Don’t let a tiny screen play the largest role in your life.
Many of my clients have tried — and succeeded — in “breaking up” with their phones. Not a full on never-see-you-again break up, but a move away from codependency and reliance. They each, in their own way, felt like their phone was in charge of their life. They each wanted to rewrite the dynamic.
After working with several people in this vein, I’ve seen five simple changes that consistently work the best. If you’re curious for more detail, read on!
According to a study by eMartketer, the average US adult spends more than 3.7 hours per day on mobile devices. This statistic was taken in 2019 when, for the first time, it surpassed the time spent watching television.
Now, let me get one thing clear: I’m not a clear cut, black-and-white phone-shamer. I’m not a Luddite, criticizing technology in any form. My personal opinion is much more in the gray area. I believe that the net effect of smartphones is strongly positive. I also believe that platforms like Snapchat and Fortnight are just this generation’s equivalent of passing notes and dumping coins at the arcade — all very relevant social and developmental rituals.
That said, I’m not surprised by a reviews.org poll, which states that 48% of adult Americans consider themselves “addicted” to their phones — the average checking his or her phone 262 times per day. This seems like a lot. Again: the cynic in me warns of small-sample studies presented out of context. But this does broadly match my own personal experience and anecdotal observations.
The summary is this: I think that our smartphones are a good thing, even a great thing. But I also believe that most great things demand their pound of flesh sooner or later. When it comes to our mobile phones, we sacrifice a bit of depth and intimacy on the altar of convenience. We give up a bit of focus for the sake of distraction. But the real danger — more than anything — is that it’s all somewhat mindless and automatic.
If you want to take a few experiments reshaping your relationship with your phone, try some of the ideas below. I’ve personally tried all of them with strong success, but the real inspiration for this is in my clients who I’ve seen transform their daily lives through a deliberate effort on one or two of these.
1. Have a phone-free hour in the morning
If you can only do one experiment on the list, try this: give yourself a bit of space from your phone first thing in the morning. I’ve developed a bit of “muscle” where I can use my phone for meditation apps and the like but not get tempted into email or the doomscroll of social media. But the hands-down easiest way to do this is to keep your phone hands-off until a set time. If you use your phone as a morning alarm, consider getting a cheap analog alarm clock. It can also help to make the phone harder to get to, as detailed in the next tip.
2. Put the phone in a less accessible place
Such as inside your nightstand. Or charging on the kitchen counter. Or in the hands of a loving partner, with strict instructions on when and how you can reclaim custody of it. The key here is to make looking at your phone and engaging with it a conscious decision. It’s less important that it’s difficult to get to and more important that it’s deliberate to get to. Think about turning it off for a certain time, or just tucking it face-down into your desk drawer.
3. Turn off most notifications
When it comes to what you do once the phone is in-hand, think about how you can automate willpower. In other words, what can you change about your phone to make it easier to put down? The number-one tip here is to turn off all notifications except the ones that really matter. You can try treating this like an “unsubscribe” campaign, but if you want real results go big. Instead of starting with everything and whittling down, turn off all notifications. Start with nothing and add back what you really need.
4. Set app limits for frequent offenders
Even if you’ve tried this before, you might not have tried this recently. There are constantly new features for controlling which app, at what time, in what context, etc., etc. Take a look at your screen time reports (or, if you’re feeling old school, write down your phone activity for a day) and look deliberately at which apps you want to spend less time in. Less important: come up with a perfect plan for reducing time spent. More important: try a few limits right away and see what sticks.
5. Try enabling grayscale as the default
This simple trick had a profound effect on one of my CEO clients. In his words, “I just found myself less drawn in when the screen was boring black-and-white.” I won’t be surprised if results differ from person to person, but you can easily set accessibility features to enable grayscale as a quick shortcut. Try leaving it here as the default, only going back to color if you absolutely have to.
Here’s a final bonus tip: give yourself an alternative. If you’re trying to spend less time on screens, carry a book around with you. If you’re trying to spend less time on your iPhone, make your iPad the default.
Note that conspicuously absent was anything about deleting apps. I haven’t seen this work effectively for anyone in the long term. I find it to be a “fad diet” of tech that bounces between famine and feast. Usually, it’s too extreme to be sustainable. It seems to be more effective to make a bad decision harder and a good decision easier than to remove decisions altogether. Good luck on your journey
Originally published in An Idea