The BLOG: Lifestyle

My phone, my car, and me

Nearly three months ago I took up a practice that I wouldn’t have predicted, even a week prior. A practice that seems kind of extreme and unnecessary. I stopped using my cell phone in the car.

I’d had a Significant Moment — a scary moment — of distracted mothering, and afterwards I realized I wanted to boost my attention to my surroundings. That my life was often a series of attention-divided moments — and not for the better. Not for me, and certainly not for my kids. My distracted-mothering-incident wasn’t car-related, but seeing this post a couple days later by Glennon of Monastery seemed fortuitous:

“Every time I’m out on the road I see driver after driver sneaking peeks at their phones. I do it, too. I peek. I love my family so hard and so well and so deep and then when I have them in the riskiest, most vulnerable space they’re in all day- on the road- I take ridiculous risks. My friends tell me they do the same thing. You guys: We are addicted… Craig and I talked last week about cell phones and driving. I told him how close to impossible it would be for me to forgive him if something ever happened to our children because he was looking at his phone. An accident is an accident- but texting and driving (or “checking” and driving) is no accident… He said he felt the same way. So we wrote up a contract to protect ourselves from our own compulsivity and curiosity and human nature. The contract says that we will put our cell phones in the glove compartment as soon as we get into the car. We won’t get them out until the car is parked at our destination. There will be no exceptions to this rule.”

I decided to give it a try. I hypothesized that if I made my cell phone unavailable to me while driving, I could condition myself to being present in one space rather than sending my attention off elsewhere. I thought it could be a grounding practice for becoming more mindful and attentive all the time. And the tangible act of inserting my cell phone into the glove box like Glennon does, I figured, could serve as a tactile reminder of a commitment to be present in the present. Phone in box; brain here.

I live in a rural town — and on the outskirts, at that. I drive my kids 25 minutes to school, one way.  That plus a slew of extracurriculars plus “going to town” to shop — I often spend two hours a day shuttling to and fro in my car. Two hours makes for a lot of habit-reshaping time. (It also felt overwhelming, as it meant I’d lose a sizable chunk of my day for things like voice-updating my to-do list, voice-texting a friend about a get-together, calling the dentist to change an appointment. And of course fun things like calling a friend or my mom just to catch up. Hands-free, naturally.)

I embarked.

It felt strange at first, but it didn’t take too long for it to become pretty awesome. I started seeing my surroundings more — the tint of the sky; the shape of the trees. I started enjoying them, breathing them in a little.  I started having better conversations with my kids during our many car minutes. And because I was with them mentally, I could anticipate and stave off squabbles more quickly, so they were less prone to fight — making real conversations more likely. I became more proactive in finding new audio stories for us to listen to (now that I was fully listening too, along with the kids), and I found the richness of the Little House series soothing. I almost felt poetic. Sharing that prose in the car with my kids in the morning became a highlight of my day.

Mostly I realized how knee-jerk my reaction had become to get in the car and think, “Alright, now how should I use this time? What needs should I be taking care of? None today? OK good — what desire can I fulfill then?” My hands — and my attention — had become positively itchy the moment I got in. The car had become a place I could reasonably distract myself away from monotony. It had become one more way to abuse time, subjugate it for my own purposes. Believe I was getting more out of it than it was getting out of me. (That old chestnut showing up again.)

This is not how everyone acts in the car with their phones, mind you; it’s perhaps not how most people do. (And I by no means think that my phone project is for everyone; after all there’s a reason that car phone use in the car is legal.) But it’s how I did. And once I got myself out of that subtly slavery, I found myself feeling a lot better in a lot of ways.

Of course, I had to find other times to take care of the things I’d previously tended to during car times. I had to rustle up other minutes to call folks back, to make appointments, to update my lists. This was cumbersome and made conversations shorter (or sometimes nonexistent), but I liked that it forced intentionality and kept me more honest with my time. It made me less harried instead of more — even though it seems like the opposite should have been true. Maybe because when I got out of the car, I felt more serene than scrambly. And I could bring that serenity into the next setting with me. One setting, it seemed, did produce focus and calm that was then transferrable to another.

When I started my project, I committed to 90 days phone-free in the car. I’m coming up on 90, but I think my phone’s staying in its box.

Susan Arico

Susan Arico

Susan Arico — wife, mom, and strategy consultant — can be found at