I’m contemplating getting a smartphone, but I’m concerned about being connected all the time. How do you balance the efficiency of a handheld device with having a life outside of it?


The more technology I utilize, the more I realize that it is truly both a blessing and a burden. As with any product that makes things faster and easier, becoming dependent on a smartphone is an easy thing to do.

Our microwave broke recently, and I remember thinking “Oh, great. Now how am I supposed to make popcorn?” As if no one ever ate popcorn until the microwave came along. As if I couldn’t drive 6 miles to get another one. As if that big, box-like item in the kitchen didn’t have four burners upon which to cook food and I was forced to resort to a fire pit.

I also recall the time I was grocery shopping with my six year old and attempted to call my husband with a pantry inventory question, only to realize I had forgotten my phone at home. I was irritated, but my daughter was incredulous. “Now what are you going to do?!” she asked. When I explained that there were no cell phones when I was her age and that people had to make bread and milk decisions on the spot all by themselves, I may as well have been describing the Pony Express. “Wow,” she observed. “That must have made things really complicated. People probably had to make a lot of extra trips to the store.”

Less efficient? Sure. More complicated? Not so sure. Being immediately and constantly connected is certainly efficient, but it can also really complicate your life. Your boss needs an answer, and needs it now. Your wife is out of onions, and people are showing up at 6 pm. Your mother can’t get the new lamp to work, and she did make your favorite soup, after all. Your brother needs help with his rent…by 5 pm, or he’ll be evicted.

When people know they can reach you on the spot, they typically will. Forget being out of the office or out of town; those are no longer reasonable excuses for keeping someone waiting when they know they have immediate access to you.

As with anything involving work-life balance, it’s up to you to keep it in check. Before you get that smartphone, set boundaries for how you plan to use it. I don’t turn mine on before 8:00 am and I turn it off at 6:00 pm. Ten hours of constant connectedness is plenty, thank you very much.

I also put it away when I’m writing, talking to my kids, exercising or watching a movie. When your smartphone is always by your side, it obliterates the downtime we all need to recharge.

It also inhibits your ability to be in the present moment and really enjoy a conversation with a friend or focus on that project. Think about your last committee or staff meeting, where everyone around the table was present in body but was constantly scanning their handhelds. Being over-connected in a wireless world ironically disconnects us from what’s happening at the table we call our lives.

The wife of a colleague of mine is infuriated by his smartphone obsession and insists he turn it off when he enters the house each night since “he’s been on that thing all day.” And he does. He has quality family time all evening and then waits for everyone to fall asleep so he can turn it back on and check messages before he goes to bed.

Why? Well, did I mention he’s in the financial services industry? When I told him to get a grip, he said “Jen, one missed message and I could be out of a job.” Good point, but if you’re staying constantly connected because you’re afraid of missed information or opportunities, you’re not fully living any moment of your life.

Now, with my perspective on why and how smartphones can be over-utilized, comes my confession. On my way to a two-day business meeting in New York, my wireless company pronounced my phone dead. Hard resets be damned, because this thing was toast. So there I sat in my meeting, while everyone around the table was scrolling happily away on their devices. I had to actually be fully present in the discussion, and truly listen to the speakers who showed up to educate me. And all the while, my connected colleagues surrounded me, mocking me with their ability to multitask. It was official; I had smartphone Envy.

But when people spoke, they saw that I was listening. When solutions were crafted, I was a full, contributing instrument in their development. Because my smartphone broke, more important issues were fixed.

Upon my return, I went to my local wireless store to get a new device, and the salesman and I discussed this very issue. “Once you’re that connected, it’s very hard to go back,” he said, and told me about how due to less work in this economy he needed to give up his smartphone and return to a regular cell phone. “Now I’m actually going to have to wait until I go home to check my email” he lamented, “and I’m dreading it.”

I felt his pain, believe me. But sometimes you really do have to shut down your device and boot up your life. A smartphone is a tool for efficient living…nothing more. It’s great to be able to delete junk email while you’re waiting in the doctor’s office, or update your calendar while on the train to work.

But a smartphone doesn’t manage your life or dictate its pace; you do.