I’m writing this at the tail end of long-planned vacation to Chile. When we first arrived two weeks ago I had planned on buying a cheap prepaid data plan immediately, since my US carrier still has outrageous international roaming rates. Unfortunately, we took a long time to get out of the airport and I had a commitment that first evening, so I didn’t get the chance.
My evening event was only a few blocks from our downtown rental, so I walked there using an offline map. It was a little exciting stepping out onto the streets of a new city without the safety blanket of a constant connection – ten years of near-instant answers to any logistical question is a hard habit to break. But I of course made it to my appointment and back without trouble.
My wife and I were also able to successfully navigate the next day’s tourist activities and grocery purchase without buying a plan. At this point, I decided to just roll with it and see how long it would take to really miss my internet connection, which ended up being about 8 days. This wasn’t a total internet fast – we still had and used our home wifi connection in the morning and evening.
There were a few times when I really missed being online – on one occasion my wife and ran separate errands without clearly fixing the next meeting point/time, and a bit of synchronous communcation would have gone a long way towards sorting that out! But overall, I found that a few minutes of planning in the morning before heading out was enough to cover my logistical needs, even in a new city.
On the other hand, there were two big benefits to my week without a connection. First, I felt way more present while on outings with my 2-year-old son. Toddlers demand a lot of time, and I frequently find myself “multitasking” while I’ve got Oliver out playing in a park or going for a walk by checking my email or reading Hacker News. With those options gone, I found myself naturally observing and interacting with him more frequently. That’s got to be a good thing. The second benefit was less expected, and harder to explain. I found myself markedly more relaxed and willing to just sit with my thoughts for extended periods without getting bored or impatient. On several occasions I found myself just sitting in a park or idly browsing a flea market for an hour or more without feeling any pressure to get on to the next thing or pull out my (disconnected) phone to do something productive.
Being on vacation was of course a big confounding variable in this makeshift experiment – in day to day life I usually don’t have hours-long chunks to simply be alone with my thoughts anyway. But after I did finally buy a local data plan a week ago, I found my phone habits reverted to normal pretty quickly, so I’m inclined to attribute these benefits more to my disconnected state than the change in routine.
I haven’t decided how, if at all, to translate this experiment into a concrete change in my life when I get back home. I’m not ready to swear off a phone entirely – the benefits still outweigh the cost for me. But I have no doubt that being more thoughtful in how and when I access news sites, email, and other variable-reward services will improve my quality of life1.
I eliminated games and social media some time ago, since for me personally the payoff isn’t worth the addiction. My current troubles come from services that are definitely useful in moderation, but still pull towards over-engagement when left unchecked. ↩