“What are you writing about this month?” my husband asked me a while back.
“Releasing a death grip on your iPhone after office hours,” I replied.
I thought it was a bad sign that he burst into laughter. “What do you know about letting go of your phone?”
I harrumphed. “At least I can empathize with those who have trouble letting go,” I grumbled.
During my clerkship, the federal government forbade clerks from receiving office emails on smartphones. (Something about national security.)
When I showed up at my law firm, I knew that expectations would be different, and I was excited to demonstrate that I was ready to be of assistance when needed. For the most part, this is a good thing. As lawyers, we operate in a deadline-driven environment. Clients appreciate getting a quick answer to a question; I like staying on top of things as they happen. That said, there are definitely times to put down the phone.
One night, after my husband handcrafted pasta and yelled “dinner’s ready,” I responded, “one moment,” as I hovered over the table finishing up an email. When I looked up into his dark glare, I realized the response should have been, “oh my gosh, that looks fantastic,” and that I needed to get my act together.
I reasoned that my ability to change hinged upon identifying my motivation: What was driving my compulsion to stay plugged in at all times? If I could address the “why,” I could perhaps find ways to modify my behavior.
After ruminating, I realized my compulsion for constant contact stems from a deep-seated fear that something is about to go terribly wrong. At any moment an email could be circulated revealing a terrible development or uncovering a hideous error in a case. Tracking events in real time meant I was assured that these pending disasters had not occurred.
Upon completing my self-evaluation, I realized that assuaging irrational insecurities is not a good reason to stay connected at all times. Even good reasons for staying connected — like providing excellent client service and staying linked to my colleagues — permit time off for dinner or a dog walk.
I needed a plan to save me from myself. I have since created rules that enable me to pose as a normal human being after work hours.
1. No phone during dinner: Now, I leave the phone in another room when it’s time for dinner. This way I will not be tempted to even check when I hear the buzz of an incoming message nor will I be tempted to hurry through dinner to check said message. Just placing the phone out of sight prevents me from twitching when I hear the buzz.
2. No phone during dog walks: This rule actually stems from the fact that it’s hard to hold a dog leash and check your email at the same time. I have a broken iPhone that can attest to my difficulties accomplishing both tasks simultaneously. My husband and I try to walk the dog each evening and our conversation improves when my phone is not a third party.
3. Turn off the buzzing noise at bedtime: I admit to being one of those Americans who sleeps with the phone beside my bed. The phone’s presence, however, has more to do with the fact that my cell phone moonlights as my alarm clock than it does with feeding my obsessions. By turning off the buzzing noise at bedtime, I can ensure a peaceful sleep without wondering if the buzzes necessitate immediate action.
These are my daily rules. Of course, I also follow all the rules that any good and decent person would take to heart: no texting in the movies, no phone at the symphony or the hospital, no phone in court, etc. etc. And, when a case is really cooking (and I know that I do need to be available in the evenings) I jettison the rules out the window.
It’s hard putting the phone down, but important to do so if I’m going to return to work refreshed and ready to go the next morning. When all else fails, I remember the words of my mother who had no trouble ignoring a ringing phone during dinner, family game night, or any other time she simply didn’t want to leave her family to answer the phone: “I’m not a doctor,” she would say, “no one is going to die if I don’t answer the phone.”
Isn’t that a relief?
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com.