The last time I came to Idaho, I made my parents drive me thirty minutes into town everyday so I could log into my work computer.
I clutched my busyness like a shield, hiding in plain sight. I was on my phone constantly. Compulsively checking my email. Refreshing notifications.
I couldn’t sit with my family for twenty minutes without wanting to jump out of my skin. It had nothing to do with them— and everything to do with my fear that they’d know just how far I was from myself.
They’d see right through me. So I hid behind the Wall Street job, tumultuous romantic relationships, and obsession with productivity that kept me digitally connected to everyone else and deeply disconnected from the people sitting in front of me.
It wasn’t always this way.
I used to look forward to being disconnected. We’ve been going to the same lake house in Northern Idaho since I was four.
These summers in Idaho are essential to who I am. My parents packed their three squirrely kids into the car and drove from Michigan for two weeks without TV, internet, cell service. We were completely unreachable.
In the summer, I lived in my imagination. I’d write short stories, play dress-up, make crafts, read every book in the house, and convince my brothers and cousins to play mermaids.
There’s a cluster of boulders that I named “fairy garden” where I’d spend the majority of each day. Fairy garden has a small pine tree, a patch of dirt where I’d let my brothers park their rowboat, and a few wild flowers. It’s far enough from the house for me to build my pretend world in peace, but close enough where I could be left alone to play.
The empty space fueled creativity.
Connection too. We’d linger around the dinner table long after the sun went down. My brothers taught me how to water ski. I’d sit on the dock with my uncle and hear his stories about living in New York that inspired me to do the same. I learned more about my family in these weeks than the other months combined. We were deeply connected to each other because we were disconnected from everyone else.
Then it changed.
I stopped going for years. When I did, I wasn’t really there.
Staring at my phone, I was available to anyone who wasn’t with me and only partially present to those in front of me.
Over the past year, I’ve started to understand how my phone pulls me out of my life. More than that, I started to see how dangerous it can be.
Earlier this summer, something happened that made me not want to use my phone at all.
My phone listened to me.
Not just Amazon-suggested-exactly-the-thing-I-wanted, but rather that I broadcasted my entire day to a group of strangers.
It’s straight out of my worst nightmare.
I was accidentally in a voice chat on Discord. This meant that I shared a live audio feed of everything I did for twenty-four hours including going to the bathroom, talking to my immigration lawyer, running sessions at our company’s offsite, among other things.
I was horrified. Paranoid, I swore off my phone for days. I deleted Discord from my phone and computer. Insisting I turn my phone off before talking to a friend, I’d cut them off mid-sentence. I left my phone at home whenever I could.
It was the bucket of cold water that woke me up to realize my phone shouldn’t go all the places it was going. I didn’t need to be reachable all the time.
A month later, I booked my flights to Idaho. I figured it would be nice to be disconnected and I hadn’t been in two years. I took the trip as vacation and told everyone I’d be completely offline. Which I was, mostly.
I’ll admit, I did look at my phone a few times. When I did, my boyfriend immediately asked me what was wrong.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said.
Every time I touched my phone, I learned something I wish I hadn’t known.
One message made me sick to my stomach for two days. I couldn’t shake it out of my head. The person had sent it and forgot about it. But once I read it, it was in my head and I couldn’t unread it and unknow it.
Their words had a direct line right into my brain. I was completely unprotected.
Technology helps us get in touch with anyone, but I hadn’t ever asked: Who should I be in touch with?
Who should be able to reach me?
I understand that to participate in our jobs and stay connected to our social lives, we need to be reachable. But I need to figure out to what extent is sustainable and serves my life.
Smart and successful people know that being available all the time and the expectation of immediate responsiveness is keeping us from deep thought and creativity.
As Holly Whitaker pointed out, Kendrick Lamar goes months without his phone. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates limited how much technology their kids could use.
But it’s not easy to set these boundaries.
Some boundaries, like Idaho, have been intentional, others accidental.
When I moved to Spain, I changed my phone number. Accidentally, the only people who could reach me were the people I texted first. I didn’t see this as a huge problem and actually enjoyed getting significantly less texts.
I know that I’ve missed opportunities this way, chats and invites and collaborations— and as a friend I ran into at a cafe two weeks ago tearfully admitted— probably made a few people think I was ignoring them on purpose (sorry Hannah!)
But the freedom I’ve gained is more than worth what I’ve missed.
Writing this newsletter every week is possible because I have more time and creativity by being on my phone less. I met the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and we’ve spent more quality time together than I’ve ever had in a relationship before.
I’m more connected to myself and the people who matter to me. I live in a way that’s closer to how I hoped I would.
The most powerful motivator for me to pull back is experiencing the pure uninterrupted bliss of being present.
When I think of being unreachable, I’ll remember the most beautiful night of our trip to Idaho.
Gustavo and I went kayaking at dusk. There we sat in the middle of the pink lake, the only boat in the water. Disconnected to others and deeply connected to each other.
Even now as I think about it, I want to sit in that moment and ooze all over it. I want to linger in it, lay down in it, build a home in that feeling.
I also want to throw my phone in the lake.
I didn’t and I won’t, but I can toss it in the proverbial lake. Turn it off. Use it when I need it and then put it away.
I will protect my peace. I will build my moats.
Finally, I’m asking the questions I should have years ago.
Who has access to me? Who am I available to? Am I ever unreachable?
I’d rather be unavailable than uninspired.
To be unreachable is to be unshakeable.
There is power in privacy. I will protect my peace.
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I just wrote a huge response then realised that will only make me part of your daily clutter! So I’ve culled it to simply say that I am thrilled to see you learning to use electronic media as a tool and to not let it control you. I know that life is very different these days (I’m in my 60s) but developing ways to manage the massive amounts of information (and misinformation) available is critical. The regrowth of your creativity shows you’re doing well. Sending heaps of hugs and best wishes.
This line hits
"Staring at my phone, I was available to anyone who wasn’t with me and only partially present to those in front of me."
Thanks for sharing your vulnerable words always