Don’t Rely on Apps to Save your Mental Health

Troy Patterson
Jun 14, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Who out there doesn't have an app on their phone yet to cure that all encompassing dread that seems so prevalent these days. From mindfulness apps that talk you through your ten to thirty minute time or perhaps your meditation chime app that keeps you in the zone it seems you can’t look at a single phone without seeing at least something used for mindfulness on them.

It seems so odd to reach a point where the device that has seemingly caused so much dread and anxiety is now the answer to all our problems as well. It’s like asking the reaper to help you quit smoking. That might not be my best analogy, but you get the point.

If you hopefully sleep 7 to 8 hours each night, work an 8 hour day and then spend 4 to 5 hours on your phone and another 3 to 4 watching Netflix before passing out you haven’t left a waking moment without your brain going non stop.

Maybe the reason we feel the need to stop and use a mindful app is that we can’t seem to get off our phones anymore. I’ve heard averages from 4 to 5 hours a day on our phone to 9 hours spent on “devices”. That’s insane and even with so much discussion of digital minimalism and putting down our phones we don’t seem to be turning that corner for real yet.

If you hopefully sleep 7 to 8 hours each night, work an 8 hour day and then spend 4 hours on your phone and another 4 watching Netflix before passing out you haven’t left a waking moment without your brain going non stop. If you sit in front of a screen at work all day congratulations you have amassed as much as 16 hours of screen time in total.

So to stop our racing brains and settle our nerves we’ve all seemed to decide to reach for our phones. Every time I see a home screen discussion or someone talk about their favorite apps without fail we get a discussion of some mindful app. Whether it’s Headspace, Calm or another it’s always recommended everywhere as the answer to your anxiety and stress.

I mean just recently it was added to running apps as Nike Running Club added mindful running setups in partnership with Headspace. If you spend 16 hours a day on screens looking at social media, news and Infinity pools of content I can see how a 10 minute time away might feel like a lot, but clearly people are in so much distraction and boredom debt this feels like so much.

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Even in the time of TV and portable music (let this old amn rammble for a bit) we had to spend hours of our day with nothing more than maybe some music or when we were home we could watch a show when it was aired cause their was no DVR. Now I’m not just pulling the old man to claim the past was better, cause based on my CD walkman days I can tell you it absolutely was not. The smart phone is an amazing tool and all the other screens and devices we use can and do add so much to our lives, but we need to find a way to step away from time to time as well.

My opinion is that doing that by an app for 10, 30 or even 60 minutes isn’t the answer or perhaps not the answer for everyone. The answer is time to be bored and distracted in our surroundings.

Before the smart phone you didn’t need to meditate or be mindful you just had time to think. You spent time alone perhaps, you were bored in an elevator, in a taxi, on a plane or anywhere that wasn’t home for the most part. Even at home with TV and video games you had time spent without and had to fill that time.

Instead of trying to fill your time all the time it’s time we started looking for places to have empty time, or at least more empty. Here are Six ways I found to decrease my phone usage and spend just a bit more time bored or in thought.

1. Walk to work without headphones or looking at your phone

Listening to your latest podcast, the top hits of today or reading the news while walking or commuting to work sure sounds better than that commute alone and quiet, but if you can commit the time to a mindful app sitting at home you could just as easily do this.

I walk from my train every morning and do so with my phone away and my headphones off every work day. It’s a great place to clear my head and get ready for the day. Occasionally a thought or something might make me reach for my phone, but instead I’ll note it down and come back to it later.

2. Read a paper book or Kindle (not the app if possible) everyday

Distractions are everywhere and surely reading on the Kindle app or Apple Books id better than nothing, but once that chat notification pops up or social media alert you’ll be tempted and having to fight that temptation is just one more type of stress your phone adds to your life.

I ride the train every morning and read for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning. I try to do the same on the way home but I feel much more tired then and will put the book away if I start to lose my place easily.

3. Spend those awkward moments alone with your thoughts

We all have those moments when the elevator rides going, we’re in the bathroom, waiting for a friend or whatever moment leaves you with just a few moments. Surely that’s the time to load up the phone and check what horrible thing is going on on Twitter. This is exactly the time though to stop and just have a moment alone. Perhaps if you have used Headspace or something you can use those skills without the app, because much like the kindle app for reading if you pull out a mindful app you might get distracted by that notification.

This one is still tough for me. I get the phantom notification vibration or wonder if I missed an email I’m waiting for, so surely I need to check. Resist the urge though and take a deep breath. These small moments are just as important as the longer walks and such spent without a phone.

4. Do your workout without headphones

I know this one is tough and I don’t do it every time I workout, but I try as often as possible to just get out without devices or headphones every so often. The act of exercise is so great for our brains and can lead to those quiet moments where we have great thoughts, realizations or ideas. Those just don’t happen though if you’ve got constant input from someone or something else.

5. Set aside your content time

I’m not a monk and don’t suppose phones are all bad as I said before. That said we need to set some intentions with them and plan. If through out the day you have thoughts like“I wonder who the actor was in The Wire and Treme?” (It’s Wendell Pierce), I should call my Mom or even when is the next movie time for this Friday night, you need to decide “Do I need to know right now?”. If you ignore the impulse to pull out your phone will anything go wrong or fall apart?

I think more often than not you’ll find you can wait. Write it down if you think you’ll forget and then do it when you decide the time. Set a distracted time even use a timer to limit how long you go before getting stuck in the internet. Then when your done get up and find something else to fill the time.

6. Put away devices 30 minutes before bed

I know didn’t everyone say turn off screens 2 hours before bed! Why would anyone recommend only 30 minutes. Listen like I also said above I’m not a monk. I’m not always going to read for 2 hours before bed and after the kids go to sleep. That’s just not going to happen. I have shows I like, video games I play, posts to write and things I want to read that might be a blog, website or whatever. This time at night is when I have the time to invest in these things and I plan to, but I also know that shutting down after looking at a device takes time.

After I shutoff and get ready for bed I spend 30 minutes before bed doing things like talking to my wife, reading (preferably fiction before bed) or writing in my journal. I also do this in my bed, which is something else everyone else will tell you is wrong as well. This works for me and is a chance to again settle my mind and get ready for sleep.

Photo by Junior Moran on Unsplash


Getting time alone is one of the hardest thing to do these days, but it’s no longer cause everyone wants your attention out here. It’s all from one source and it’s the hardest source to tell no. Our phones are here to stay and we need to figure out how to control them. If mindful apps seem to help then I’d say best of luck, but I think everyone would find better results by looking outside the source of distraction your escaping.

Troy Patterson

Written by

A tech writer interested in using devices more intelligently along with supporting developers who respect their users.

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