Home >Opinion >Columns >A single week’s phone detox and a whole life reclaimed

My phone hit the ground and it took five missed heartbeats to realize the sight of it smashed. Despair and anxiety kicked in, and then the realization that a flight 3 hours away meant no chance of getting it repaired. My thoughts ranged from re-scheduling the flight to cancelling the holiday. And, “It is only a phone… but is it?"

After a week without one, or 171 hours to be precise, I now know that the first 50 hours were crucial: I learnt how to breathe again. It was an accidental detox, the hardest of them all, from the greatest of all modern addictions, the cellphone.

On the plane, I thought if I could do this for 4 days, I would’ve achieved something. “But what’s the big deal?" I asked myself. “What’s the big deal about being without a phone mumbling aloud?" my better half smiled and reminded me that I had never been without my phone for more than ten minutes in the past ten years. In my previous assignment as collector, Ranchi, I had three numbers on two phones that seemed to ring incessantly. My daughter at a precocious four months could recognize its ringtone and probably thought her father was born with an attachment. She somehow concluded that the surest way to grab his attention was to have the phone in her hand.

To be fair, in 2017 I had attended a course where I learnt to reduce my phone usage. But like any addict, in three years, I had relapsed to a far worse state. On the other hand, my wife has an iPhone four generations old—yes, such people exist, to Apple Inc’s chagrin, who refuse to upgrade till the phone dies. The family joke is that my wife’s phone is answered in time defined by hours.

In my first two phoneless days, I had to redesign my expectations. I had to explain to hotel staff that I didn’t use QR codes and wanted a real menu, until word spread of a Luddite and I was served accordingly. Asking for a clock in the room felt like demanding beluga caviar. Staff responses included, “We don’t want our guests to be stressed, so we don’t put clocks." This boggled me. Isn’t time the one constant in a world filled with ever-expanding subjectivity? Since when did a hotel-room clock scare people? The resort couldn’t offer a clock that worked. Instead, I got a diabolical time-keeper that required a phone to function. A concierge told me to“google it". I reminded him impolitely that his job description predates Google.

The local police escort initially thought my phonelessness was either a joke or I was trying to be too high and mighty to share my number. Even the boatman wanted me to call when we wanted to be picked up from the middle of a lake. Talk about being life being anchored to a gizmo.

No camera meant, for once, I wasn’t trying to capture photos, but ‘living the moment’. As a result, I have clear memories to savour. But a holiday is one thing, the true test would be life in the real world.

I work in the government where, contrary to popular perceptions, you need to be available 24/7. Work-life balance is maintained only to the extent that when at work, one tends to worry about life, and when away, one seems to be perpetually available for work. Returning from a vacation allows instant recognition of one’s dispensability while on leave, with a quick reversal of the notion once a big stack of files lands in urgent need of signatures. Otherwise, being back at work meant hearing of missed messages, frantic calls that didn’t reach me, and the hard time my personal assistant had explaining that his boss was without a phone, was not bluffing, and was still sane. In office, I truly realized the virtue of being phoneless. My work got done faster, and only when it was truly pressing did someone the effort to reach me on a landline. I now had the luxury of communicating at my discretion. In all this, I was able to help get an India-EU Economic Virtual Dialogue done.

In fairness, I was never incommunicado. Just that access to my time was severely restricted. My wife was the séance through which I was available on messaging apps, and her phone my PCO (remember those?). For absolute emergencies, I could be traced. When someone went missing and help was needed, the dots got connected and I was contacted at the hotel.

I also found that people lend their phones very easily, which is foolhardy, one would presume, in a world of dodgy dealings. As I switched on my messaging apps, I realized I had missed nothing significant: three dinner invitations and four would-be drop-in visits by acquaintances. Importantly, my work never really suffered. Rather, as I was more relaxed, I found time to enjoy conversations.

Would I do this detox again? Absolutely! One weekend every month is going to be phoneless, and so shall one week annually.

Just as I was writing this, on my way to a Sunday lunch, my phone buzzed with someone asking for my ETA and I realized that the call could not have helped me get there any quicker. There was no nmake eed for anxiety created. Being constantly available adds little value to your own life. Instead, it takes much away from it. Try it for a week. For a few days, you will have to ‘speak, eat, sleep, repeat’, The upside is that you will pine for a phoneless existence once you get back to that addiction in your pocket.

Rai Mahimapat Ray is an Indian Administrative Service officer serving as deputy secretary in the department of economic affairs, ministry of finance

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