We all have things we procrastinate about, though doing them will ultimately be good: doctor’s appointments, saving money, a work project outside our comfort zone. For me, it was a challenge from my editors at the Globe: Spend a weekend without a smartphone and write about it. They seemed pleased with themselves.
I’ve always been irked by how accessible we’re expected to be in the age of smartphones, so I expected to relish a weekend without one. But when I imagined a few days without the gadget that has rarely left my side since adolescence — no texting, no GPS, no weather app, no Google — I realized how uncomfortable it would be.
I kept putting the story on the back burner, knowing the conveniences I’d be giving up. I had even bailed on it once, after starting it a different weekend, because it seemed impossible. Then my editors set a deadline — procrastination was no longer an option (if I wanted to get paid, that is).
I could see why they chose me for this experiment: At 23, I fall squarely into a generation that’s grown up absorbed in digital technology. Among Americans 18 to 29 years old, 96 percent own a smartphone, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey; roughly half in that age group say they are online “almost constantly.” This addiction is the reason some Gen Zers are ditching smartphones in favor of “dumb phones” like the flip phones of the early 2000s.
So after clocking out from work on a Friday, I turned my phone off and set out to experience the world disconnected.
First up, karaoke with co-workers on Friday night. The biggest challenges I faced were having to look up directions before leaving the house (not too hard) and trying to avoid making awkward eye contact with random people at the bar (very hard). Despite not having access to Spotify to help me pick a good song, I had a great time.
On Saturday morning, I instinctively reached for my phone on my nightstand to review the previous night’s texts, maybe watch a few YouTube videos. Since those weren’t options, I found my thoughts drifting to deep questions such as: What led treehouses to become a staple of suburban architecture? and How do bugs stick to walls, anyway?
Eventually, I rolled out of bed to get ready for my other weekend plan — going to The Big E in Springfield with my roommates. One of them has a car, so I didn’t have to worry about transportation or navigation. The other dozed off in the back seat almost the entire way there. The two of us who remained awake kept our eyes on the scenes passing by — my roommate because she was driving, and me because I had no phone to distract me. There’s something about looking out a car window that encourages introspection and leads to the type of wide-ranging conversation that only seems to happen on a road trip.
At the fair, everywhere I turned something was stimulating my senses. Normally, I would turn to my phone to escape and be in my own little world for a bit; instead I was forced to take it all in — and I’m grateful that I did. My roommates and I bonded over poutine and butterbeer, taking photos in Wild West costumes, and the smell of 15 different kinds of barn animal poop.
On Sunday, I decided to see where the day would take me. I started by making tea and cracking open a book on the back porch of my apartment. Without the constant buzz of phone notifications, I noticed the little things: steam coming off my tea, minute movements of trees in the backyard, the way the Boston sky can get so gray it’s basically white.
I realized I had an opportunity to tap into a hobby I’d been neglecting. I dusted off my digital camera and set out on a photo walk through a park I’ve passed countless times but never explored.
I came across a mural that my girlfriend would love. I wanted to text her a photo; on this day, I took a picture on my camera to show her later that I was thinking of her. I walked deeper into the park until I happened to pass the T stop where she and I first met. I reminisced about laying eyes on her through a reflection in a window, and the tender smile she flashed.
After about an hour of walking, I realized I was close to my girlfriend’s house and decided to surprise her. I had no idea how I’d let her know I was there — she lives on the third floor, there’s no doorbell, and the only door to knock on is on the ground level. I thought about throwing a rock against her window, like in an ‘80s movie, but it was too high and tucked away.
I decided to sit in a tiny park across the street and sketch her house in my notebook, so I didn’t look too creepy staring at the building. Eventually, I saw a delivery driver drop off food outside her building. Someone had to come out now. One minute passed, then five, then 10. Right as I was about to leave, my girlfriend’s roommate opened the door. Thank God for Uber Eats.
I found my girlfriend in bed, a bit under the weather, but when she saw me, she flashed that same smile from the T stop. I told her my plan to end the weekend in front of the original screen that captivated us: We decided to go to the movies. Once we settled into our seats, guess who didn’t have to turn their phone off?
On Monday, I reflected. The age of smartphones is one of endless consumption. After living without one for a weekend, I realize that maybe we’re trying to fill a void that opened when we lost our ability to wholeheartedly pay attention to the world around us — to appreciate our relationships, pursue what we enjoy, and observe the world around us.
When I finally turned my phone back on, I was bombarded by missed calls and texts, mostly from relatives back home in New Orleans. It was a reminder that smartphones are also a tool for connection — to loved ones far away, to knowledge, to opportunity — not just distraction.
Finding balance is tricky, especially because it’s rare that we drop everything and give ourselves the space to just think. When we do, it’s food for thought in an age of impulse.