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Sleepwalking Through Life in a Digital Haze

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
14 min read
Sleepwalking Through Life in a Digital Haze
Photo by Aziz Acharki / Unsplash

Before I headed for the door, my attention zeroed in on my iPhone like a heat seeking missile. It called out to me. Pick me up. Don’t leave me behind. Take me with you.

A few weeks earlier, I’d made a commitment to reduce my screen time, and I knew the drill. Temptation and retreat. I left the goddamn screen behind.

Steve + 1, iPhone 0.

I could hear my footsteps bouncing off the hallway and smell the oil paint seeping through the doors of the artist studios on my floor. Waiting in the elevator bank—blank white walls and a laminated sign that read In Case of Fire, Use Stairs—I could feel the angst and impatience grow within me. If only I had my phone to pass this time. This is the slowest elevator in the city. I should have just taken the stairs. What the fuck. Never again. Finally the elevator arrived. Ding!

I moved through the lobby, still wishing I’d brought my phone. But when I opened the door I was hit by a burst of light and gentle warm current of spring air. My eyes squinted while I got my bearings—nothing to look at but the world.

I walked leisurely down Broadway; tourists, businessmen, and strollers whizzed by me like express trains. I took in the sights and sounds—idle engines humming, impatient drivers honking, the facades of pre-war buildings with angular geometric patterns, street vendors hawking faux Louis Vuitton fanny packs, and a pair of intimidatingly beautiful women in fluorescent bike shorts. Without my phone in hand and Airpods plugged into my skull, the cityscape revealed itself in high definition—an endless stream of stimuli and details that I’d failed to notice, it seemed, the thousand times I’d walked those blocks before.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman, early 30s, on her phone—sleepwalking into oncoming traffic. In an instant, before she stepped onto the crosswalk, the whole city came into hyper focus and slowed down. Without thinking, without even realizing what I was doing, I lunged forward, grabbed her leather purse string, and yanked it back with all my force. Her body lunged backwards towards me and she swung around before firmly planting both feet on the sidewalk. Thankfully, she was safe and unscathed.

What if I’d brought my iPhone with me that afternoon? What if I was zoning out to The Tim Ferriss Show? What if my head was buried in my device like hers had been?

My Wake Up Call

Over the course of a few weeks this spring, I missed my subway stop, walked into a stranger coming out of an elevator, and didn’t hear something important my wife was sharing with me—all because I was glued to my phone. Like the woman crossing the street that afternoon, I’d been sleepwalking through life for the better part of the year—trapped in a digital haze.

I knew something had to give. I care deeply about elevating consciousness in myself and others, spending quality time with those I love, and advocating for mindfulness. I didn’t want to be just another inauthentic hypocrite who doesn’t practice what I preach. It was time to wake up from this fog.

So I got very curious about my device usage. How much time do I actually spend on my phone? When and why do I reach for it? What apps suck up the most time? How does it make me feel? How does it help me? How does it hold me back?

Like a zoologist studying a lion in the savanna, I invested two weeks scanning  my environment and looking deep within myself to identify how I actually behave in the wild and the impact of my actions. Here’s what I learned:

I take my phone with me everywhere. It’s the first thing I check in the morning and before I go to bed. It accompanies me in the bathroom (yes, gross I know). I can’t even spend an hour with my daughter, the love of my life, without reaching for my phone or sneaking a glance at my messages. I binge on content—newsletters, tweets, videos, articles—when I’m mindlessly hoovering down meals. I listen to podcasts and dharma talks when I’m traversing the city, cooking, or cleaning up around the house. I reach for my phone anytime I know I have to wait, even for the 15 seconds it takes for the barista to pour a cold brew, fill it with half and half, and hand it to me.

On an average day, I typically spend at least three hours or ~20% of my waking life on my phone. I get stressed if the battery gets lower than 50%—it’s always plugged in. If the device is in my vicinity, which I can sense, it calls out, pick me up and check me. If I’m watching TV or a movie, my phone is with me. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to ask my wife to explain what’s going on or can we rewind. If I’m reading a book, my phone is by my side just in case I need to take a picture of a passage or make a note or look up a random stat on Wikipedia like the score of a Patriots game from 2007.

Hi, my name is Steve, and I’m a functional phone addict.

The evidence is incriminating, and there’s no hiding from the truth—my existence pretty much revolves around using my phone. Even if my usage doesn’t meet the clinical definition of addiction, it certainly feels like abuse. And I’m someone who meditates 45 minutes most days and is committed to living a life of mindfulness.

Fuck, I’m human!

But rather than berating myself over my often tumultuous and co-dependent relationship with my phone, I became curious and compassionate. What really drove me to reach for my devices? What payoff was I getting? After all, I often say to my coaching clients that every behavior, whether perceived to be good or bad, has a positive intention.

Through this lens, I discovered that I use my phone to escape my boredom, thoughts, and emotions. I have an inner part, the achiever, that hates wasting time and loves to maximize every minute and learn something new every chance I have. It also occurred to me that I was being drawn to my device because I was lonely—I was craving social engagement via iMessage, Twitter, and Signal. Finally, there seemed to be another reason, which surprised me: I was being drawn to my device to quell the existential angst I’m feeling as I reluctantly crash into midlife. Woah.

The more I tuned in, the more it reminded me of my addiction to marijuna and adderall. From a young age, my brain seemed to be programmed to seek substances. I would feel uneasy when there wasn’t any around. I was a highly functional, skillful abuser—it was easy to hide. My daily dosage was just enough to create a haze but never enough to show a real weakness or interfere with my career or relationships. Most activities and social interactions revolved around using substances. But eventually, getting high became the first thing I’d think about each morning even when I told myself the night before that I was done. I was on autopilot. I was sleepwalking.

As I observed my behavior and mental states, it occurred to me that my phone addiction isn’t that different from my substance addiction, except it’s socially acceptable.

Obsession With Our Phones

I’m not alone. More than a billion people are glued to their phones for hours every single day. This includes not just adults and teens, but everyone—even my 75-year old mom is hooked on Facebook and Bejeweled!

These devices and apps are lauded as our saviors by the technorati and generally accepted as good and necessary by our culture. Despite the good they can do, this technology is thoughtfully designed to be habit-forming. Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, nailed it: “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

We have our phones with us all the time. When we wake up. When we’re exercising. When we’re eating. When we’re in meetings. When we’re spending time with our families. When we’re bored on the couch. When we're out with friends. When we're in nature. When we’re going to the bathroom. When we’re masturbating. When we’re in the car. When we’re falling asleep. All. The. Time.

The stats prove this and are staggering. The average American, like me, spends nearly three hours a day on their mobile device and unlocks it more than 150 times per day. We also click, tap, or swipe our phones 2,617 times a day. We love our phones so much, in fact, that 74% of us feel uneasy leaving our phone at home. There’s even a term for the psychological condition when people experience the fear of being detached from mobile phone connectivity—it’s called nomophobia. And 66% of the population show signs of this!

The majority of us are addicted, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, and for good reason. Every time we pick up our phone, we either get a hit of dopamine or inhibit the cortisol coursing through our veins, unconsciously pulling us closer toward dependency. We’re classically conditioned just like Pavlov’s dog. We salivate every time we get a notification, hear our phone buzz, or notice the light out of the corner of our eye. They either make us feel great and provide a jot of euphoria or deliver some momentary relief from the chaos and monotony of life—digital crack or mental novocaine. It feels so good and effortless that it’s fucking hard to see the cost—unless we’re willing to look within ourselves, observe our behavior and the impact, and then cut the leash.

Small Shifts, Big Leaps

To mitigate the costs and effects of my device dependency—low quality attention and presence, anxiety, scattered focus, dented relationships, and more—I was finally ready and willing to shift and make a change. But before I rushed into impulsive action, which my coach affectionately calls blow and go, I took a step back and asked myself some important questions.

What do I want to get out of this? What qualities do I want to cultivate? What practices—like a digital sabbath or social media ban—might actually help and stick? What products, if any, would be useful?

Rather than check myself into a full-blown digital detox, observe a dopamine fast, or purchase a timed lock box, I made two simple and powerful changes that felt friendly and feasible—install and consistently use Opal, an app that blocks distracting apps (disclaimer: I’m a tiny investor), and practice a day of mindfulness just once a week. Just these two practices made a huge difference and I felt a real impact within a week.

Opal is like Screen Time on steroids. When I want to focus and remove distractions, I fire up the app, set an intention and a duration to unplug. From there, the app disconnects a myriad of distracting apps, rendering them useless. If I need to use my phone for any reason, such as an emergency, I can set an intention and pause the session for a set period of time. I use Opal during deep work sessions, when I arrive home at night and want to be present with my family, and on the weekends for long stretches of time. I have even gotten into the habit of activating Opal and putting my phone in another room. It’s worked.

Earlier this year after the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh passed away, I re-read The Miracle of Mindfulness, an approachable and practical guide to meditation and mindfulness. I love everything about this book, especially its brevity, simplicity, and potency. The third chapter is titled, “A Day of Mindfulness,” in which he describes the practice of dedicating a full day to mindfulness:

“Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness. That’s easy to say, but to carry it out in practice is not. That’s why I suggest to those who come to the meditation sessions that each person should try hard to reserve one day out of the week to devote entirely to their practice of mindfulness.”

So that’s what I’ve been aiming for every Saturday over the past month. It’s really fucking hard and a lot easier said than done, but I set the intention, slowly move about the world, and gently remind myself to recenter when I either lose presence or catch myself in the act of a patterned behavior like reaching for my phone.  As part of my day of mindfulness, I’ll put my phone away in a drawer or in my room upstairs, and retrieve it only when there’s a specific need. Exceptions have included looking up a recipe while I’m cooking or calling my mom on FaceTime. I’m taking “out of sight, out of mind” to a whole new level, and it actually works for me.

In just four short weeks, my screen time has dropped by more than an hour each day, saving at least 365 hours a year! Those results obviously speak for themselves, but I was surprised to experience numerous incalculable and unexpected gifts once I consciously put down my phone and committed to a different relationship with it.

Unexpected Gifts

Here’s what I experienced in those four weeks:

  1. Notice new details everywhere. I began to see the world in high definition everywhere I went, including on the streets of New York, in my apartment and upstate, immersed in nature. New details and realizations appeared—wilting basil on my windowsill, serif fonts on flyers stapled to lamp posts, a new freckle on my daughter's arm, ferns unfurling and reaching for the sun, and so much more. It’s incredible how much we’re able to see when we wake up.
  2. Attention that wasn’t fragmented. I can focus on projects and tasks for longer periods of time without multitasking and frequent, unnecessary interruptions. Instead of starting and stopping every ten minutes, which was my default state for months, I discovered that my best ideas and work comes when I don’t divide my attention for sustained periods of time. I also discovered that I retain more information with deep focus and work. As a result, I have been far more productive and increased my output while enjoying the process more.
  3. Quality time with my family and friends. I’ve found that by putting my phone away, I’ve been far more available to the people who matter most to me. I’m also able to see more of them, and to take more of them in. Just this past weekend, I went out to lunch with my family and I left my device at home, savoring my time with them. I wasn’t rushed or rushing. I wasn’t reaching for my phone to take photos, look up random facts, or to mindlessly pass time when I was feeling bored. I was fully present with them in the experience, anticipating their needs, asking them questions out of genuine interest, and feeling the appreciation and joy I had for them in the moment. It was magical and special to be with people without my device, like a miracle that I could create every day.
  4. Less reactivity and more intentionality. Rather than being swept by whatever my Twitter feed or The New York Times served me, I was able to be hyper intentional and conscious about what I consumed and how I spent my time. I began to follow my own agenda and feel into my wants and desires rather than being influenced by the algorithms or random tweets I was fed.
  5. Finer tuning of the senses. I could hear and appreciate the hum of rush hour traffic and the helicopters hovering over me.  I took in the smells of the city, including the pleasant (the Nuts 4 Nuts vendors) and the not so nice (rotting garbage). I could also feel the sun on my skin as I briskly walked through Soho on a perfect afternoon. I could actually taste my food, and notice how quickly I would eat when the device was in front of me, losing one of life’s great pleasures to my hungry little robot. I got to experience the return of those senses, like being reborn.
  6. Cultivate deliberate spontaneity. I began to listen, feel and respond to what I really wanted in each moment so I could be deliberate and spontaneous. A few weeks ago, I was relaxing on the couch and reading a book but I could sense that my brain wasn’t working and I wasn’t fully immersed in this experience. Rather than pick up my phone, I decided to put down my Kindle and begin to feel into what I really wanted in that moment. I let myself be distracted as a form of discovery. When I sat with it for a minute, my desire came into focus—I wanted to finish the Saturn V Lego set that I had been working on. And if my phone had been next to me, I would have been swept away into a digital vortex.
  7. Listen to myself. When my head isn’t buried in my phone, I can actually hear the content of my thoughts—ideas, judgements, beliefs, realizations—and sense my emotional state from what my body communicates. I can problem solve and ideate in my head on the fly with more ease and grace. From this place, I can really know myself, my tendencies and patterns, my values, and so much more. In other words, not being tethered to my phone helps more of the unconscious become conscious.
  8. Calmness in the morning. I no longer sleep with my phone next to me or check it as soon as I get up. There’s plenty of research that suggests this interrupts our natural brain states. Instead, I start my day with a quick affirmation and visualization exercise while still in bed, slowly move into my meditation and wrap with stretching. Furthermore, I often won’t check my calendar, email, news, and social media until I’m either eating breakfast or about to leave my apartment. This routine decreases stress and rumination and leads to a focus, clarity, and ease I didn’t know was possible.
  9. Notice urges to pick up devices. I now can sense when I have deep urges to pick up or take out my phone. I’ve begun to notice a magnetizing, energetic effect when I’m feeling restless and bored in my apartment, walking down the street en route to a meeting, or wanting to know if my wife has replied to my unimportant text. I’ve even felt it writing this essay. There are even times when I literally catch my arm reaching into my pocket. That’s how magnetizing it can be! In all of those moments, and more, I’ve cultivated enough awareness and agency to make a conscious decision to engage or not.
  10. Meaningful encounters. I began to notice, acknowledge, and even talk with my neighbors. Just last week, I met Damien, a digital artist from the UK, who occupies the office across the hall. I was initially enamored by his disheveled t-shirt that simply said Internet. I learned that he has been creating generative art since 2009—way before it was cool. And this week, I had a lively exchange with Sierra, a sassy barista with fiery red hair, at my local coffee shop. As she turned to pour my cold brew, I noticed “210” inked on her tricep and got curious about the origins of her tatt. She explained that 210 is the area code in San Antonio, her hometown, so it’s an homage to her roots. ​​The phone makes us forget that the people around us (especially New Yorkers!) are endlessly interesting, and we can get so much out of these small interactions.

A Call to Wake Up

When I embarked on this journey, I couldn’t have predicted all the amazing things that happened when I finally made a commitment to put my phone down. In just four weeks, with some awareness, intention and commitment, something profound shifted inside of me. I literally feel like a different person—alive, aware, energetic, connected, and present—all of which are renewable resources I can tap into. And guess what? These are also available to you should you choose to explore this path and experience them for yourself.

It wouldn't be realistic, thoughtful, or sane to suggest everyone ditch their devices and embrace Luddism. Let's face it—smartphones are woven into the fabric of society and our lives—billions of people rely upon them to make money, learn, communicate, create, advocate, and entertain. The benefits are virtually endless—expression, connection, liberation, knowledge, and convenience—so our deep love for them makes sense to me.

But today I’m asking you to consider a different relationship with your device. Maybe we can see that our desire is driven by the empirical and emotional benefits phones provide, not for the phones themselves. Maybe we can see how to find those benefits in the physical world when we slow down, every day. In just reducing my phone use by an hour each day, I realized that I'm able to experience just as much creativity, learning, liberation, and connection without my phone as I can with it. I bet you’ll recognize the same if you’re brave enough to give it a try.

Essentially, the more connected we become to our phones, the less connected we become to the things and people around us. And the less we connect with ourselves! We fall asleep and then are stuck sleepwalking in a digital haze—completely unaware of the miracles unfolding right in front of us moment to moment and day after day.

The cost we’re incurring isn’t missing out on something but the experience of our full aliveness. As Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “It comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Perhaps you’ll feel differently. But changing my relationship to my phone has revealed a strong belief deep within in my head, heart, and soul: if we’re not fully alive, we might as well be dead.

2022Addictiontechnologymindfulness

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.

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