Here’s What Happened When… I Went iPhone-Free For a Weekend

It all started when I realized I was feeling compelled to look at my phone. Not cued to, by some Pavlovian ding signaling me to check for texts or reminders, but physically drawn to looking at my phone.

Open Instagram. Check comments. Close.
Open Facebook. Scroll through Home Feed for 10 seconds. Close.
Open Twitter. Check follower count.
Check email.
Check shopping list.
Take photo. Delete photo. Take new photo.

On and on, all day, without reason or warning, I would find myself pulling my phone from my bag or pocket and mindlessly drifting out of the present to dwell on something happening someplace else to someone else.

I needed an intervention. I needed a tech detox. I challenged myself to do the unheard of: not turn on my iPhone for an entire weekend. 

I chose a weekend without travel or plans taking me too far from home, a weekend when my husband was out of town and my schedule was quite open. If I was going to break this habit, I needed space and time for distraction and outdoorsy-ness, and I aimed to make that as simple as possible. Friday night through Sunday night, no phone. I could do this. Right?

I let my family and closest, most-often texted friends know what I intended to do, so that no one would worry, and gave them the name and number of a neighbor to call just in case anything urgent happened.

I set a screen-off time of 7 p.m. Friday, then powered down. I tucked the phone into a drawer so I wouldn’t be tempted to check it. I looked at the dog. He looked at me. I guess now we walk? We always walk. I always bring my phone. Not this time.

As we hiked–truly, the only word to describe dog walking in any part of even the most urban places in San Francisco–the urge to reach for my pocket surfaced every couple of minutes. (Was I hearing phantom dings?!) I consciously, and sometimes audibly, reminded myself of what I intended to do, and decided to pay more attention to what was unfolding around me: the dog so happy to be out for an adventure, the fanny-pack clad tourists climbing the stairs, the color of the sky heading into dusk. I live in a beautiful place. There are fascinating people here. I love that dog. Oh, hey, awareness. Good to see you. It turned out to be one of the best walks in recent memory, which I would have missed had I been constantly refreshing my Instagram.

First thing the next morning–thankfully, I awoke at my usual time, sans iPhone alarm (really? I have no back-up plan for an alarm?), I headed off to class, about 1.5 miles away. I usually run there to a high-energy, get-you-up-the-hill playlist. This morning, no music, which, like my alarm, lives comfortably in my iPhone.

I heard my breathing more clearly as I ran, noticed when it regulated (at that sweet spot about five minutes in) and felt more like I was running in nature. There was no distraction of the rectangle tucked into my bra, the soundtrack in my ears and the occasional ding of the early morning texts from family on the opposite coast.

It was a good run. Different. Tougher. But good. Maybe I don’t need the phone for this portion of my morning as much as I thought?

In the minutes leading up to class (usually prime phone-checking time), I found myself a little lost for things to do. Read chalkboard. Look at merchandise. Oh, hang on, there are a whole bunch of people here I can speak to. Never a shy person, just sometimes distracted by that really important work e-mail I have to deal with right now, I locked eyes with another student a few feet away and launched into a conversation (obviously, about ClassPass).

Turns out, we go to many of the same studios, like many of the same kinds of classes and live nearby. Maybe we’ll meet for a run or drinks sometime? I had to ask her to text me her info and told her I’d be in touch after the following evening, when I was off my phone sabbatical. Strike one against being phone-free: Having that device handy right then would have saved some awkwardness, but all things told, it was fine. I knew that text would be waiting when I checked tomorrow.

Later that day, I ventured out with the dog to check out the farmers’ market, something we love to do on the weekends when my husband travels. It’s prime people-watching territory and prime photo-taking terrain: gorgeous views of the piers and bridges, palm-tree lined thoroughfares, and the seemingly endless bay. When we got out to the water – after a podcast-free walk (how would I know what happened in the news without NPR? I wondered) but a new appreciation for the traffic patterns of the human species – I had to choke back a sad little realization that I couldn’t take pictures today. Was it even worth being there?

Whoa. Gross, I thought to myself. Am I coming here to take pictures just to be able to show them off? That was a super informative moment (and earlier into my experiment than I would have expected!). I made a mental note to myself: Your life is lived right now. It’s valid right now, exactly as it is and as it happens. Not because someone later looks at a captured moment and decides that moment was likable.

I shook that off and continued on the adventure to the market. I was going to get every single sensory thing from this, the sounds, the sights, the smells, even if I couldn’t capture it and share it with everyone I know later. It was a wonderfully present, educational trip. I learned about mushrooms, and I didn’t have to Google a single thing.

That evening, I had plans to meet a girlfriend for dinner and drinks across town. I knew the neighborhood and cross-streets I was headed to, but not exactly how to get there. I packed a book in my bag, walked to the corner and waited for the bus. You’d be so proud: I went the whole time without checking an app incessantly to see when the next one would come. Lo and behold, without checking, a bus did eventually show up. Perhaps all that checking, checking, checking isn’t productive at all? I definitely read more pages in my book, sans iPhone disruption. I read on the bus, too, a far more calming transit activity than trying to organize e-mail or calendar events.

When I got off the bus, I didn’t know which direction to go, so I asked a couple standing nearby. Just like that! Just asked them. And they told me. And they recommended the sweet potato fries. Ah yes, the value add of a real human!

I found my way there, no maps app required, and spent a lovely evening out with a great friend, not worrying about taking photos or Instagramming our time or worrying that I was missing texts. I probably was missing texts, but at some point, it dawned on me that it was probably okay. There probably wasn’t anything urgent unfolding (and if there was, my neighbor would let me know when I got home). It was so beautiful to get to just focus on being exactly where I was, not fretting about what was happening someplace else.

When it came time to head home, I automatically reached into my bag for my phone to call an Uber. Oops. I guess that wouldn’t be an option tonight. I felt truly vintage fabulous as I stepped off the curb to hail a cab. How old school, I thought, having not hailed a cab since my induction into the Cult of the Uber Obsessed 18 months prior. Instead of burying myself in my phone for the trip, I rolled down the window and took in this part of town I didn’t know well and appreciated its twinkly streets. There is something to be said for paying attention to what’s going on around you.

The next day–Sunday–was my last nearly full day without a phone. I decided to go full-force low-tech and drove out to the beach with the dog. I printed a set of directions from the computer (willing myself not to look at Facebook or email while I was on there – I figured I should keep up this behavior on any device if I could help it) and packed it in my bag with a guide book to the hiking trails of the Bay Area a friend had loaned me weeks earlier. If I needed to look something up, I’d be using this well-loved paperback, not the Google machine.

I managed to get us to the coast without Siri’s guidance, only getting turned around and kind of frustrated once. I even discovered a new station on the radio. Again, how vintage. Maybe I would revisit that on my next drive instead of going back to the same playlists I always listened to. Navigation! Problem-solving! Newness! Intrigue! Being without a phone was affording me so much growth, I laughed to myself as I unloaded the dog and headed off down the cliffs for a photo-free, music-free, text-free outdoor adventure.

Turns out, the ocean is even more beautiful when you’re actually looking at it. Turns out, too, that without constantly looking at the time or for an iMessage update from someone, the minutes take on an entirely different quality. We were on that beach for four hours; it felt like not more than a few seconds. I was more aware of the subtle qualities of the space around me: the birds, the water, the other hundreds of dogs, and more willing to engage with the other humans in that same space. Turns out, they’re also really intriguing, more intriguing than Facebook, when you take half a second to find out. I left the beach feeling alive and like I had really experienced a cool part of the city. It wouldn’t have been the same without the phone.

Using my newfound direction-finding skills, I got us home without getting lost, picked up groceries (without using an electronic shopping list or grocery-delivery app) and wrote three letters to friends, something I do regularly, but this time, I chose friends I tend only to email. It felt connected, it felt real. I was happier to drop those in the mailbox than I usually felt when I hit “send.”

What had this weekend become? I did a little body scan to see if I noticed anything different in my person.

I felt solid but light. (Perhaps because I hadn’t been looking at my phone during meals. Did I actually manage to stop eating when I was full all weekend?!) I felt clear in my head, like I knew where I was and was appreciating what was unfolding around me. My hands, usually a bit twingy, especially around my super texting tendons, didn’t hurt. Had they had a real break? Was I maybe reducing my risk of developing talon-like claws from my constant phone-holding?

More than anything, I felt calm. Things didn’t feel urgent. I wasn’t being constantly reminded by push notifications or dinged or pinged or flashed at. Everything had assumed a quietness that felt manageable. I didn’t feel behind or under-accomplished in my day, something I usually felt while the emails piled up or the excitement of others’ Facebook posts filled my subconscious with doubts about how I was spending my time. What’s that about?, I asked aloud as the realization surfaced. I felt totally content with my weekend because I’d been in it. I’d paid attention to all its little moments. I wasn’t doing anything with the intention of snapping a photo of it to share while it was still happening.

It had just… been. And I was so happy.

When 7 p.m. rolled around, I somewhat begrudgingly took the phone from its hiding spot and powered it on. I texted my husband to let him know I was still alive and back on the little black box. Then I turned off the ringer, set it on the counter and went back outside with the dog. I wanted another of those beautifully present dusk walks. Sans phone.

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.