People spend an average of four hours a day staring at their handheld screen, according to the time-tracking app Moment, and that doesn’t include time spent using their phones to do other things, like listen to podcasts or take calls. Engage in any activity for that long and it changes your brain. Those changes may be positive if we are talking about, say, meditation. Less so if it’s time spent staring at your phone.
For the past three years, I have been conducting research and writing a book about our relationships with our phones. I’ve since concluded that phone time is affecting everything from our memories and attention spans to our creativity, productivity, relationships, stress levels, physical health, and sleep. In short, if you feel like your phone is changing you — and not always for the better — you’re not crazy. You’re right.
When we can’t check our phones, our bodies release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Phones, advertising-based apps, and social media are designed to be hard to stop using. It’s their business model: The more time and attention we spend on them, the more data they can collect and the more targeted ads they can show us. These companies are so good at manipulating our brain chemistry that we often don’t even realize that we’re being manipulated. By always making sure there’s a new post or a potential “like” waiting for us, they have conditioned us to associate checking our phones with getting a reward— which makes us want to check even more.
We have become like Pavlov’s famous dogs, trained to salivate when they heard the sound of a bell. And when we can’t check our phones, our bodies release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. We become twitchy and irritable. We reach for our phones in our pockets, even if we know they’re not there. We exhibit what addiction specialists would immediately recognize as symptoms of withdrawal.
All of which is to say: Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve tried and failed to change your phone habits, or if the idea of having a happy, healthy, and sustainable relationship with your phone sounds difficult. It is difficult. But it is possible.
Here’s the right way to change your relationship:
Identify what you do and don’t like.
There are elements of phone use that are useful or enjoyable, and there are elements that make you feel like you’re wasting your life. Your goal is to keep the former and minimize the latter.
Stop saying, “I need to spend less time on my phone.”
That is a vague and meaningless statement, the equivalent of announcing that you’re going to “eat better.” If you want to change a behavior, you need to know why you’re trying to change it — and what you want to be doing instead. Otherwise, you won’t last beyond breakfast.
Write down three to five activities that you know bring you meaning, satisfaction, or joy — maybe this is something you say you want to do but somehow never seem to have time for. Then ask yourself how your phone is preventing you from doing these things.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve tried and failed to change your phone habits. It is possible.
For example, I know that spending time with friends brings me joy. But I also know that I’ve gotten in the habit of texting instead of calling. This often results in a half-hour of me hunched over my phone, fighting with an autocorrect that thinks I’m talking about ducks. When I finally look up, I realize that I’m in my kitchen, alone and silent, having spent 30 minutes typing what would have taken five minutes to say.
Identify a goal.
Once you’ve figured out one way in which your phone is preventing you from doing something you enjoy, you are ready to identify a goal. (You can create as many as you’d like.) I like to use this template: “I would like to spend less time ___ and more time ____.”
For example: “I would like to spend less time texting and more time with friends in person.” Note how this is different from the vague (and meaningless) “I want to spend less time on my phone.”
If you want to spend less time on social media, delete the apps.
What would make you feel successful? It’s important to be realistic — chances are you’re not going to finish a book in one sitting or have a weekend where every moment is packed with joy, productivity, and meaning. But if you know you feel happy when you see a particular friend, you could define success as having coffee with them sometime in the next week. If you want to read a novel, you could aim to read one chapter per night.
Make it easy.
You can try to change a habit through willpower alone, but that’s not much fun — and it doesn’t usually work. It’s much more effective to remove triggers for the habit you’re trying to change and add triggers for the one you’re trying to establish.
Let’s say that you want to read your book before bed, but you keep getting distracted by your phone. First, remove the trigger: Charge your phone someplace other than your bedroom. (If necessary, buy a standalone alarm clock.) Second, add a new trigger: Put a book on your bedside table in the spot usually occupied by your phone. This way, when you instinctively reach for your phone, you’ll encounter the book.
Do the same thing on your phone. Turn off notifications. If you want to spend less time on social media, delete the apps. (Then, if you truly want to check Twitter, you’ll have to do so from the much less satisfying mobile web version.)
Pay particular attention to your home screen: It should contain only tools, not temptations. Edit and arrange your apps to make it easier to do the things you want to do and harder to do the things that make you feel gross.
Take it slow.
You are not going to change your habits in a day. Nor is it realistic to try to change all your habits at once. Pick one thing to focus on at a time. Maybe you could spend five minutes today staring out a window instead of scrolling through your phone. Perhaps this Sunday morning you can wait until after breakfast to pick up your phone. Maybe you could check your email three times this hour instead of 20. There is always room for improvement, and if you’re moving in the right direction, no accomplishment is too small.
If a friend pulled out a cigarette and blew smoke into your face, you probably wouldn’t have a problem telling them to stop, because we have a societal understanding that doing so would be rude. But if that same friend pulled out their phone in the middle of a conversation with you, it’d be much harder to speak up, because we haven’t yet agreed on etiquette for our phones. This is never going to change unless we start talking about it, so start talking about it.
The point is to make sure that when you use your phone, it’s a conscious choice.
The next time a phone interrupts an otherwise pleasant interaction, use it as a conversation starter. Ask your friend, “When do you think it’s okay to use your phone? When is it inappropriate?”
If it feels too aggressive to directly address your companion’s use of their phone, just look around you for conversation starters. There are bound to be other people you can use as examples.
Remember that your goal is to feel good.
If deleting social media apps works for you, great. If you truly miss Facebook, reinstall it. In other words, experiment. You’re not trying to restrict yourself arbitrarily; you’re trying to figure out what you like and what you don’t. Ultimately, the point is to make sure that when you use your phone, it’s a conscious choice.
Be okay with imperfection.
You’re never going to have a perfect relationship with your phone. And that’s fine. The point is simply to have a clear sense of what a healthy relationship looks like and to catch yourself when you’re sliding off-track. If that happens — no, scratch that — when that happens, don’t beat yourself up. Just take a deep breath and keep going.
(CityWatch guest columnist Catherine Price is a health and science journalist and author of Vitamania and How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life. www.phonebreakup.com)