I moved to Washington DC in the pre-smartphone era. In my first weeks and months in a brand new city without a single familiar soul, I spent most evenings and weekends exploring. If I heard or read about an interesting exhibit or restaurant or activity, I would hop on the metro, get off in the designated area, and rely on some combination of blind luck and the kindness of strangers to arrive at my destination. I looked up movies in the newspaper, researched churches in the phone book, and invested days getting lost - and found - in different neighborhoods in the city just to get the feel of them.
I was too low on the totem pole to be busy with work in the evenings and on weekends, and I didn't know enough people to have anything resembling a social schedule, so I thought nothing of leaving my flip phone in my apartment and being utterly out of touch for hours - even days. Whether riding the metro, sitting in a park, or losing an afternoon with a book in the cozy corner of a coffee shop, I looked...and listened...and engaged with the world around me.
Eventually, I gained more responsibility at work, created a community of friends, and became involved in activities and organizations. Alongside these natural transitions, technology advanced, and it became possible to be constantly connected to these people and things. At first it was curious and fun to be able to send a message to anyone at any time - and then it became an expectation. I took pride in being quick to respond to emails from colleagues, family, and friends. I found affirmation in being first to contribute a fact or opinion in a virtual work exchange. I became addicted to the thrill of seeing an empty inbox and adept at the rapid response that made it possible. It all came about so organically, I never stopped to think about the cost of being constantly connected.
While waiting for my dining companions at a restaurant recently, I found myself scrolling mindlessly through emails I needed to answer, confirming appointments for the week ahead, and skimming headlines. As I looked up from my phone to scan the room for a sign of my friends, my eyes stopped to rest on tables full of people similarly focused on their technology. Some were sitting alone; others were with friends, colleagues, or family; but not one of us was remotely engaged with our surroundings or fellow human beings.
My own email responses weren't time-sensitive, there was no immediacy to confirming appointments, and there was nothing remotely urgent in the so-called "breaking news" updates. I asked myself when I started reaching reflexively for my phone the moment I was not actively engaged in a conversation or activity. When did I decide scrolling through Facebook was a better use of time than perusing the room for a familiar or interesting face?
I decided in that moment to embrace being out of touch. I am giving myself permission not to respond immediately to every email. I am choosing to leave my phone in my purse - or at home - when walking from place to place. I am working to reclaim and re-purpose the margin in my life. Rather than packing empty spaces with "productivity," I am filling them with presence.
As you look ahead to a new year, can you find opportunities to be out of touch and focus instead on simply "being"?