Hack your notification badges. Go greyscale. Announce the reason you are about to look at your phone. There are endless tactics available these days to help you reduce the amount of time you spend on your phone.
Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)
Finding a quick hack that will supposedly change your smartphone use forever is the easy part. However, “You’re never going to succeed in changing your relationship with your phone if you just start with tips and tricks,” says science and health journalist and author Catherine Price, author of the recently published book, How To Break Up With Your Smartphone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life.
“If you just say, ‘I’m going to turn my phone to black or white,’ or if you say, ‘I’m going to only spend 40 minutes on my phone a day’ with no real reason behind it, it’s just a random restriction,” she says. “You really need to first step back and figure out what your current habits are, what you want your habits to be, and what you want your life to look like. […] It’s not about spending less time on your phone, it’s about finding more time in your life.”
Re-frame the issue
Coming at this problem in a different way is key because if you come at it with just a restrictive mentality, she says, “It feels like a diet. No one wants to be on a diet.” Instead, she suggests, if you frame time away from your phone as a gift to yourself, as if you’re actually getting back in touch with what really matters to you, then it’s a totally different experience. Your phone goes from a temptation that you’re denying yourself to something that’s stealing your time.
“It shifts the dynamic of the relationship in a way that I think is empowering for people,” Price explains.
Arm yourself with scientific data
Also empowering is awareness about the issue from a scientific perspective. The first 10 chapters of Price’s book focus on the research of how phone use impacts our brains. Specifically, she explains, our brains change in response to the way that we use them or the stimuli that we expose them to.
The average Australian spends 2.5 hours per day on their phone, while the average American spends more than four hours a day. “As I say in the book, if you do anything for four hours a day, you’re gonna get good at it. So we should really ask ourselves what that is. […] The first thing that comes to mind is that there actually is evidence that it really is training our brains to be distractible and to lessen our powers of concentration.”
By training our brains to be more distractible, we’re also getting good at getting in the way of the creation of both short- and long-term memories because we’re not giving our brains time to process information or reflect. Long-term memories, in particular, require the creation of new proteins in your brain, Price says, and it’s a process easily disrupted by distraction.
“What’s more,” she adds, “since the way long-term memories are stored is like a network of seemingly disconnected things, the more connections you have between your memories, the more insights and creativity you’ll have. If you don’t give your brain time to create these connections between things, you’re actually dulling your ability to think deeply and to have creative thoughts.”
Consider your phone’s effect on your relationships
For Price, it was not only learning more about what her phone was doing to her brain, but potentially her baby’s that brought on her wake-up call to truly re-evaluate and change her relationship with her phone (and do all the research for this book). In the spring of 2015, she was sitting with her then six-month-old daughter late at night.
“Babies’ eyes […] their focal length is the distance between them and their parent’s face, evolutionarily. I think I had that in the back of my mind, and I was sitting there with her and it was late and I had this out-of-body experience where I realised she was looking at me, presumably perfectly focused on my face, and I was looking down at my phone, shopping for antique doorknobs on eBay.”
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Price says this moment stands out for her because she realised this was not what she wanted her daughter’s impression of human relationships, let alone her relationship with her mother, to look like.
Move from the wake-up to the break-up
Ready to make a real change? Begin by tackling what Price calls a “technology triage”, which includes downloading a tracking app that will monitor how often you pick up your phone and how much time you spend on it each day, so you can gather data on your current phone behaviours.
After a few days of tracking, she then suggests a period of paying attention to things such as your emotional state before and after using your phone, situations in which you typically reach for your phone, and how and how often your phone calls for your attention though notifications and the like.
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Once you’ve taken stock of this information, begin to create what Price labels “speed bumps”, or obstacles that force you to slow down. These could include everything from deleting social media apps, so that you have to go through your internet browser to check Facebook or Twitter, to changing your lock screen image to a visual prompt that asks “Why did you pick me up?” or “What do you want to pay attention to?” It’s at this point when you pull out those tactics we mentioned above.
After triaging, the next step is to make changes to your environment, both on- and off-screen, to remove what steals your attention and to support the habits you’ve determined you want. “Whenever you take away a trigger for a habit you don’t want,” Price says, “you need to replace that with a trigger for a habit you do want.”
If you identify that you are constantly checking email on your phone, remove the app and commit to only checking on your desktop. If notifications are hijacking your time, turn them all off, or for everything except phone calls, texts and your calendar.
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Reclaim and re-train your brain
As your habits change, it’s also important to rebuild some of the powers of concentration that our phones have taken from us. Price recommends a variety of formal mindfulness practices, from integrating small doses of stillness into your day, to reading (a print book while your phone is turned off), to meditation.
Price also suggests a 24-hour trial separation, where you plan for a full day of no phone, or any screens at all. Allow for a dramatic break and see what magic (and personal observations) comes from it. It’s these observations, alongside everything else you’ve been doing, that will help you inform how you want to move forward.
While all of this may lead you to wish you still had your old landline, or make you want to purchase a dumb phone, Price makes it very clear that she isn’t suggesting that you actually get rid of your phone.
“Breaking up with your phone doesn’t mean throwing it under a bus or dumping it,” she explains. “It’s more like going from an obsessive, romantic relationship to where you’re sleeping with your phone and you’re thinking about it all the time and you crave it when you’re not with it, to going back to just being friends. Like they say, friends with benefits maybe. A healthy relationship with boundaries.”