Berlin-based single-working parent, Clara Hahn, tells us how quitting her smartphone for a voicephone changed her life.
On August 10th, 2021, I decided to break up with my smartphone. And no, I don’t live in the woods, exiled from the modern world, where this decision might not make much difference. Instead, I live in the centre of Berlin, where I lead a coaching agency of over 30 people. I am co-founder of a Tech startup (with the founders of meetup.com) in the US. Furthermore, I am a single mother. This is to say that the benefits of a smartphone make sense for someone like me, and up until August 2021 they did. I would have kept on scrolling if it had been up to me.
When I put my daughter to sleep that day, my back was turned towards her, and I was secretly scrolling through Instagram. Then the voice of my 3-year-old daughter pierced through the darkness:
“Mama, you constantly stare at your phone!”
Her voice had no accusation; it was nothing but a neutral observation. The shame an adult can feel in front of a child is extraordinary. That night I realized I was behaving like an addict. Just doing a digital detox was not enough. So, I opted for withdrawal.
First, I deleted Instagram, the main dopamine kick on my phone. The next step was buying an old Nokia phone and switching my SIM card between the two phones. Then, a few months later, I discovered Punkt. — a Swiss design-led consumer technology company that makes products which aim to simplify life.
In the beginning, I tried a few hours a day without my smartphone outside of the house, but when I got home, I would quickly turn it on again. After two weeks, this back and forth became a hassle, and I just kept the SIM card in my voicephone and handed my iPhone over to a colleague to be on the safe side. Planning my life without a smartphone felt like preparing for my funeral. How do you tell people that you will not exist — digitally — anymore?
Until then, the first thing I did in the morning was to grab my phone to start the day: What’s the weather like? What’s happening politically? Who liked my recent Instagram post? So, how could I orient myself in the world without smartphone?
Navigating without smartphone
I don’t own a car, so I use a car-sharing service when I want to take trips to the lakes surrounding Berlin. I choose a tablet to use the service because, unlike a smartphone, it is too big to be used all day in the street.
Giving up Google Maps means using another tool: my memory. We all suffer from digital amnesia from time to time and struggle to remember even the most elementary routes, names or number sequences. Before I drive somewhere, I look up the way, and maybe write down some street names. If I get lost, I ask somebody in the street to tell me the way; this requires a degree of caution because people who use smartphones usually walk looking down at the icon to guide them and, therefore, lack a sense of direction.
Communication without smartphone
In the beginning, I only had a handful of names in my address book, which was a relief but sobering at the same time. Until then, a few thousand people followed me online, reacting to my thoughts and experiences. However, reading the first text message from a good friend on my “dumbphone” touched me more profoundly than all the hearts under any post:
“I love having you in my life ❤️”.
I could read the message without swiping somewhere else and take it in.
Dates, planning and convenience
I now use a daily planner for appointments, an analogue A5 format calendar. Of course, I still get invited to events via Google Calendar, but I transfer these to my diary. At the start of the day, I open it and see what awaits me; this allows me to take a moment and prepare myself mentally for the day ahead.
Of course, there are also moments where, despite careful planning, only some things run smoothly. For instance, I had visitors from the US who I wanted to go to a nightclub with, and the Covid test point required an email to get the test result. I tried logging into my account with my friend’s phone and realized I could not access my Google account from somebody else’s phone. On the way home in the taxi, I had to smile when I realized that not being able to enter a club is an acceptable inconvenience for me (and next time I could give my friend’s email address).
What I miss most is a good quality camera in my pocket. At some point, I tried an analogue camera but found it inconvenient to lug around with me. Most moments I want to capture are unpredictable moments. Nevertheless, aren’t these the moments you live through without trying to hold on to them? Plus, most of those photos end up in an infinite cloud.
What is different without a smartphone?
Mobile internet — what a practical place to dwell in, right? Who needs their own intelligence when you can access the world’s database? There is always an answer tailored to your needs; sentences get finished for you, and you can buy what you didn’t even know you wanted.
But isn’t that precisely the magic of some moments and encounters? The unknown, the absence of a quick answer or fix?
During my first week without a smartphone, I noticed many changes in my life, how I would reflect on the day and remember snippets of conversations. I remembered how certain moments of the day felt and continued to reflect on them. I also learned to tarry with boredom and aimless moments.
Sometimes I am tempted to get a smartphone again: when my partner smiles into his smartphone, and I sit next to him empty-handed, when I need to write an urgent email in the metro or want to jump into a vehicle, or when I am late. Alternatively, when I feel empty or overwhelmed and want to sedate myself with the curated opinions of others.
Like most of us, I sit for more than seven hours daily in front of a laptop. And this is why moments without a screen became so precious to me: I touch my phone at most 20 minutes a day (unless I have a long phone call).
Neither full-time devotion nor outright dismissal of the smartphone are feasible solutions to the problem I have outlined here. A year without a smartphone helped me to see it as a tool. I might get a smartphone again for my desk drawer and for the times I choose to work with it. Otherwise, it will be in its place. And why wouldn’t it? I wouldn’t take my toaster for a walk after eating breakfast, after all.
Clara is a Punkt. community member and her report was featured in Zeit Magazine.
Clara Hahn lives in Berlin with her 4-year-old daughter. She founded Fired Up Space, a platform for career change during the first corona lockdown. With a group of 30 coaches, she offers free coaching for people who are registered job seekers in Germany. Her mission is to destigmatize professional crises and contribute to a society where people are not only identified by what they do but by who they are. Clara was also part of the founding team of Checkin, a startup from the makers of meetup. Remote working taught her the importance of analogue moments in our fast-moving world.