Seven years ago this fall, I made the decision to pare down my electronics, notifications, and the role of technology in my life—to reclaim the free moments that had been consumed by buzzing and idle browsing. Hence, The Off Switch, this blog I kept for five years, but which had gone dormant two year back, largely because I didn’t have anything new to explore or report. Until now.
In the intervening years, I had mostly stuck to the fundamental tenets of my discipline: computer only at work, work email only during work hours and none at all on my phone, no social media in the first hour of the day (had slipped into social media before bed), and my iPhone largely for text, GPS, and perfunctory utilities—although I’d increasingly added in web searches and a little Twitter. It mostly worked for me, but I’ll admit to a slow creep of social media onto my phone and “just quickly” looking things up. Not ideal, but workable. I even managed to get my phone, wallet, and keys into one unit (I jokingly referred to as “The Singularity”. But still I knew a change would have to come to rein it back in.
Then a couple of months back, the technology advancement I’d been anticipating came to pass: Apple announced a version of their Apple Watch that had cellular service—meaning that should I want to, I could ditch my phone altogether and just have the watch for texts, brief calls, and GPS. The trade-off would be buzzing, flickering technology strapped to my body. Is that what I really wanted or needed? Would that be better and in support of my goals?
As it turns out, some online research revealed that the Apple Watch LTE is more dependent on the iPhone that is at first apparent. What’s more, this particular model requires ongoing pairing with a newer iPhone than I had – more modern than I wanted or needed. Whereas I had a small iPhone 5 with a $30/month plan from PureTalk, this Apple Watch has to pair with the iPhone 6, SE, or better. That meant getting back on a major carrier, and shuffling phones. All for a phone I would just leave at home. But as I learned, the watch relies on the phone for configuration, services, and its power for some things—even basic things.
After some deliberation, I decided it was worth it. While not having a phone I don’t really utilize in my pocket all day long was a big motivating factor, the bigger driver ended up being the realization that I needed to be in regular touch with my wife, co-workers, and the school nurse to manage our kid’s type one diabetes. This means I was pulling my phone out every 10-15 minutes at minimum, then inevitably checking one other thing. Additionally, I was doing a lot on my iPhone like managing my calendar, tweeting, and more… just because I could. Even though I don’t use my smartphone for Facebook, even though I have less than 5 third-party apps installed (most of those not internet-dependent) I had been increasingly using my partially neutered iPhone just because I could.
For those loophole types like me, I’ll report this: no, you cannot use someone else’s iPhone with your SIM card and iCloud info temporarily to activate your Apple Watch. It seemingly works, but then when you swap it all back, the phone and connectivity stops working immediately. Save yourself the trouble.
So, I decided to go for it. I ended up borrowing a tech-forward friends “old” iPhone and got it all set up with very little trouble. After several years off AT&T, I got back on a family plan with my wife for maybe $10 more a month than my off-brand plan—even with the Apple Watch’s required $10 plan. As before, I deleted Mail off the iPhone, which in turn didn’t install that app on the watch. Messages, phone, music, maps, calendar, weather, and the other basics work as advertised and the watchOS specific apps like Activity, Breathe, and new-to-me Wallet are Apple Pay are nice touches that do simplify and… dare I say… improve my day.
So a handful of days in, I am surprised to report that not only have I been able to gleefully leave my iPhone at home all day long, the Apple Watch is far superior than the phone in so many ways. Although I think most would consider it an extension to the phone, I see it as an apt replacement—doing the most critical things an iPhone does, but better. Here’s what I mean:
- Text messages are available at a glance in any situation without having to pull my phone out—an awkward distraction in social settings.
- I miss far less calendar reminders and text messages.
- Less compulsion to start text conversations out of boredom.
- I’m finally using Siri for little things – which is easy and, on the watch, often a necessity.
- Checking the time, something I’d used my phone for the most often, is easy as… looking at a watch. Imagine that! And as an added bonus, the Photos face serves up a different photo from my favorites album, so I am repeatedly delighted by a memory or face I love.
- The Activity and Breathe apps already have me standing, walking, and breathing more ‘mindfully’ which is very good.
Are there down-sides? Always. So far, they are the buzzing on my wrist (which I am slowly configuring to a manageable minimum), the relative self-consciousness of having a screen on my wrist, talking into a watch for short calls, and initially just the fussing with it. But those will likely all fade. I’m more concerned about doing rougher things like camping, spontaneous messy things, and the watch making me more of a target for petty thieves… but these are all concerns with an iPhone as well. Also, there’s no camera so if I am without my iPad, I just have to take a mental picture.
But already haven taken a trip, attended a conference, and used the Apple Watch for work and off-time for everything from quick payments at the register to boarding passes, I can confidently say that a little screen on my wrist is appreciably more human feeling than cradling a medium screen in my hand. Glancing at the time or a message with the flick of the wrist gets me back to the real world and that, really, is the whole point for me.
So what’s next? While I’ve long-ago disabled these on my phone, I’m going to try to recommit myself to less social media, less email checking, and just less iPad at home altogether. The truth is, when I am with my wife and kid, there’s really nobody I need to be in touch with anyhow. And that’s what matters to me most: being present and just me. Disconnected. But so connected.