Alice Bradley was sitting with her family last Christmas Eve and planning the next day’s events. Her son Henry, 16, said, “Here’s what Mom’s going to be doing while I unwrap presents,” and mimed a person scrolling, zombie-like, on a handheld device. Horrified, Bradley realized he was right. As her son was opening presents the next day, she would be looking at her Instagram feed and watching other people — friends and strangers alike — opening theirs.
She’s not alone. On average, Americans pick up their phones 52 times a day. There’s even a name for the anxiety that arises when your device is out of reach: nomophobia (“no mobile phone” phobia). The jury is out on whether it’s an actual phobia, but many people report feeling panicky if they leave home without their phones.
But few of us are willing to abandon our smartphones altogether. They’ve become integral to almost all aspects of our lives: social, work, entertainment, even education. So, we need to learn how to use them in healthier ways, says Tony Stubblebine, creator of the habit-coaching app Coach.me. The key, he argues, is treating the phone “as a tool rather than a boss.”
After her son’s remark, Bradley, deputy editor of the website Lifehacker, deleted most social-media apps from her phone, changed the screen to grayscale, and instituted a “no phones in the bedroom” rule for the whole household. Since then, she says, she’s noticed a cohesiveness in her family that had begun to wane.
It’s not just individuals who are reexamining their relationships to their phones. Because of the prevalence of addiction and its consequences, even telecom companies and app developers are offering tools to help us solve the tech conundrum.
These are some of the best strategies for making your phone work for you and not the other way around.
Turn Off Notifications
The pleasure center of the brain is activated each time you get a like on Facebook or Instagram, and because the notifications appear randomly, developers have hit on a gold mine of triggers.
“Our conscious mind is not making many of our decisions,” Stubblebine notes. “Most of the time our unconscious brain does what feels instinctual: seeking pleasure, seeking food, seeking comfort. App developers have built their products to take advantage of that fact.”
You can begin to combat this craving by turning off the push notifications on your phone. “It’s a one-time thing you can disable right away and never think about again,” Stubblebine says.
You’ll continue to get phone calls and text messages, but your apps won’t be sending alerts to your home screen. This means you can be more purposeful about when you pick up your phone and why.
Make Your Device Work for You
Even if you disable push notifications, you may still find yourself reaching for your phone out of habit, an impulse some apps can help you resist. Forest, for instance, covers your screen with a growing seedling to discourage you from using the device. You set the time frame for your session. Ignore the phone as the timer counts down, and the seedling grows into a tree. Pick it up, and you’ll see messages like “Put it down,” and “Keep working!”
Another tip: Arrange your apps in alphabetical order. This will activate your conscious mind when you’re trying to find something, which naturally slows it down. “Activating the language center means that you’re more likely to act purposefully,” Stubblebine explains. “Rather than grunting your way around your apps, you have to think your way through it. It’s using a different part of your brain.”
Keep only the apps you use as tools on your home screen, like your camera and navigation app. If you want to retain a seldom-used app, store it inside a folder. A more streamlined arrangement will minimize stimuli, making it easier for you to think of your phone as a tool rather than a dopamine mine.
You can also experiment with leaving your phone in silent mode, setting do-not-disturb times, and manually applying time limits for certain apps.
Try a Cleanse
If you’re looking to really rethink your relationship with your device, you might consider a “phone cleanse,” like the one digital-business coach Deb Lee helped develop for Xfinity’s mobile-phone division. The program, which the telecom giant promotes on its website, offers seven strategies designed to help you unclutter your phone and transform the way you use it. And because it’s a seven-day process, participants don’t have to transform their tech habits overnight.
One of the strengths of the cleanse is its flexibility. “These strategies aren’t ‘put your phone in a safe and lock it away’ type things,” Lee explains. Instead, the cleanse consists of seven simple steps to improve your relationship with your device:
- Day 1: Delete unused apps.
- Day 2: Set screen to grayscale.
- Day 3: Turn off notifications.
- Day 4: Clear out unneeded photos and files.
- Day 5: Look at your phone only once per hour.
- Day 6: Place it far away from your bed at night.
- Day 7: Organize your home screen.
Day 2’s grayscale tip is becoming an increasingly popular antiaddiction technique. To apply it, simply search for “color filters” on the iPhone or “color adjustment” on Android, and toggle the color switch. Minus the bright colors, the apps become less visually appealing, and you’ll be less inclined to scroll endlessly.
After doing the cleanse, you may or may not want to maintain some of the strategies. The point is to be more aware of what you’re doing when you reach for your device so you can use it as a tool to support the life you want.
“Every night you have a routine. You brush your teeth, wash your face, etc.,” Lee explains. “With phones, it can be similar. Once you start integrating some of the strategies into your life, it won’t feel like a chore. You’ll do it because it helps you be more mindful and purposeful when you do reach for your phone.”
Tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, JD, founder of the ethical technology initiative All Tech Is Human, believes that the evolution of device use is analogous to the evolution of food consumption. “Food used to be finite,” he explains. “We were hunters and gatherers, and we’d just grab as much food as we could. But as soon as it became readily available, many people in first-world countries started to struggle with food intake. We ate too much, and then eventually we said, ‘OK, how do we adjust?’”
Our phones aren’t going away, and like Alice Bradley, you might be struggling with your tech intake. The key to adjusting, Polgar says, is balance. “The goal is not to be unplugged. The goal is to not be overplugged.”
He hopes we’re moving toward this goal already. “If you look at the rise of adult coloring books, the fact that there are all these painting places where people make art and drink wine, even the fact that vinyl-record sales have gone up every year since the release of the iPhone — it’s because, at the end of the day, we still want something real that we can touch.”