source that needs me, now?

    They usually can’t wait.


    The Franchise King®

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Right. That’s why major sources get my cell phone number. I’ve found, more often than not, if it’s urgent, they call so they can lock down the segment or story asap. Even then, I usually screen all my calls. I’d rather miss a media opp if it let’s me stay in a place where I can create something that’ll lead ten times the opps my way once it’s released into the world.

  26. Years ago I learned to set boundaries on answering my landline phone. To this day, if I am not expecting a call, I generally let it go to voice mail. I get maybe 10 text messages a month and don’t distribute my mobile phone number far and wide. There are very few true emergencies in life and biz. When we are too quick to connect, we forget that.

  27. Angela says:

    I’ve also disabled all things that beep and buzz and push other than phone calls. It’s fun to be connected, but it’s critical to my sanity to be disconnected. We can only process so many things at once. It’s simply a biological limitation.

    People don’t need to know why you’re inaccessible, just that you are. Using an “out of office” message helps set expectations if someone is hoping for a quick turnaround. Setting limits is healthy and restorative. At least for me it is. 🙂

  28. Vicki says:

    I got my first cell phone in 1989, I think it was. My current phone is a Motorola Droid. I won’t give you the number. Only my spouse has the number.
    I turn the unit on when I leave the house. It’s in “Airplane mode” unless I want to use it. I consider it to be a handheld computer with telephone capabilities and, for me, those capabilities are 99.9% outgoing.I don’t subscribe to voicemail on the cell phone. At home, like Molly G, I let calls go to voicemail unless I recognize the Caller ID.
    Lest I seem like a Luddite, I’m a programmer/techie and I love gadgets. I just don’t think I need to be available by someone else’s choice.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks for sharing your Connectivity M.O.” Hadn’t thought about keeping it in airplane mode all day. Interesting *sound of old dude brain gears spinning*

  29. Michael Roth says:

    Part of it also is, on our part, being predictable and consistent.

    When I have established a level of trust with a customer or client that relieves them of feeling like they have to poke me every 10 minutes (“are you working on my stuff?”) in order to make sure that their stuff is getting done. And they reason they know that is because 1)I have not overloaded myself with activity that I am unable to act and 2) work does not get prioritized based on who shouts the loudest.

  30. I know exactly what you mean. I’m finding I LIKE to be connected all the time, because then I don’t have to worry about solitude…something about being busy is calming in a sense. I’m at home when I’m stressed out. I almost don’t know what to do when I’m disconnected. At the same time, I find I’m most creative when I do disconnect, take a step back and breathe for a bit…

  31. This is exactly why we do not have a smart phone, actually any phone, and have never had a “crackberry” etc.

    We live an open ended world tour, ultra mobile, paperless, minimalist lifestyle, so being connected via internet is essential for us, BUT I prefer to spend the majority of my time unplugged in nature & connected to real life.

    The internet is addictive with always more to do, so I’m afraid to get a hand held, because I find just having laptops ( and times we choose to be on, mostly in the evening) gives us greater freedom.

    As we travel the world, I must admit, that the happiest people are NOT the most connected! 😉 I especially hate to see the young children that are encouraged in this online addiction with no restraints.

    We all need very strict boundaries to use it to our advantage without burning the house down.

  32. While I was reading this blog post, a ding on my computer came through and I switched screens to see who emailed me. Then, upon returning to finish reading this post, I laughed at myself for a solid 5 minutes. WOW – I didn’t realize how much I’m like Pavlov’s dogs with those damn dings and beeps.

    So, I’m ripping off the bandages and turning off all the alerts from my iPhone and that email ding on my computers. Time to take back the expectation of disconnection!!!

    Rock on! Thanks for this awesome post!

  33. Annie Stith (Gr8fulAnnie) says:

    Hey, Jonathan!

    I’m fortunate, just starting out. My BlackBerry has a “bedside mode” where I’ve set it up to only allow three very close friends’ calls to come thru. No blinking LED’s, no musical tones or beeps unless it’s one of those three. Even then, I choose whether or not to answer. If I’m otherwise engaged, I simply don’t.

    Others are starting out with me knowing there is no expectation of instant access, but (except fort my “sabbath” on Sundays), I usually get bsck with them in 24 hours.

    I’m training them right off the bat. 😉


  34. Like some of the other posters, I don’t have a fancy phone. My cell is used to make calls, see who’s calling, and listen to voice-mail. Oh, and it makes a handy alarm clock. 😀

    Not only do I not stay connected 24/7 with my phone, I don’t even answer it half of the time. Unrecognized number? Better leave a message, or it’s not important enough for me to call back. Not family? Better leave a message. Too late at night? Message required. In the middle of something? I just silence the ringer and don’t even look.

    Technology is no excuse for bad manners, and a personal pet peeve is people hooked to their phones (talking or texting) during conversations, driving, ordering, checking out, or otherwise when in contact with another live human being, in-person.

  35. Russ says:

    I think a lot of the expectation to be connected has to do with how we’ve “trained” our friends, family, and contacts. If you’re the type of person who always responds or answers immediately, then that becomes the norm and people expect that, and taking a step back can be difficult. But if you’ve always been the type of person who leaves the phone in the car or at home when you go out for a few hours, or only reply when you’re at your desk during certain hours, then those times when you are unreachable for a bit won’t send up any red flags. Even though it may be abnormal for some to have to wait for feedback, at least they will know that a few hours or even a day or two without a reply is still within the normal boundaries of their expectations for you. Sure, it may make you look a bit lazy, but at least you still are always meeting the expectations that people have of you, which can be just as important.

  36. […] the revolutionary – and AUDACIOUS – blog post by the brilliant Jonathan Fields titled: “Smart Phone, Dumb Life?” I simply had to try doing this after I had the following […]

  37. Technology has changed our life so much. Just look back few years ago and you will notice the difference.

  38. […] dangers of being always available is tacked at Jonathan Fields’s blog (“Smart Phone, Dumb Life?”) He’s got it pegged: we “check in…and in…and […]