If you’re like me, you probably spend way too much time on your phone. And you’re not happy about it.
You don’t like the way it sucks your attention away from more important things (and people), the power it has over you, the impulse you feel to pull it out anytime it’s quiet for more than 10 seconds. So you decide you’re going to do something about it—through sheer willpower and determination, you are going to break through your phone’s grip on your life.
One question: Um, how’s that working out for you?
If you are, indeed, like me, the “sheer willpower and determination” technique doesn’t work very well at all. The reason is simple: We can become physiologically addicted to our phones. And you can’t break through an addiction just because you really, really want to.
If you’re an alcoholic, you get the alcohol out of your house. If you’re addicted to gambling, you stay as far away from casinos as possible. And if you’re feeling addicted to your phone, even just a little bit, you’ll have a lot better chance of breaking through that addiction if you actually do something about it.
Here are a few suggestions:
Turn off those notifications.
You know that excited, jumpy feeling you get when you feel your phone buzz? That’s dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical in our bodies that encourages us toward things that might be pleasurable or rewarding, and it’s the reason we can get addicted to our phones. So, when your phone buzzes, the twitchy, hopeful excitement you feel is dopamine telling you, “This might be the one text message you’ve waited your whole life to read. You need to check it NOW.”
We all know that 99.9 percent of the time, that text message isn’t anything close to life-changing. But dopamine doesn’t care. It’ll stay with you, making you twitchier and twitchier, but with no real hope of actual satisfaction.
So how do we escape? Simple: turn off your phone’s notifications. If you don’t feel your phone buzz every time you get a text message, dopamine loses its power. You can still check your text messages, but you get to decide when. (And the people texting you will be just fine if you don’t respond to them in eight seconds or less.)
Delete the offending apps.
Do you find yourself checking your email 70 times a day? Checking your Facebook news feed faster than your friends can update it? Scrolling through Instagram so often you have the lives of all your favorite celebrities memorized?
Here’s a simple solution: Cut yourself off from those apps. Cold turkey. It doesn’t have to be forever, but the second you delete the app from your phone, it loses its power over you. You might still feel your hand twitch toward your phone, but the impulse will gradually disappear when you get used to the app being gone.
It’s awfully hard to be addicted to checking Facebook on your phone when you no longer have Facebook on your phone.
Turn off your data.
This one is a bit extreme, but it works—if you feel like you need time away from your phone, switch off your data completely. It’s like deleting individual apps, except with this, you’re basically deleting all of them. (At least the ones that use data, and that’s sort of the point here.) You can do it from your phone’s settings menu, and you can switch it back on any time if you need it. You can also turn data off for specific apps, if there’s one or two in particular you want to leave on (like a GPS app or iMessages).
If you have instant access to your phone all the time, it’s almost impossible to keep yourself from getting sucked into it at some point. No one can be vigilant 24 hours a day. But that’s why this trick works. If you absentmindedly pull out your phone, you’ll quickly be reminded the internet is closed for business, and that momentary pause could be enough to shake you back to your senses and remind you that you want to be in charge of your phone—not the other way around.
Get your phone away from your bed.
If you were a brain, how would prefer to be woken up—gently, calmly, and at your own pace, or by having someone grab you by the shoulders and shake you, flashing strobe lights in your eyes and pumping techno music into your bedroom? Seems like an easy choice. But when you sleep with your phone next to your bed, it’s easy (and tempting) to wake up your brain with all the noise and chaos the internet can provide.
Our brains weren’t made for this kind of buzz. But the temptation to grab your phone off the nightstand instead of getting up is tempting, and way easier than actually getting up. So what’s the solution? Get your phone away from your bed. Don’t even give yourself the option. Oh, and if you use our phone as an alarm clock—get a real alarm clock.
Ditch your phone when you’re with people.
Phones make us weird. It wouldn’t be cool to start ignoring your friend mid-conversation to talk to someone else instead. And yet, it’s oddly socially acceptable to interrupt just about any conversation to answer a text message. People, this does not make sense. And yet, I do it. We all do, unless we make a special effort not to.
We should make a special effort not to do it.
There are probably lots of ways to do this, but here’s the simplest: When you’re going to be with people, put physical distance between you and your phone. When you get home after work, put your phone in your room and leave it there if you’re with family or roommates. When you’re having dinner with family or friends, leave your phone somewhere away from the dinner table.
The point is, as much as you can, put your phone out of grabbing distance when you’re with people you should be paying attention to.
Set specific times to check your stuff.
An easily overlooked piece of gaining control over your phone is actually allowing yourself time to check it. When you budget your money, you don’t ban yourself from spending any money on coffee ever—you just don’t allow yourself to spend all of your money on coffee every day. You budget a certain amount of money for coffee, and you know that you can spend that money freely on coffee without feeling guilty. And this, in turn, eases the temptation to spend any of your other money on coffee.
Time is the same way, especially when it comes to your phone.
If you know that you’ve given yourself 15 minutes to check text messages, emails, etc. at 10 p.m., it’ll be easier to put your phone down at 8:30 p.m. (And, side bonus—you’ll probably be more focused on the messages you’re responding to when you have focused time to respond to them.) This allows you to still respond to messages that need responses, but to do it on your terms.
Phones are wonderful, magical devices. They really do have potential to make our lives better and our connections stronger. But they also have the potential to damage our relationships, numb our brains, and cheapen the way we experience life. If we’re not careful, they’ll take way more territory in our minds than they should be allowed to have.