Overcoming smartphone addiction: Noah's tale

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| Published: August 2, 2010

This morning, the Monday after being on vacation for a week, I woke up, shook the first layer of fuzz off of my brain, and reached for the smartphone resting next to the alarm clock on my nightstand. Just before I grabbed it, unlocked it and fired up Email, thought overcame instinct and I was able to arrest my arm in mid-motion, warding off the mad compulsion that has ruled my life for the past several years. 

My name is Noah Kravitz and I am a Smartphone Addict.

For the past eight days I've been slowly, peacefully, happily chipping away at years of bad habits fostered by always available information overload coupled with ever-more powerful pocket computers and my own lack of will power. I wake up, come to, put my glasses on and check Email. It's a habit, it's the first thing I do every morning, and it's totally unnecessary and unhealthy. Last week was a vacation for me, but I was still working - working on unplugging myself from my absolutely compulsive addiction to communication and information, and trying to regain a little bit of control over my "mobility-empowered" lifestyle. 

A few years back I had a pre-launch briefing for a major new phone release with some PR people from the involved carrier and manufacturer. I distinctly remember one of the PR people saying to me, "We really think this is the kind of phone someone like you will be really excited. We know you're always on the go, and need to be connected all of the time wherever you are. This is the best device we've ever launched to keep someone like you - a demanding power user - connected all of the time." At the time I thought, "You've got me wrong. I do not want to be hyper-connected like that. No way. It's good to have a break sometimes, and I can't imagine paying extra to always be tethered to everything. Yuck." And yet here I am now, a victim of that hyper-connectivity I knew I didn't really want. So what happened?

What happened is that smartphones are awesome. Being able to look things up on the Web, check my Email and Calendar, access social networks and crowdsourced reviews and real-time traffic/weather/financial data on the move is an incredibly powerful ability in our Information Age. Smartphones enable employees to work more efficiently and better balance work and personal schedules. Smartphones enable travelers and tourists to get more out of their journeys and make last-minute itinerary changes based on anything from traffic and weather conditions to satiating last-minute cravings for a particular type of activity or food thanks to user-generated reviews and points-of-interest information. Smartphones enable people to stay in touch on the fly, sharing everything from vacation photos to micro-coverage of community events to ideas, opinions, and real-time chatter around shared events and experiences.

Smartphones rule. Except that mine rules me. 

I am so interested in what's going on in the world around me. I am so anxious to hear the latest from my family, friends, co-workers and colleagues. I am so hyped up over the latest news related to my work, my sports and cultural interests, and the news of the day that matters to me. I am so eager to see photos and video from my friends' lives, hear the latest from my favorite bands, and get the best deals on whatever I'm shopping for. My smartphone lets me access any of this - nearly all of it - at almost anytime and from almost anywhere. 

And so I reach for it constantly. When it rings. When it vibrates. When I get an idea. When I'm waiting for a response. When I'm bored. When I'm angry. When I'm excited. When I'm lonely. When I don't know what to do with myself, and when I'm wondering what my friends are up to. When I wake up, first thing in the morning, wondering what I missed while I was asleep. I check Email, I check Twitter, I check my RSS feeds, I check it all - like an automaton going through one of its programmed routines. 

I used to have a Bookmarks folder on my computer's browser called "Daily Rounds," that contained my first thing in the morning list of blogs and feeds to get me up to speed on my corner of the business world. Now I have my smartphone and my routine, etched into my brain and my muscle memory like rubbing my eyes, reaching for my eyeglasses and brushing my teeth. By the time I've reached my desk and its directory of browser bookmarks I'm long past my Daily Rounds and into full over-connect mode.

Smartphones are awesome, and I love what they can do for me. But only when they're working for me, and not literally ruling my waking thoughts. Before going on vacation last week I worked with my colleagues to ensure that we knew who'd be dealing with my usual responsibilities while I was away. I set up an auto-responder so people Emailing me would know when I'd be back and who to contact in the meantime. And then I told myself, over and over, that I was not going to obsessively check messages while on vacation. I'd use the phone to capture and share photos and video, to look up places to eat and sights to see, to stay in touch with my family back East and friends in various places. But I'd do my darndest to use my vacation to work on breaking that awful morning routine and regaining some control over the technology that's supposed to be empowering and not crippling me. And I did! I had an awesome, relaxing vacation. But now, back at home, back to work, back to the routine of Monday morning, the real struggle resumes.

This morning I won the battle at the last moment, freezing my own body in mid-motion before it could feed the sick part of my brain. Huzzah for matter over mind, at least for a day. Tomorrow will be another battle in my own little ever-churning war against myself.