How this physician curbs his smartphone addiction

I am a frequent traveler and spend a lot of time in a number of different cities. The one I’ve currently been spending the most time in is a place, quite frankly, I’m crazy about: New York City! Anyone who writes a lot is usually also by default, a keen observer of people, and there’s no place better to do this than a busy, crowded city.

There’s an interesting habit that I’ve noticed most people have developed in the age of smartphones. You may have noticed it too. Having these devices in our pockets often means that we are physically incapable of just standing still without reaching for them! It’s quickly become our default when we have even the slightest moment of time to ourselves. Next time you are in any public place — it could be waiting at a traffic light or on an elevator, watch what happens the second people realize they are left standing still — they inevitably grab their phone immediately to start staring, strolling and clicking.

I’m not anti-technology by any means, and think that the positives of this new digital age outweigh the negatives, but I do find the above phenomenon quite funny to watch. I’m all for smartphones as a boredom-buster when you have a long wait somewhere, and of course, we need our smartphones to do so many everyday tasks — but do we really have to grab for them at every free 10-second interval? Is anything that important that it can’t wait for you to sit down or stand somewhere for a dedicated “time out” to batch all your tasks together?

If you are in health care, you can probably watch this in your hospital elevator tomorrow. Have we completely lost the human art of stopping, staring, and just taking a few deep breaths? Whatever happened to just being able to stand still for a few seconds in quiet thinking mode? Or heaven forbid we talk to the people in the elevator around us!

So let me stop right there and confess, I was becoming just as guilty as the next person of this behavior and suddenly realized how crazy it was! So I decided a couple months ago that I’d make a change. Here’s what I did:

1. The traffic light. When I’m waiting to cross the street in a busy city and it’s likely to be a 15 to 30-second wait, I no longer get out my phone. I make it a point to take a few deep breaths, look around, and notice something about the people around me or one new thing about the beautiful architecture I’m usually surrounded by.

2. The elevator ride. I will not get my phone out for an elevator ride which only takes a few seconds! If other people are with me, I’ll often briefly converse with them. OK, not everyone wants to talk in an elevator (and sometimes I don’t either), but I find two times when people always do are: (i) at work and (ii) in a vacation spot (I would say elderly people have the most sense in this regards, and always love a chat about the weather or anything else!).

3. The restaurant. I’m sure I’m not the only one to cringe when I’m out and see whole families at dinner tables glued to their smart devices instead of engaging in healthy conversations. I go one step further and refuse to get out my phone for the whole dinner, unless there’s a compelling reason — such as wanting to take a picture or retrieving some information that is a part of the conversation. If I’m with a friend, family member, or on a date, and the other person leaves to go to the bathroom, I have stopped getting out my phone to quickly catch up on news, emails or anything else silly for those few minutes they step away. Nothing is that important. I’d rather continue savoring my food, the ambience, and be fully present.

Since I adopted these three disciplines several weeks ago, I’d say my life has become just a little bit better. I could go on, about longer periods of time where I just switch off my phone or put it in another room — but the above three just detach me from a bit of the craziness and “constant connectivity” of smartphone addictedness that is becoming so widespread. So maybe if I ever bump into anyone reading this article at a traffic light or on an elevator, you’ll see me looking straight up and engaging with the world around me.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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