The gift of time

Today I watched a young man with his girlfriend. She was staring adoringly into his eyes, but he didn’t notice. His focus was on the Straits Times app on his mobile phone. Throughout the whole train journey, she just kept staring into his eyes, but his attention never wavered from his mobile phone.

Which was more important: Time spent with his girlfriend or time spent reading the news?

The news won’t go away. Whatever is published on the internet stays on the internet. He can read it in his own free time. But his girlfriend gave up her free time to be with him. It is time that she will never get back. Yet he was more interested in what’s going on in the world around him instead of what was directly in front of him.

Isn’t this poor time management? Is he alone?

At least 7 out of 10 people use their mobile phones while taking the bus or train.

This is an observation, not a study. If you don’t believe me, stop using your mobile phone while on the bus or train and just observe the people around you.

Some use it to listen to music, to play games, to watch videos, to communicate with friends, to read. Most use it to distract themselves from what’s going on in their lives. Many of us are afraid of silence. We are afraid of letting our minds be still. We have been conditioned to a constant stream of information. When that flow of information stops, we feel uncomfortable. We feel connected to our mobile phones and cannot spend two minutes away from it.

Try it. Try going out without carrying your mobile phone. Or try suggesting it to whoever it is you’re going out with. The reactions are surprising.

A few weeks ago, I sent my mobile phone in for repairs. My next few days without a mobile phone were life-changing. I felt so liberated. I made myself uncontactable by not using a replacement phone. I could not be reached except via email and Facebook Messenger.

It was an awesome experience!

I had time once again to think, to read, to daydream. I had time to observe other people. I became more aware of my own emotions and changes within me.

A few days later, when I collected my phone from the service centre, immediately I felt shackled once more. It was a noticeable change inside of me. That was when I decided to consider how could I merge the best of both worlds – living without a phone yet experiencing its benefits.

FIRST, I decided on the apps I really needed to have:

Alarm Clock: Because I didn’t have one.

SMS: Because I needed OTPs for online banking and services

Phone: Because sometimes I needed to make or receive calls

Camera + Carousell: Because these are income generating

Whatsapp: Because people know that they can reach me with this

That’s about it. Every other app on the phone is not really needed because there is a web or desktop version of it. If not, then it’s not really needed at all. This saves time managing multiple apps with its updates or finding the app that I want to use.

NEXT, I decided not to bring my mobile phone out with me.

This meant that I was not contactable when I was out. This meant that if I set an appointment with someone, I would let them know that they would not be able to reach me by phone. This meant that if they were late, they could not let me know. So they better not be late. This also meant that if I was late, I could not let them know either, so I better not be late.

Once, I had an appointment at Ya Kun at Chinatown Point at 12 noon. When I reached at 11.55am, I discovered that there was no Ya Kun at Chinatown Point. But there was a Ya Kun at People’s Park Complex across the road. I made my way over and waited for 5 minutes. The person didn’t show. I headed back to Chinatown Point and parked myself at the Toastbox there. I reasoned that if the person would first come to Chinatown Point and if he didn’t see me, would follow the same path I did. He finally arrived at 12.20pm.

The lesson I learned was to be precise in meeting venue, to recce beforehand and make sure that the meeting place is easy to find. Because there are few things more frustrating than people having arranged to meet and then they cannot find each other even if they are in the same location.

Someone asked me, “What if there is an emergency and the person cannot contact you to let you know?”

This hasn’t happened yet. But if it was a real emergency, I would find out later when I contacted the person or when I got back to check my phone for messages. If it was a real emergency, I would surely forgive the person.

But you know it as well as I do, there are very few real emergencies.

Most of the time, it is just poor time management. Actually, being unreachable increases the probability that the other person will show up because they can’t contact you to tell you otherwise.

This saves time in two ways. First, it makes your appointments more likely to happen. Second, you learn early on if the other person respects your time. If not, cut him from your life. Time is too precious to waste on people who don’t respect your time. It’s the only thing that you can give away and never get back.

THIRD, I learned to plan my route before embarking on my journey.

Previously, I used to rely on Google Maps or to help me find my way to my destination once I was nearby. That often resulted in me being late because I did not know the direction or route to take. But if I wasn’t able to rely on these tools in the general area, I realised that I had to plan my route beforehand, and leave about 15 minutes earlier than I would normally do so. This has resulted in me being early or on time for my appointments, particularly in unfamiliar locations.

FOURTH, I discovered that I was a more sociable person than I initially thought.

I’m the kind of person who, when the conversation dies down, whip out my mobile phone and start using it, just as most people around me do so. But when I do not have a mobile phone on me, it is up to me to keep the conversation flowing. It is up to me to fill the silence and not drop the ball when it’s my turn to speak.

Once, I had a manager who would be talking to you one minute, and in the middle of the conversation, raise his mobile phone to his ear to take a phone call. It was extremely rude, particularly if he was the one who called you in to talk. I was patient with him the first few times, but after a while, whenever this happened, I rose from my chair and told him to come find me in the office if he still wanted to talk.

Without the temptation to check what messages, phone calls and notifications I might have missed out, I can now give the other person my full attention.

FIFTH, I gave other people the opportunity to learn.

I do check my phone for messages. Typically once in the morning, and once in the evening. Sometimes I would check the phone and see messages such as, “Daniel, how do you do this and this?” Four hours later, there would be another message from the person saying, “Never mind, I got it.”

This tells me that my help was never needed and the person learned how to find the resources to get done what he needed. Of course sometimes my response was needed, so I reply.

But really, there are very few real emergencies. There are only the ones we create for ourselves because we like to think that we are indispensable.

SIXTH, I have better focus and fewer distractions.

By not having my phone with me when I work, I am far better able to focus on what really needs my attention. I get blocks of uninterrupted time when I can work on my projects. I’m the kind of person that needs to enter the ‘flow’ to trigger my creativity. I detest being constantly interrupted as it affects my concentration. By being uncontactable for periods of time, I create these blocks of creative time where I get most of my work done.

This too is time management, as it allows me to get something done in a much shorter time with much better results than if I tried to multitask.


Sadly, I also experienced phone creep. Bit by bit, I started to use my phone more and more while at home. Bit by bit, I started to reinstall apps on my phone.

Today, I sent my phone in for servicing again, because of battery issues. It was still under warranty. But this time, I did not feel the same feeling of liberation. Instead, I felt stress. Because it takes me about 3-4 hours to restore the backup on my phone, update it and reinstall apps. I dread spending that time to do it again.

Still, I am grateful for the lessons learnt from not having a mobile phone with me. It has taught me that so much of my time is wasted on my mobile phone. Yes, it does help me to be more efficient in some ways. But for the most part, because I’m multitasking while on my phone, I’m actually far less productive than I can be without it.

This experience has also taught me just how addicted I am to my mobile phone. Nowadays when I’m out with family, I try suggesting that we leave our mobile phone at home. The reactions are always negative.

But I understand.

We’re addicted to our mobile phones.

It’s painful to try to separate us from it. So often, our eyes and our attention are glued to our mobile phone screens. And we miss out the beautiful moments that are taking place right in front of us.

It is typical of human life.

Our minds are so often lost in a different time and a different place that we are unable to appreciate the here and now, the present:

The gift of time.

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