7 things I learnt living without a cell phone

7 things I learnt living without a cell phone


I never had a smartphone.

Not out of some sort of stubborn eccentricism, I just never needed one. Working on the computer all day, I didn’t need another opportunity to check my emails.

Unfortunately, my good old dumb phone wouldn’t work on South American networks so I had to make a choice before I left Europe:
a) get a smartphone that will work on any network and use its camera to take photos,
b) get a dumb phone that will work in South America, and get a camera separately.

Much as I dreaded the idea of becoming one of those people who keep checking their phone all the time, I chose option a) to save myself the hassle of buying and carrying a separate camera.

I had this smart phone for slightly more than two months, which wasn’t enough to customize my background, download skype, viber or any other app for that matter. In two months, I never used any of the functions a dumb phone doesn’t have. Except for the camera, which turned out to be worse than I expected – unsuitable for the purpose.


I was in Quito, taking the bus to meet a local media agency to negotiate a potential partnership. I had my laptop in my hands. The crowd was so huge that I fantasized about being a sardine in a tin. People would try to get on before others finished getting off. There was a big, fat man in particular that just kept pushing me as if his life depended on getting on that bus.

His life didn’t, but his living did as it turns out. He nicked my cell phone.

It was in my front pocket and he still managed to take it out without me noticing. Sure, I was focusing on keeping my laptop in one piece, but still, how he managed to pull that off is beyond me…

I’d bought this phone only two months ago so I had every reason to be upset. And yet I wasn’t.


It took me two weeks to get a new phone, which, of course, is not a smartphone. Going without a phone for two weeks was an incredibly educational experience.

Meeting people had been a challenge when I did have a phone as in my experience most Ecuadorians have a different concept of time… I decided that I’d wait no more than 15 minutes and was expecting to be stranded most of the time.

I had close to a dozen meetings in these two weeks, many with people I’d never met before. To my utmost surprise, all my scheduled meetings actually happened. Almost all my partners were late, but never more than 15 minutes.

So here is what I learnt living without a cell phone for two weeks:

  1. I thought mobile phones made appointments easier, while the opposite is true. Without a way to let the other person know that “I’m running a little late”, people are much more likely to be on time.
  2. “I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make it because bla bla bla…” Ever got this message 5 minutes before the appointment? Without a cell phone this never happens. People just don’t have the cheeks to leave you stranded. Canceling in the last minute is made possible by cell phones only.
  3. Not having a phone allowed me to give my undivided attention to the person I was with. This had a huge impact on the quality of time I spent with them.
  4. Not having a phone made me realize how irrespectful and ignorant it is to fiddle with your phone in company. Taking an urgent call may be excused if kept short. But checking and writing sms and email is equivalent to saying: “Dude you’re so boring if it wasn’t for my phone I’d fall asleep” and “I’m sorry but I have the self-control of a five year old, I just have to check this NOW.”.
  5. I didn’t miss anything. The people who needed to reach me found a way. I don’t need to be available all the time.
  6. Having a cell phone, especially a smartphone, takes time. A few minutes here playing angry birds and a  few minutes there checking the weather, news, social media or email add up to several hours a week. And it’s not just time that would be wasted otherwise. It’s time you could spend with your family or friends (face to face).
  7. I used to worry about losing my expensive smartphone. So I’d often check my pocket to see if it was still there. Now it wasn’t. Every time I acknowledged that, I felt a sense of freedom and relief: one thing less to worry about.

I was seriously considering not getting a new phone as it clearly wasn’t something I couldn’t live without. On the contrary, not having one improved my life in many ways. The reason I still got one is very mundane. I can’t complete some transactions I absolutely have to without receiving a code from my bank to my cell. I’ve had this new dumb phone for a few days now and the people I’ve met have been half an our late on average…

I invite you to conduct your own experiment. Hide your phone for a week and see what happens. Or just try to go to meetings without your phone. The goal is not to get rid of your phone for ever, but to see what you learn from not having one for a while. I’d be curious to find out how it goes for you.

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3 Comments 7 things I learnt living without a cell phone

  1. Aamir says:

    wow great article…really awesome..most of the things i have already observed. I also dont need a cellphone.

  2. Kevin says:

    Your seven reasons for doing without a cellphone are the clearest and most convincing I’ve ever read. But then again, I’ve always managed without one. The only reason I have one – which usually lives in my sock drawer, and remains unused for months on end, so long that the automatic time and date are eventually reset to a default 9 a.m. on 1 January 2000 – is that more and more essential things are becoming impossible to do without providing a cellphone number (my bank doesn’t yet insist on sending me a code, but I’m just waiting for it to start – at which point I’ll look around for an alternative bank). I travel a lot by train and need to phone hotels where I’ve already booked a room in case I’m delayed en route – otherwise they’ll cancel the booking and give the room to someone else (time was when a booking was a booking, and you could rely on it). In the old days I’d have looked for an ordinary phone booth while changing trains at a station – but, again on the assumption that everyone has a cellphone, you can no longer find a phone booth at all. It’s a circular argument – not everyone wants a cellphone, but you’re forced to have one because alternatives are increasingly unavailable. I’m still also waiting for Google to start insisting on cellphone identity verification on my e-mail account. I sometimes make up a fake cellphone number just to be sure the box is filled and whatever I’m submitting doesn’t get rejected on that score alone…. I have the impression – paradoxical though it may seem to some – that cellphones are making my world SMALLER, by denying me access to more and more of it. Deaf people must have felt much the same when the telephone became widespread, as more and more jobs were assumed to depend on its use, and hence were no longer open to people who couldn’t hear.

    • zsolt says:

      Kevin, thanks for posting a thoughtful comment. I agree with you in that we are forced to have a mobile phone, and increasingly a smart one of those. I should post an update to this one as I have had a smartphone for a while now. I need it for work. Luckily, I didn’t succumb to checking facebook and email on it all the time. I pretty much use it as a dumb phone, except for creating a wifi hotspot and then hooking my laptop to it so I can work online… So I guess no tool is good or bad by itself. It depends what you make of it or what you let it make of you :)