Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that the proliferation of screens, digital technologies, and social media is one of the greatest threats to our health, our democracy, and even our humanity that we face today.
This was highlighted in the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, which was viewed by over 38 million households in the first 28 days after it premiered.
Clearly, we’re all aware of the problem. (And I will be discussing it further in an upcoming podcast interview with Tim Kendall—the former director of monetization at Facebook and president of Pinterest—who was featured in the film.)
But being aware of the problem and taking meaningful steps to change your behavior are two different things.
With this in mind, I’m going to share three of my favorite tips for reducing the amount of time I spend on my phone. These tips are all based on sound coaching and behavior change principles, like changing your environment and “understanding your why,” which we teach in our ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.
1. Turn off most notifications
This is the single most effective way to reduce your phone use. Companies that make apps want you to accept notifications. Why? Because if they can notify you, then you are likely to spend more time with their app. And when you spend more time with their app, they can profit more from your attention.
But is it really in our best interest to be incessantly interrupted by our phone throughout the day, whether it’s because an email came in, someone we follow posted on Instagram, or someone liked our Facebook post?
One of my mentors is fond of saying “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.” If our attention is fragmented, distracted, and often on trivial things that don’t have meaning or purpose for us, then our quality of life will suffer accordingly.
Only you can decide which notifications are truly necessary—and the answer will vary from person to person. I have turned off all of them except for phone, text messages, and calendar event reminders. I’m toying with the idea of turning off text message notifications for all but my contacts/important senders.
2. Use a physical or visual prompt to pay attention when you pick up your phone
When we’re making a significant change in our behavior, it’s helpful to stay connected to the “why.” Why are we doing this? Why will our lives improve if we do it? Why is it important? If we use something to help us to connect to this “why” when we pick up our phone, that can serve as a “pattern interrupt” that brings our attention back to what is most important to us.
There are various ways to do this. My favorite is a tip that I got from How To Break Up With Your Phone, an excellent book by Catherine Price. I took a picture of my daughter holding a sign that says “What are you paying attention to?,” and then I made that picture the background of my lock screen. This way, every time I pick up my phone, I see a photo of my daughter asking me that question.
Another lower-tech method is simply to put a couple of rubber bands around your phone. When you pick up your phone and notice the rubber bands, use that as a prompt to ask yourself these three questions (also a tip from Catherine Price): 1) What for? (i.e., why are you picking up your phone?), 2) Why now? (i.e., is it critical that you do it now?), and 3) What else? (i.e., what else could you do instead?).
3. Designate no-phone zones in the house
Seventy-one percent of people sleep either holding their smartphone, having it in bed with them, or having it on their nightstand. Forty percent of people check their smartphone while on the toilet. Forty-four percent of all adults and 63 percent of millennials feel anxiety when separated from their phone—even for a few minutes.
Creating periods of time when we’re not near our phones is one of the most important steps we can take to “reset” our relationship with technology. I recommend designating certain areas of your home as “no-phone zones” to help with this.
In our home, the bedroom and the dinner table are off-limits to technology. I have an old-fashioned, analog alarm clock on my nightstand that works just fine for that purpose—no smartphone required. I stop using my phone an hour or two before bed, and I put it in my home office to charge at that time. (You don’t need a home office for this; any dedicated area outside of your bedroom for phone charging is fine.)
When we’re eating meals together, it’s understood that no phones or tablets will be present. And we also put all devices in silent mode so that we’re not interrupted by call or text notifications.
These are relatively simple steps to take, but they can have a powerful effect.
My invitation to you: pick one of these tips to do this week. Keep a journal and write about what you notice. Once you’re successful with the first habit, move on to the next.
Let me know how it goes!
P.S. Catherine Price has an excellent workbook with a 30-day “break up with your phone” program, which I highly recommend.