How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Give Up the Cell Phone

A few weeks ago, I declared June 26 "Signal Free Saturday," an opportunity to put down our cell phones, laptops, PDAs, and iPads and look our loved ones directly in the eye for the first time in weeks, months, or years. I was excited for the excuse to give my wife my full attention, rather than the usual 50 percent. I was excited to play with my kids without wondering if something more interesting was in my email. Work be damned, I was going to be free!

Only it turns out that giving up the phone is more complicated than that - or at least that's how it felt to me. Here's how it went:

6:00 a.m.
June 26 was the day of our third Crop Mob at Riverbend Organic Farm in Delano, MN -- a chance for city folks to get out on the farm, stake thousands of tomatoes, and take a farm tour. As the coordinator of the event, I was obligated (you can tell where this is going already, can't you?) to check my e-mail in the morning to make sure everything was going well. Sure enough, a new volunteer had contacted me overnight and asked where to meet. Another volunteer was going to need a ride. Thank goodness I checked my e-mail and made things right!

7:00 a.m.
I couldn't make it to Riverbend on Saturday, as it turned out, because I needed to work in our booth at the Mill City Farmers Market. As the coordinator of this effort for Simple Good and Tasty, I needed to check my phone to make sure that The Birchwood Cafe treats would be ready and that my business partners would be on time. We needed duct tape and clamps and a table covering. Luckily, I had my phone -- and the market went off without a hitch!

The author celebrating "Signal Free Saturday"The author celebrating "Signal Free Saturday"9:00 a.m.
I recognized someone from my neighborhood at the market; it turns out she had a booth too. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember her name. I was sure my wife would know, so I called home to get the name -- I'd just be on the phone for a minute, I reasoned. My wife didn't know the neighbor's name either. 

11:00 a.m.
I'd just had two signal free hours in a row, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. My friend Nancy stopped by our booth and I explained what I was doing.

"Why are you giving up your cell phone?" she asked.

"So I can pay more attention to my friends," I said.

"But what if they're trying to call you? Aren't you ignoring them?" she asked.

"Um, well, yeah, I guess so."

12:30 p.m.
The market was closing down soon, and I desperately needed to call home. Did we need any groceries? Gifts for friends? Would I be meeting my family at home, or someplace else in the city? How did the morning go so far? All very important questions. Fortunately, I was able to text my wife, or I might not have known how many Bramblewood Cottage shortbread cookies to buy.

You get the idea -- "Signal Free Saturday" was not entirely signal free after all. At times, I even wondered if being signal free was a good idea. Maybe Nancy was right, and what I really needed wasn't to be signal free, but to find the right balance between being connected all the time and being connected at the right times.

For example, when I'm shopping at the co-op, I always keep my cell phone handy. Sure, I've got a list, but by now I know my wife will remember at least three things we critically need that we forgot to put on the grocery list. In the dark days before cell phones, that meant one of two things: I was going to go deodorant-free the next day, or I was heading back to the store immediately.

So maybe the question is this: is it better to be signal-free and deodorant-free, or to use just the right amount of each?

On the other hand, most of the time, I'm not using my cell phone for things that are critical; I just like having it, checking my e-mail, seeing what my friends have Tweeted, looking up obscure recordings by 1970s rock and rollers to prove how smart I am, and feeling good that if anything critical happens, I'll know about it right away. To be fair, my phone makes me feel good. 

"Signal Free Saturday" made me focus on balance and moderation, two things that very few people tend to be good at. Do you doubt me? Just look around. We all know that balance and moderation are the best ways to eat healthier and lose weight, but how many of us choose to follow Atkins Diet-like paths instead? It's relatively easy to avoid forbidden foods; it's much harder to eat them in moderation. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

I put my cell phone down for good at about 4:00 that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the evening with my family. We prepared a nice meal (salad, nothing fancy), shared a glass of wine, then played outside. I was aware that my phone was on the charger, but there was no part of me that wished it was in my pocket. Playing baseball with my wife, kids, and neighbors in the yard after dinner, I realized that everything I needed was right there in front of me.


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at or follow him on Twitter.