The Daily Practice:
ONE HOUR A DAY WITH PHONE OFF
Underneath The Common Rule habit of turning your phone off for 2 hours a day is one of the deepest aims of The Common Rule itself – presence. That is, to build a life of presence in a culture of absence.
Presence makes us human. It makes us human because we were made to give and receive presence. Our story, and the story of the world, is fundamentally about a God who gives his presence to his creatures. In Eden, we were born into the presence of God, but in our rebellion we left God’s presence. In his walk east of Eden, Cain laments, “I will be hidden from your presence. I will be a restless wanderer.” This restless absence is the echo of sin through history. Thus Augustine could write that “our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.”
So the story of God’s people is about the restoration of presence. God comes in the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the wrestler in the night, the tabernacle, the temple, the incarnation, and the Holy Spirit. Our great promise is that because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, at the end of all things there will be a loud voice that says “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.”
History bends around the presence of God, and so each of our lives bends as well.
As image bearers of God, one of our greatest gifts to give is our own presence. What is a friend, a lover, a parent or a brother except someone who has promised to be there for you, that is to be with you. Love is not enough – as every love story will tell us – we must be with the one we love.
All this is to say that to seek the presence of God, and then to turn and give our presence to our neighbor – this fundamental to a life of love. It means we must learn to embrace habits of presence, and resist habits of absence.
The basic claim of The Common Rule is that only in the limitations of love do we find our freedom. We live in an age where the limitless life is worshiped, and much of the world is either consciously or unconsciously trying to proselytize us into a life without limits.
When it comes to the habits of presence, the lie is that we can be like God – we can be omnipresent. Of course, it is that desire to be like God and have no limits that brought absence into the world. Most often it is our desire to be present in many places at once that makes us never present at all. It is our over-desire for unlimited presence that leads us to our life of absence.
The Common Rule daily habit of turning off your phone for two hours a day is a habit of resistance against the idea of limitless presence.
Habits of presence run much, much deeper than having limits your phone, but having limits on your phone is on is a serious matter if indeed it means allowing you return to the presence of God and others. For most of us, our ability to be present will be very closely tied to disciplines regarding our smartphone, because in our hands and pockets sits a connection to almost anyone, almost anywhere, at almost any time. We think that we can be with all those people in all those places at all of those times. But we can’t. And in our effort to be everywhere we always end up nowhere.
For me it’s the constant sense that someone somewhere wants or needs my attention. It may be the cheap thrill of someone liking something I posted. Sometimes it’s the bizarre imagination that the email that just dinged is the one, it has the good news that’s gonna change things – as if I had forgotten that I bought a lottery ticket. Whatever it starts as, it grows into a constant itch. The general unease leaves me dissatisfied with the person or work I’m actually in the room with, and it sours into an impatience to fish out my phone and throw my thumbs into it until I find the satisfaction, or sometimes the numbness, I’m looking for. This is absence. It must be resisted.
In order to stop the cycle I must cut down my options. For me, a general desire to check my phone less won’t do. I have desired it many times and nothing changes. The abstract must be made concrete – I need a time away from it.
I most often choose the hours of 6-8PM to turn my phone off because those are the times the act of resistance becomes an act of embrace – during those hours I can give my presence to my wife and kids.
This is no small matter in the daily routine. It shifts the gears from the day of work to the evening with family. It creates the space to play, I mean really, actually engage small children which takes serious mental energy and imagination. When I don’t do this the end result is always the same – I am in the same room with them half hearing the pleas – “Play with meeee…”. I shudder at the thought of how many times they have looked up to find my gaze and instead seen me mindlessly absorbed in a screen.
I also try to pick the same hours every day because it creates an expected rhythm – for me and them. I might leave the house early that morning and have to work after they go to bed, but we can all generally expect that those two hours will be spent eating and playing together.
The specifics come down to this: I put my phone on do not disturb and leave it in the key tray when I get home. I don’t pick it up again until the kids are down. This is the small act that colors the entire evening a new shade.
The reality of my job (undoubtedly like many of yours) is that to do it faithfully sometimes I have to pay attention to work around the clock. (However, note that for almost all of us this is really only sometimes. Most days are not emergency days, and we have to know the difference.) On those ‘sometimes’ days when the whole reason I’m able to leave the office at all is because I can be reached by phone, I might check my phone every 15 minutes – but with some practice this habit has become manageable. I am really only looking for whether ‘that’ client called or whether ‘that’ person emailed about ‘that’ project. Anything else can and must wait for later.
(This is where the wise use of settings can really help. You might put someone on your ‘favorites list’ so only their calls or email notifications will come through, or briefly change your notifications so that all emails from a certain account show up on your lock screen – notice this assumes you don’t have that happening all the time).
While my off hours are focused towards my children, there are many other potential versions of this.
Your off hours may be geared towards the art of being still. Maybe you want to devote an hour each evening to uninterrupted reading. Maybe to practicing the art of silence. Perhaps you pick the later evening when you and your spouse or roommate want to create space for conversation. It could just be the simple beauty of chatting while doing chores together. I could even imagine doing it during the morning work day when your attention needs to be focused on deep thinking or a team meeting.
Whatever it is, we are paying attention to our attention, for in our attention is our presence. So the end the goal is always the same, to create a groove in the day where the practice of presence can run, so we become people who are accustomed to being present with God and others.
In this act, we become the children who look up. And we find the unbroken gaze of God, looking back on us in love. He is present with us.
THE COMMON RULE
Note: While having off hours seem to be the keystone habit of recapturing presence from my phone, there are many others that my wife and I have developed over time that we find useful in order to steward all the gifts a smartphone brings while still resisting being mastered by it. Here are a few:
Turning off almost all notifications: Spending the 30 minutes to get into your settings and fine tune your notifications seems tedious until you realize it’s fighting for your life back. I love text chains with my family and friends, but if I didn’t keep them on do not disturb I’d never focus on anything, ever.
Deleting apps I only really want to use once a week or month: If I really need to use it it’ll be worth the 60 seconds it takes to re-download it. For apps I want to keep but don’t want temping me every minute, I’ll move them off my home screen so I have to go find them if I need them.
Use Voice Controls to Open Programs: Think of this as the difference between having to go all the way to the back of the store when all you came for was a gallon of milk, and having someone bring a gallon out to your car. Way less chance you’re going to get distracted or sold on something you don’t need. When I tell Siri to open an app, I can do the one thing on my phone I came to do without getting distracted by everything else on the way there. There are countless times I open my phone for a good reason, and five minutes later I’m not sure what it was or how I got to reading what I’m reading.
Announcing What You’re Doing: If we are doing something with our kids and we need a phone, my wife and I try to tell our kids why we’re pulling out the phone and either let them participate or step outside the room. Saying it out loud makes me evaluate whether it’s really important, and letting them see or stepping out is intended to prevent the constant scenario where they look up for my gaze to find that it is never on them, but instead on a screen.