“You can say what is, or fight for it
Close your mind and take a risk
You can say ‘it's mine’ and clench your fist
Or see each other as a gift.
We're gonna get it, get it together right now
Gonna get it, get it together somehow.”
On many afternoons, a fourth grader in the neighborhood greets my middle school daughter on her way home from the bus stop.
“Hello, Avery,” the boy says, stopping in the middle of his kickball game with friends to inquire about her day. He then waits patiently to listen to her response.
The reason I know this is not because I see it; I know this only because my daughter told me. My perceptive girl knows this is a rare and noteworthy gesture in our fast-paced, head-down, inwardly focused culture.
But what Avery said after she told me of this warm greeting has stuck with me for weeks. She said, “He’s one of those people who won’t change when he gets a phone.”
This is a valuable observation from a young person who is living the BEFORE & AFTER of phone acquisition. Over the past year, many of Avery’s peers have gotten phones, and she’s noticed a change.
And in some instances, personalities altered.
My daughter’s observations align with current research findings on the negative impact of a phone on social and emotional wellbeing and relationships. (sources: Smartphones Lower Conversation, Missing Your Children's Cues, Constantly Checking Your Phone)
Although I keep up with current research, I have yet to find anything I don’t already know. Once you’ve lived life tethered to your phone, you already know the effects, the damage, and the cost.
Perhaps that is why The Phone Effect is so noticeable to my daughter. For two solid years of her young life, Avery experienced the painful phenomenon of being right next to someone, yet being invisible.
It all started out so innocently—I was taking teaching recertification classes, caring for my young daughters while my husband traveled for work, trying to fit into my new neighborhood through active community involvement. But what was once a way to pass time and remain on top of things became habitual behavior.
Before I knew what hit me, I was a moody, distracted, stressed out, critical observer of life—missing all the moments that truly mattered.
It took two years of misery, one painful truth from my husband, a look of fear in my child’s eyes, and an emotional breakdown while out on a run to acknowledge I was not the person I wanted to be. With certainty, I knew that if I continued on this course, my relationships, my health, and my life would be damaged beyond repair.
I’ll never forget the first step I took to take back my life.
I was in the middle of making lunches when I looked up and noticed then four-year-old Avery sitting on the couch.
Despite the dinging notifications on my phone, the open browsers on my laptop, and the mile-long to do list staring me down, I knew I had to hold my child.
I felt a profound sense of urgency pounding in my chest—like time was running out, and there was nothing more important than being with her right then.
After holding her close for several minutes, Avery picked up my hand and kissed my palm.
How can I correct the damaging course I am on? I’d cried out on my morning run.
The response could not have been simpler.
Let go of what DOESN'T matter, so you can grasp what DOES.
I immediately designated several “Hands Free” time periods throughout the day—times when I put away the phone, the computer, and the need to be productive and informed so I could be fully present with someone I loved.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was creating boundaries.I was teaching myself how to limit my availability to the world so I could be available to those who WERE my world.
I was greatly encouraged by the way my family responded to my newfound presence. It was like I’d just returned from a long trip—Rachel is home. Rachel is here. Deep within my frenzied soul, I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in two years. It said: You are right where you are supposed to be. Just be.
Five months into my journey, I experienced my first Hands Free holiday.
One of my fondest memories was sitting at the kitchen table with my family painting glasses to use at our Christmas Eve dinner. It was ten o’clock in the morning and we were still in our pajamas. We’d eaten cookies for breakfast. My mom sat with us too. Her vein-lined hand was steady as she painted a flower on her glass. She talked about the small Christmas candies she got as a girl. There was holiday music playing. I felt peaceful, not frenzied. I felt beautiful, not too soft or unkempt. I felt present, not scattered in one hundred million different directions.
There’d been more laughter, more connections, and more memories made that Christmas than ever before. Sadly, my mom had a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke) a few days after the holiday and was unable to remember the time we spent together.
I chronicled them in my notebook for her. With every detail I vividly remembered, I said a prayer of gratitude. I was grateful for the GOOD change that was occurring in me. I was grateful for the limits that gave me back my life.
Interestingly, the Hands Free time increments I set eight years ago when I began this journey are the same ones I use today. These protected rituals have stayed in place throughout moves… health scares… surgeries… graduations… published books… and unexpected deaths. The distraction-free time periods that happen every morning, during greetings and departures, at mealtimes, and throughout each bedtime ritual provide a stable foundation our family can count on when life is shaky and uncertain.
I didn’t know it when I began this journey, but I know it now:
Boundaries are life-saving.
Boundaries are life-giving.
They protect life’s sacred moments from being sabotaged by the outside world.
I was overjoyed to see Apple recently provided iPhone/iPad users with a boundary-setting tool. I noticed the new feature called Screen Time on my phone after the latest update. After some quick research, I learned it shows you just how much time you spend on your phone and breaks down app usage by category. Using this information, you can then set self-imposed limits for app categories or specific apps on a 24-hour basis. My husband and I knew we wanted to implement it on our devices, as well as on our teen’s and tween’s.
Naturally, my kids were resistant to the idea… even I was a bit hesitant. Did I really want to know how much time I spent on my device… how many times I picked it up each hour… and did I really want my phone to go dark once I reached my limit? But as soon as our family began receiving this information, one question became clear: Is this really how I want to spend X amount of minutes or hours a day? With awareness comes discernment; we all began to make better choices in respect to how we were using our time, focus, and energy. Not only did my children's academic performance improve, but there was more connection, conversation, laughter, and togetherness than before.
Because the impact of this tool was so positive, my husband and I have shown several close friends and family this little-known feature on the iPhone. It was interesting to see how every single one of them implemented it right away. Although my brother-in-law jokes there should be a prize for the person who hits “ignore” the most times once his or her limit is reached, we both agree that having that extra barrier creates just enough pause to force us to decide if there’s something more worthwhile to do with our time.
My sister-in-law has three young children and has found that setting her phone’s “downtime” from 4 to 7pm has been life-changing. Yes, she has to do some advance planning because she no longer uses her phone for recipes, news, or weather during that time—but she feels that is a small price to pay for the benefits her family is reaping because she’s no longer susceptible to the rabbit hole of the Internet.
My long-time friend Jennifer who accompanied me to my recent Today Show interview knew exactly how my journey began with ten “Hands Free” minutes, but hearing me talk about it in the segment re-inspired her. After the show Jennifer said, “I am going back to my Hands Free time periods and implementing Screen Time for the holidays.”
Boundaries are life-saving.
Boundaries are life-giving.
Boundaries help us be present participants in our lives.
Boundaries help us not miss the moments that matter.
My parents are coming to visit for the holidays. My dad recently suffered a major health setback, and I have been very concerned about him. My mom has begun going through their home, donating clothes and household items in anticipation of their final stage of life. Natalie recently received her PSAT scores and will be getting her driver's permit this weekend. Avery recently had photos taken for a song she wrote and recorded that she is about to release.
Just as I did eight years ago, I feel a profound sense of urgency pounding in my chest. Time is moving too quickly, my heart says. But now I know how to ground us in the present moment. Another Hands Free holiday is in order.
As I began to wonder if gingerbread house decorating, driving through magnificent light displays, and playing board games were not memorable enough, a friend sent me this beautiful confirmation, written by a teacher:
“I know at this time of year there is pressure to create a perfect, magical Christmas. I know that you want to give your children the magic of Santa and ensure he brings the best gifts … but I'm writing to tell you a secret … every January when your child comes back to school, they tell me all about the Christmas holidays. They tell me about the days when everyone stayed indoors and watched TV. They tell me about walking in the freezing cold to get McDonald's. They tell me about staying at Grandma's and being excited when you came back from work. They tell me about how you let them snuggle in your bed. They tell me about how you played cards and took them swimming one day and forgot their towel. They tell me about a visit to a friend's on New Year's Eve and how they stayed up to midnight. They tell me about how they loved staying in their PJs some days and taking a trip out another day. They mention their gifts, but for them Christmas is your love and time and routines and feeling safe. You are their favorite things!” (source)
And just in case I needed one final confirmation, Avery delivered it. On Tuesday afternoon, she ran through the door from the bus stop bursting with excitement.
“You know how you taught me how to do the Banana Fana Song?”
How could I forget? The night before, I’d inserted her name, her sister’s name, and practically every name under the sun into the Name Game Song. When I began incorporating arm gestures, we both laughed until we cried.
“Well, I did the song using one of my friend’s names on the bus, and pretty soon, all the kids were saying, ‘Do my name! Do my name,'” Avery said beaming with joy.
In my mind’s eye, I could see it so clearly.
There, on the crowded school bus, Avery’s silly little song was more exciting… more entertaining… more captivating than anything on anyone’s phone.
And to think I’d gone to bed the night before feeling like I hadn’t accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish. But I’d spent ten minutes doing a name rhyme … and that’s what had mattered most.
What will my loved ones remember today?
Let that be your guiding question this holiday.
Then let go of what doesn’t matter, so you can grasp what does:
The kiss-on-the-hand moments
The painting-in-pajamas moments
The falling-off-the-bed-with-laughter moments
The stop-and-ask-how-are-you? moments.
They are life-saving.
They are life-giving.
In this fast-paced, head-down, inwardly focused culture, boundaries are the most memorable gift we can give each other.
With limits, there's more room for love.
Dear ones, although I am still a work-in-progress, I now have eight Hands Free holidays under my belt. My turning point was the moment when I realized that in spite of all the regrets I had accumulated, there was still time to salvage the situation. What saved me from sabotaging another precious day was the realization that today matters more than yesterday, and today awaits my presence with open arms. Small, barely noticeable efforts to show up for my life became my passageway through the pain and struggle, leading me to valuable gifts of discovery that transformed life. I show you six of those small steps in a free eBook I just released called: FINISHING WELL: A Year-End Guide to Turning Pain Into Purpose & Heartache Into Hope. Click here to download.
Registration opens very soon for my supportive online course, SOUL SHIFT! I believe it is NEVER TOO LATE to live the life you want to live or be the person or parent you want to be. Your most painful truths can be a catalyst for change. The tools, accountability, and support you will receive throughout this 8-week journey will facilitate one of life’s hardest, but greatest opportunities: figuring out how to make positive, lasting change in your life and relationships, for good. Click here to ensure you don’t miss the sign up or the early-bird pricing on January 7th. Here’s what past participants are saying:
“Soul Shift helped keep me grounded and still does. It is a wonderful journey of the soul filled with such grace, blessings, tears, and love from hundreds of strangers all there to support you in your struggles, your triumphs, and your moments of soul shifting. I never knew a community of people could come together like that. Friendships across oceans have been made all in the common bond of love for one another.” -C.S.
“Thank you, Rachel Macy Stafford, for teaching me to be present, for helping me understand the importance of self worth, for encouraging me to banish perfection, and for reminding me to kick that inner bully to the curb. I need these lessons, and I hope to share this wisdom with my daughters too.”–C.C
“Rachel Macy Stafford, you give us hope. Thank you for sharing your story. Seeing you now it's hard to believe you came from a place of self-criticism and harsh criticism of your loved ones. Knowing you came out of that gives me hope that I can too.”-L.S.
“Dear Rachel, I wake up this morning feeling excited and joyful. I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a child. Like all of us, I have experienced many trials, hurts, and disappointments, and over the years, I’ve pondered how I can heal. But by going through this Soul Shift process, I’ve felt more peace and soul shifting than ever before. Through these exercises, I finally see and acknowledge which beliefs I can release with love, as I can clearly see that they are no longer true for me or serve my authentic self. I see now how my perception of time and perfection have been the primary thief of my peace and joy for decades. In just a few weeks, my family and I are reaping the benefits of this course and I will always be eternally grateful for this experience.”–S.S.
If you are frustrated that social media rarely or only sometimes shows you my blog posts, please become my email friend here, so you don't miss my monthly encouragements and lifelines of hope.
Thank you for your love, support, and presence. It means everything to me.
Rachel, you speak to my soul. I swear every one of your articles come at the perfect time. Thank you so much for your blogs, posts and books. They truly change my outlook on life. This one in particular is just what i needed.
Rachel Stafford says
I am grateful to hear this, Sarah. Thank you for taking time out of your busy life to tell me.
Screen time on my iPhone was finally the push I needed. I have followed you on and off over the last 5 years of motherhood, felt guilty when I didn’t buy your book or apply what I read; but screen time showing how many minutes I wasted away from them? It was the kick I needed. 2 days of shutting down all apps (except my camera and iMessages) has been so freeing and feels so good. Happier for sure. Eventually limiting text conversations will be helpful too. Baby steps. This article was nice to confirm what I was already starting.
Rachel Stafford says
This is wonderful, Nicole. I am so happy the timing of this message aligned with the positive steps you were already taking!
Love this! Thanks! Hands free holiday coming up!
I want a hands free holiday and hands free birthdays BUT I also love LOTS AND LOTS of pictures of our lives, memories and kids… any tips for doing both?! Cause so far I haven’t found that balance? Have you written on that?
Rachel Stafford says
I use a good old fashion digital camera, not the camera phone. I take the photos, upload them into my computer and put them in Shutterfly books. I love documenting memories!
I couldn’t possibly love this anymore than I do!!! As a mother of 5, two being teenagers I wholeheartedly believe every word you wrote! Thank you for the message you are sending out to the world
Rachel Stafford says
I appreciate this so much, Mandy! Your support means so much to me.
[…] breathtaking reminder that smart phones can cause pain to the ones we love if we do not use them with intention. This […]