I’ve Never Had a Smartphone and Am a Better Dad for It

It helps me tremendously.

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Everyone has a smartphone, right? Not Mike Stahl. The CMO and executive vice president of HealthMarkets has used an old-school flip phone for the past 14 years — a conscious choice that, he says, helps him not only be more productive but also more present with his family. Fatherly spoke to the 37-year-old dad of four from Dallas, Texas, about his low-tech lifestyle, and why he loves it.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve made a conscious choice not to get a smartphone. The current flip phone I have is just a year old — I just got it — but the prior one was 13 years old. I’m fairly frugal, so there was probably a little bit of that when I considered which phone to get. But the bigger reason was that I felt I was actually more productive without a smartphone. It’s a fascinating irony. I think that’s what everybody believes — that smartphones make us more productive, but for me, that’s not true.

I’m just more present, I think, than I would be if I had a smartphone. I’m more present in meetings at work. I’m actually in the meeting or in a discussion, I’m really fully engaged with the discussion. There is nothing buzzing in my pocket to distract me. I think I can come to better decisions as a result. We’re more creative and innovative.

And I’m certainly more present at home for my family. No one is bothering me, right? And those hours from getting home to putting the kids to bed, I’m sitting there, eating dinner, running around to a sports practice, or at the end of the night we’re in bed reading with the kids, and that’s all there is that I’m thinking about or doing. I’m more present there.

Welcome to “How I Stay Sane,” a weekly column in which real dads talk about the things they do to stay grounded. It’s easy to feel strung out as a parent, but the dads we feature recognize that unless they regularly take care of themselves, the parenting part of their lives will get a lot harder. The benefits of having that one “thing” are enormous.

Honestly, most nights I log back on to my computer after the kids are in bed to get more work done. I type pretty fast, so I can get through emails and other work way faster. I let it sit there for a few hours while I’m hanging out with my family, and then I do work on my laptop. It’s faster than it would be if I were piecemealing it on a phone.

If I’m away from work and if someone needs me — and this includes my boss — they know they can’t get me. Unless it’s of such importance that they have to make the effort to pick up the phone and call me. That’s usually a good barrier, or assessment, of the level of importance of something. If something is really important, no one would have a problem picking up the phone and calling me and saying, “Hey Mike. This happened — we need your help.”

When it’s not really important, you don’t feel comfortable picking up and bothering someone on the weekend or late at night. You don’t. You send an email. And with me, they’ll know I’ll get to it when I get to it. By nature, I’m not reachable. And that’s good.

My wife and I aren’t on social media. I do have a LinkedIn profile for professional reasons, but I don’t have the app on my phone, obviously. Neither of us are on Facebook or anything else. It’s sort of for similar reasons. We live a modern life. It’s not that we don’t. It’s not like we’re eschewing all forms of technology, but we feel that actual human interaction is very enjoyable. And superficial human interaction can appear to be enjoyable — but it doesn’t have the richness, intellectually or emotionally. These phones are built like slot machines. They’re designed to keep you in the seat. And I don’t want to be manipulated by that. I like myself. I like who I am.

It helps so much with my work-life balance to be harder to reach when I’m away from work without my laptop. For sure. But here’s the thing: Having not done the smartphone thing, I don’t feel a loss. I’ll tell you, plenty of people are jealous and they don’t think they could do it.

We, as a family, love to hang out together in all sorts of ways. Rather than sit in front of any form of electronics, including a phone or a television or video games, I’d much rather be reading a book and having my kid read to me, laying in bed. I’d much rather be out playing catch with my older kids. I’d much rather be doing that than virtually anything else, including any kind of electronic experience.

Playing catch with your kids is not something that lasts forever. The joy of sitting there, teaching them to read, doesn’t last forever. I have two pairs of kids: 10 and 8 and 3 and 2. The time passes. Things move on. All those are amazing memories, real memories. Whatever bullshit that’s on Facebook is not. Or whatever article I’m missing or the text or email from someone at work is of light importance. It’s noise, relative to the most important things in life.

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