A smartphone is a tool that’s supposed to help us, and yet many of us treat it like a baby that we give our full attention to the moment it starts crying. But our phones cry for all sorts of reasons that don’t require our immediate attention and sometimes we check in on them for no reason at all.
Over the past few years, I’ve made conscious changes to the way I treat my smartphone, developing a few simple rules for myself which have supported me in eliminating smartphone dependency. I’ve also noticed positive changes for friends and colleagues who have applied some of these principles. Maybe they can help you too.
Why should you bother?
1. Constant distraction: We allow our phones to interrupt us at any hour of the day. It’s like publicly posting your home address on social media and inviting everyone who reads it to ring at your door at any time – not only friends, family and work colleagues, but also newspaper editors, software developers, advertisers, and so on. This sounds extreme, and yet we often treat our phones like this, living with constant, unnecessary interruption.
2. Boredom anxiety: Have you checked your phone when there was no notification or other reason to look at it? Do you feel nervous when you leave home without your phone, even if you’re only running a quick errand? Do you reach for your phone first thing when you wake up in the morning? We have become addicted to our phones and are unable to spend 5 minutes without distraction.
Phones and apps are designed as dopamine bombs. As a result, they control us rather than us controlling them.
What can you do?
Here are a few principles which have worked for me. Admittedly, it can feel unpleasant when you first get started, but it gets easier over time.
1. Treat your phone like a landline
At home leave your phone at the front door and put it on silent (no sound, no vibration, no light), checking it only a few times throughout the day at times of your choice. There are plenty of ways to set up emergency notifications, to whitelist contacts in your phone’s settings, or to keep phone call sounds enabled if you feel better this way.
Leaving the phone at the front door has the positive side effect that the phone isn’t the first nor last thing you see in the day (I use an old-fashioned alarm clock). One simple way to enforce this habit is to have the only charger at the front door (the worst place to have it is the bedroom).
2. Make it a principle: Out of sight, out of mind
Keep your phone out of sight when you leave the house as well. Whether at work or meeting a friend, I try to keep the phone off the table, ideally in a bag or a pocket where I don’t feel it. The simple fact that the phone is visible draws attention away from what you really want to focus on. Since we all have our weak moments, it’s easier to not expose ourselves to the constant temptation.
3. Tell your contacts
If people are used to you replying within a certain time frame, you could tell them about your change in habits. In my experience treating the phone in such a way is seen very positively, since it means you are more focused. To go a step further, you could even promote your change with your contacts, so that you are surrounded by people doing the same. Telling people also contributes to your accountability, so chances are higher you will actually succeed in changing your behavior.
4. Consider apps to help you, but don’t rely on them
There are a variety of apps which are meant to help with this process – notification schedulers, screen blockers, etc.. Try these out if you think they’ll support you, however don’t rely on them exclusively. Personally, another layer of apps doesn’t seem right to me – this doesn’t heal us from the toxic habits we have established over the years. Changing your mindset and learning to resist the urge to look at your phone whenever you have a spare moment is a change that you can only make yourself.
5. Observe yourself
Pay close attention to your behaviors related to phone usage, especially when you’re first starting to change them. For example, next time you’re waiting five minutes for the bus, observe yourself. I noticed early on that I was often checking my phone twice within a half an hour or checking it when I didn’t have a real reason. No worries, this happens during a process of change. When I notice this, I put my phone away immediately (at least out of sight, ideally out of reach).
Final note & call to action
Phones have revolutionized our lives, but like with every invention there’s an upside and a downside. We should be aware of these and act accordingly. The reward is a feeling of freedom and the ability to stay focused for longer.
Here’s a simple experiment for you: Next time you go out for a short time, like for a walk or to grab a coffee, leave your phone at home. The key is to do this with intention – you’re not forgetting your phone, you’re actively leaving it behind. When I did this, I perceived a delightful feeling of freedom with more awareness of things happening around me.
How did you feel?