Over the past 10 years, a certain kind of vacation picture has become popular in my family. No, not the glorious beach sunset or the ski-lift shot (though we have a few of each) -- it's the photo of me in some fantastic place, huddled obsessively over my phone. Fondue restaurant in Switzerland! On my phone. New Year's in Mexico! On my phone. Rocky beach in Iceland! Sorry, be there in a sec, just sending this text....
It got so bad my daughter made a collage of her catching me in the act:
"Love the sneaky one inside your bag...I've been busted doing this," wrote @bkgurl after I posted this on Instagram.
You get the picture. Unplugging is not my strong suit. So when The Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington asked me if I wanted to join her and MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski in a weeklong "holidays unplugged" challenge, it seemed both like the worst idea in the world (seven days? With no digital anything?) and the best. Four years ago, Arianna and I collaborated in a "sleep challenge" that actually did help change my sleep-deprived ways. And at the very least, a digital detox would make my kids and husband happy as we headed into two weeks of family-first time.
So I did it. For the week of December 23-29, Arianna, Mika, and I swore off social media, email, and other digital distractions (see ya, Words With Friends). I did make one exception: Because my detox happened to coincide with a week the Glamour print staff was closing an issue, I would check in via email for 10 minutes three times over the course of the week. But after that, I went back to unplugging. Which was harder than it looked -- for the first few days I had phantom-phone syndrome, the constant urge during any spare second of time to reach for my small, rectangular best friend. Car trips felt longer; even elevator rides seemed endless. (Plus, did that sunset actually happen if I didn't get to Instagram it?) But I persevered. Four things I discovered:
• When you're not on your phone, you instantly notice: Everyone else is. Like, literally everyone. Young, old, indoors, outdoors -- from couples at restaurants to large groups at bars to a grandma in the pew in front of us at midnight mass on Christmas Eve (I kid you not). Almost every single person you see has their eyes and fingers glued to a device. Once I wasn't, it turned out that there was a great new Spanish restaurant in my neighborhood -- or new to me, anyway, since I'd never raised my head to see it before. Oh, and another thing you notice when you put the phone away: Mealtime conversations get richer and deeper. Studies have actually shown that having a device on the table between people -- even if you never touch it -- keeps the talk at a shallow level. Scary, no?
• A little digital detox can help you stay zen in annoying situations. When my plane to the Caribbean was rerouted by a storm, I had to resist my initial impulse to reach for Twitter to see what I could discover. Instead I read a book and waited. We got there eventually, and I bet my blood pressure was lower than it would have been if I'd spent the time scrolling for info and venting. (Then again, my husband went on Twitter, tweeted the airline... and ended up getting offered a free ticket. So, y'know, mixed bag.)
• Some technology helps you; some technology helps other people. The actress Elizabeth Banks recently told me that when the phone used to ring at her grandparents' house at dinner, her grandmother would refuse to answer it, saying instead, "That phone is for my convenience, not the callers'." I love that, and I found myself thinking of it often during that week. I said yes only to technology that made life more convenient for me: the GPS on my phone, the ability to read books on my iPad by the pool. I found that distinction a helpful one. But remember: Airplane mode is your friend. When I was on my tablet to read a novel, I turned off my connection to spare myself the temptation of maybe-if-I-just-check-email-for-one-sec-it'll-be-OK (email is my gateway drug).
• Speaking of drugs, we're all a little too addicted to those "likes" and "hearts." There's not a Facebook user or Instagrammer alive who can tell you she doesn't care at all how many people like her picture or how many regrams she gets. Leaving social media behind for a few days is an instant vacation from other people's opinions, good and bad. And I highly recommend it.
• Finally, going device-free gives you a leg to stand on if you want to tell anyone else to put her freaking phone away. My husband is a texting machine; my daughter worships at the temple of Instagram (yeah, yeah, I know, apple doesn't fall far, etc.). This week, I could actually tell them to put their phones away with some shred of moral authority. And to my complete surprise, it worked. We returned from vacation slightly less informed but slightly more blissed out.
Back in the real world, I'm not kidding myself that I'm going to be going device-free anytime soon. For one thing, I don't want to be -- I love being able to scroll the news on Twitter while I commute; to Insta-gawk at my friends' vacations; to shop Net-a-Porter as I walk to the gym in the morning (what, you don't have any vices?). Glamour itself is a better, richer brand for having moved, years ago now, from the world of print to a much more interesting multimedia universe; the fact that you might be reading this on your phone while waiting in line at Starbucks is a good thing and means that you and I know each other, where we otherwise might not.
But if you're reading it at a traffic light that's just turned red, or at dinner while everyone rolls their eyes at you -- well, I've been you, and let's try together to do just a little bit better. I'm vowing to stay off email for most of my evenings, to keep my phone in my bag, not my hand, more often this year, and to vacation -- truly -- at least three times in 2014. Anyone with me?