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In Defense of Inconvenience (and Why I Ditched My Smartphone)

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Three days before I left to start my book tour last fall, I begrudgingly traded in my old phone (the one with the huge extended-life battery that always falls out, and that I usually hold together with a rubber band) for a smart one.

I had resisted for years, fearing that with 24/7 access to email, Twitter, and the like, I would become a miserable drone of a dad. Of a husband. Of a person.

But I needed the iPhone for the book tour. To use that nifty Square card swiper to sell books and shirts, to navigate from one state to the next, to book hotels on the go, and (crucially) to stay in touch with my wife and kids via Skype. In this case, the phone would help us to feel closer, not more distant.

I asked the sales rep at the Verizon store what my options were for when the book tour was over and I wanted to go back to my old phone.

"Once you get used to a smartphone," he laughed, "you'll never want to go back."

The Inconvenience of a Plant-Based Diet

Something I often say about a vegan diet (that many other vegans seem not to like) is that it's inconvenient -- but that its inconvenience is its strength, when it comes to health.

I've come to believe that the best diet for any person is the diet that will cause him or her to make the best food choices. And that, far more than the replacement of animal products with plants, is why this diet has made me the healthiest I've ever been.

Fast food on a road trip is simply not an option anymore. Pizza at a poker game is a no-go. Wings at the bar during Monday Night Football are out of the question, unless they're n'wings or chik'n wings or some other made up word with an apostrophe between two consonants... and those just aren't the same (nor much healthier, probably).

This is inconvenient, sure. But it makes me plan ahead, so I cook and eat at home before I go out. Or if we're driving nine hours to visit family back in Baltimore, we make almond butter or hummus sandwiches, load up a cooler with fresh fruit and vegetables, bring some raw trail mix to snack on, and probably eat healthier that day than even on a typical one at home.

Not quite as satisfying in the moment as greasy, salty french fries might be. But it's worth it.

(And by the way, none of this is unique to plant-based diets. A strict Paleo-dieter who is doing it "right" isn't eating fast food, pizza, fried wings, or most anything you can get at a gas station, either. This is more about a whole-foods diet, plant-based or not.)

The Inconvenience of Exercise

As hunter-gatherers, we used to have to walk (or even run, if you buy the persistence hunting theory) every day. About 5-9 miles, on average.

Then we started farming and became stationary, but still had to do lots of physical work. Then we built factories and started going to work there, but then we made cars so we didn't have to walk. Then instead of standing in factories all day, we started sitting at desks. With heat and air conditioning. And elevators. And a billion other creature comforts that prevent us from having to do anything mildly uncomfortable or inconvenient, physically.

When you make a choice to go for a run, on road or on trails, you're choosing inconvenience -- it would be much easier to drive, you know. Or easier still, not to go anywhere. But you choose inconvenience because you know that it not only is good for you in the long-term, it can actually begin to feel good in the moment -- an oasis of living in a desert of screens and chimes and straight lines. Inconvenient, messy, hard. But worth it.

When you wear minimalist shoes instead of the high-tech, super-cushioned running shoes we used to wear, you're choosing inconvenience. Now you can't run with the long, lazy stride that brings you crashing down on your heel. You have to actually turn your legs over faster, take more and shorter steps, and build up those small muscles in you're feet you've never really had to use before. And you'll probably have to slow down to do it well.

Inconvenient. But worth it.

Embracing Inconvenience

When it comes to our physical health, inconvenient is often better. And little things add up, according to Dan Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease (you may remember his name from Born to Run):

Recall that over the last few million years the average hunter-gatherer walked 9 to 15 kilometers every day (roughly 5 to 9 miles), but today a typical American walks less than half a kilometer per day (a third of a mile) while commuting an average of 51 kilometers (32 miles) by car. Less than 3 percent of shoppers take the stairs when an escalator is available to make their journey easier (the percentage doubles with signs that encourage stair use). Food processors, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and clothes-washing machines have substantially lessened the physical activity required to cook and clean. Air conditioners and central heating have decreased how much energy our bodies spend to maintain a stable body temperature. Countless other devices, such as electric can openers, remote controls, electric razors, and suitcases on wheels, have reduced, calorie by calorie, the amount of energy we expend to exist.

What does all this convenience do to our minds, though?

Tim Ferriss wrote, back in 2007, about a study that demonstrated how multitasking (in the form of ringing phones and incoming emails during an IQ test) lowers IQ more than does smoking marijuana.

Many artists and entrepreneurs strive to become "comfortable with being uncomfortable." Jesse Jacobs of San Francisco's Samovar Tea Lounge takes cold showers for this reason. I've even heard of one artist, who shall remain nameless, that sticks a feather where feathers don't belong because the discomfort helps him do his best work. The term "inconvenience" doesn't quite do that one justice.

My point is that too much convenience, beyond contributing to the obesity epidemic by keeping us sedentary, probably makes us dumber. Possibly less productive. Likely less creative. And, maybe, less fulfilled.

Our dishwasher recently stopped working, and while we've waited for a new one to be installed, I've found that washing dishes by hand is actually quite a good use of time. It creates a space in my evening where my hands are busy but my mind free, to wander, to listen to something valuable (on my undeniably convenient iPod), or simply to practice focusing on every sensation in a simple but rich experience, like Thich Nhat Hanh suggests.

Cooking is similar. Another benefit of going microwave-free, the space during which you have little to do but wait. And think, if the mood strikes you.

Yes, if you didn't have to spend any time cooking or cleaning, you'd have more free time. But would you do anything with that free time? Or fill it with more Facebook updates and email alerts and work fidgets, without actually accomplishing anything. If my own track record is an indicator, I'm not sure I like my answer.

Look, I'm not going to give up the electric dishwasher anytime soon. But living without has helped me notice something remarkable -- that without mundane activities that force me to relax, think, or meditate, I often don't create those moments on my own. Probably a big part of the reason you run, by the way, if you do.

About that iPhone...

A few weeks ago, I ditched the iPhone and went back to the old clunker. One of these days I'll get a newer one, but I'll make sure it's not smart.

After the book tour, I controlled myself pretty well with the iPhone. I downloaded a few guitar apps, but never much more than that. The problem came when I started "checking" things, little by little. At dinner with family, while playing with my son, or when I was supposed to be reading (Hey, the phone is in my pocket... why not see what Twitter is up to after I finish this page?).

The nail in the coffin for my iPhone (and the Verizon guy's prophesy) was an article that my son's preschool sent around, called "Your Smartphone or Your Life" from Montessori Parent magazine. The opening paragraphs got me:

On a crisp Saturday morning at a Denver farmers' market, the smell of roasted chilies hangs in the air. A wiggly 10-year-old girl waits in line at the burrito vendor's cart, arm linked with her dad's. All skinny jeans, sweatshirt, and braces, she sways to the nearby music of a guitar and mandolin duo.

Food in hand, daughter and dad sit across from each other at a small café table. She looks adoringly at him as she's about to take her first bite. In that golden moment, dad slips his phone out of his pocket. Her eyes pivot instantly to that thing, that mortal enemy that will once again rob her of her dad. Engrossed in his phone, he does not notice as his daughter draws back from the table, her eyes glaze over, and she looks distractedly at the moving crowd, accepting her not-unfamiliar plight: At any moment, her dad may abandon her for his phone, exiting this intimate father-daughter space and going elsewhere.

(by P. Donohue Shortridge, MA)

As aware and as self-controlled as I tried to be, I had most definitely been that dad. And that -- even a little bit -- was unacceptable.

Last night my wife and I went out on a date, dinner and drinks at a new gastropub in Asheville. It was our first night out since I got rid of the phone, and when I got up to go to the bathroom, the urge to reach for my phone and quickly check in on email flashed through my mind. Then I realized I couldn't do that anymore.

I was actually out. On a date. With my wife. Without a way to do work or check Twitter. And it was wonderful.

There are plenty of holes in my argument for inconvenience. I haven't seen any research linking inconvenience and discomfort to better thinking or more happiness (though I wouldn't be surprised).

The biggest objection will likely be, "But where do you draw the line?" You can ask why my standing-desk experiment has so far been a failure (I'm back to sitting when I write). Why I haven't started doing laundry by hand, why I still use a computer or the internet or for that matter electricity. Why I have a cell phone at all. Why I still cook my food, when it takes more energy to digest raw food and we probably eat more naturally when we eat without cooking.

I don't have good answers. I like most technology as much as the next person. But what I know is that -- within an admittedly small band around the norm -- the more I embrace inconvenience, the more alive I feel.