One great side-effect about being on parental leave is that you have time to think: Why was I such an asshole to my wife this morning? What do I want out of life? Am I ever going to learn to play the violin? Do I get anything positive out of Twitter or Facebook? Who would win at a sword fight, a samurai or a musketeer?
One thing that I’ve been pondering for quite a bit is whether I have a healthy relationship with my phone. I think that by the amount of people of all sizes and conditions that I see with their face inside their phone every day, phone addiction is a common problem that afflicts all of us humans living in this generation. And as much as I like to tell myself that I have my phone use under control while all these other people don’t, the reality is that am I as hooked as everybody else. So more and more often, I have been questioning my relationship with my phone as it resembles a lot a previous addiction I defeated in the past: smoking.
As a smoker I would use cigarettes to fill any moment of solitude or boredom. I would anxiously touch my pack of cigarettes in my pocket and make sure that I had enough to last the day or would panic if I didn’t have any. Not having the possibility of smoking when I wanted to, made me irascible and anxious. And not having cigarettes would push me to walk to the nearest gas station even if it was 3 in the morning.
As a phone addict, I exhibit similar behaviors. I will reach for my smartphone at any moment of solitude or boredom and begin mindlessly scrolling around. I will anxiously touch the phone in my pocket to make sure that it is right there, safely tucked, and at my reach, ready to be used at a moment’s notice. At times, I will surprise myself touching the phone while I’m having a conversation with my wife or other people (my precioussss…). Other times I will feel it vibrate or sound to later realize that it actually didn’t happen. I will experience a mild panic if I can’t seem to find it. I mean, I have panicked at the thought of having lost my phone to later realize I am watching YouTube. With. My. Phone!?
Because of this and all the negative effects which accompany this addiction (short attention spans, loss of patience, being distracted most of the time instead of paying attention at what I’m doing right now, anxiety, wasting my life in mindless swiping, scrolling and liking, etc) I’ve been slowly but surely changing my relationship with my phone.
The problem with our smartphones is that they make too damn convenient spending time and attention on the wrong things. Worst of all, they have mechanisms built-in to shout for your attention and draw you back in. These below are 5 steps that help you battle your phone addiction by making wasteful things less convenient and by encouraging a more thoughful use of your phone. They have helped me free myself from the shackles of my phone addiction and reach the happiness, peace and productivity that lies beyond and I hope they’ll help you too:
- Disable all notifications from your phone
- Remove all social media apps from your phone
- Create paths of high friction to behaviors that you want to discourage, and, vice versa, paths of least friction to behaviors you want to encourage (f.i. remove all dangerous apps from your home screen)
- Make social media less addictive
- Enjoy all that new free time being more engaged in the moment with things that really make you happy
What is the first thing you do when you get hold of your phone? Check your notifications. What is the first thing you do when you arrive to a social media site? Check your notifications. 99% of notifications are evil. They’re a mechanism to keep you at best distracted (has anything interesting happened since the last time I checked 3 minutes ago?) and at worst hooked and coming back for more (Joe liked my tweet! Yey! Dopamine!). The 1% belongs to legitimate, important and useful use cases like: Your flight is delayed, your package has arrived, you have forgotten to pay for this bill, etc… Sadly, we’ve somehow managed to abuse and pervert the use of notifications to make phone users behave like mindless zombies.
Disable all notifications in your phone and instead favor checking on demand whenever you see fit. After you have disabled your notifications you’ll find that you are far less likely to get distracted and sidetracked by your phone. There’s no longer a reason to pick it up and see whether there’s a notification that draws your attention and traps you for the next 30 minutes. Surprisingly checking on demand, in the abscence of a cue or trigger, will over time make you check your phone less and less, and that will be for the better (Nope. As it turns out. I didn’t need to check my phone every 3 minutes).
Social media is extremely addictive. It is designed to be extremely addictive. And this in combination with extreme convenient access provided by your phone makes for a very dangerous mix. Take the leap. Remove all social media apps.
After removing all social media apps you’ll realize that you’re far less inclined to grab your phone mindlessly out of the blue and start scrolling, swiping, liking, emoting or retweeting. There’s no reason to. There aren’t any apps left that let you do that. Immediatelly you’ll start becoming more aware of how you used to pick your phone mindlessly (as you’ll try to follow your previous habit and run into a wall), you’ll be more engaged in whatever you’re doing at the moment and less distracted.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you can’t use social media, it just means that you’re less likely to use it impulsively and mindlessly.
Make it harder to do bad things and easier to do good things, managing friction is a great way to discourage bad habits and encourage good ones. Think about ways that you can increase the friction around pernicious phone use behaviors, like:
- Removing social media apps from your phone :)
- Removing social media apps from the quick launch page of your browsers
- Logging off from your social media accounts in your phone’s browser
- Putting work email or personal email outside of your home screen. Email is useful but checking email can be as addictive as your favorite social network
- Carry your phone in a bag instead of carrying in your pocket
- Leave your phone in a drawer when you get home
Conversely you can decrease the friction around good habits:
- Having your home screen completely decluttered with essential apps or some that represent a new habit you want to build like meditation (headspace), reading (kindle). Now when you pick your phone to relax for a bit, you’ll spend time either meditating or reading a book
- Buying a wristwatch or pocket watch so you don’t need to pick up your phone if you want/need to check the time
You may still find good things with social media and want to continue using it. For instance, I have friends and family in other countries and I like to use social media to share photos and experiences with them. I also enjoy using Twitter to feel in contact with the web development community. If that is the case for you, help yourself to social media but take measures to make it less addictive: Remove notifications, use demetricator browser plugins to remove metrics, remove social media from your browser fast launch, use focus plugins to avoid mindlessly browsing social media, etc.
As a more concrete example of what I’m talking about, I built a chrome extension that embodies how I want to use Twitter:
- There’s no notifications counter that draws me to check my notifications and releases dopamine when I do. Instead I use the keyboard shortcut
gnto check notifications every now and then (when I remember).
- There’s no follower count that makes me feel anxious about the number of followers that I have or makes me judge other people by their follower count.
- There’s no like functionality that makes me judge the value of a tweet, makes me and my tweets feel validated, or makes it easy for me to provide cheap validation and get other people hooked.
The use of twitter that I want to encourage is that of truly engaging and connecting with others, by reading thoughtfully what they have to say and commenting. Commenting has the value add of forcing you to actually THINK.
In summary, remove addictive features from social media, and be thoughtful about how, why and when you use social media.
When you follow the steps above you’ll find yourself with more time in your hands. Probably not an immense amount of time, as most of it will come from cracks within whatever you’re already doing. Invest this time into being in the moment, being engaged with whatever you do and those around you, and doing things that you really enjoy doing and that are meaningful to you. I love spending time with my family. I love coding. I love spending time with my friends. I love reading. I love writing. I love going to the gym. I love drawing. I love recording YouTube videos. I plan to do more of those.
As I was going through my journey of becoming less of a slave of my phone @DHH shared an awesome book he had been reading just about that very same topic: How to Break Up with Your Phone. The book is a more awesome version of this article and a must-read for any human being in our phone-overlord civilization. It provides a 30 day step program to help you get unhooked. Read it!!
And have a wonderful day!
Written by Jaime González García , dad, husband, software engineer, ux designer, amateur pixel artist, tinkerer and master of the arcane arts. You can also find him on Twitter jabbering about random stuff.