What is smartphone addiction? For me, it’s the habit of checking your phone every 5 minutes. We all know someone who does this. Perhaps you do it yourself. I know I did it. Most of the times it wasn’t even consciously. I wasn’t looking for anything special, I wasn’t even bored, but I did it out of pure habit.
I would put in the lock screen pattern to get to the, often unimportant, content that awaited me on the phone. I would check my email for the next important newsletter email, look at the newest Facebook updates from friends or see if some interesting updates on Google Reader (remember the good old days of Google Reader?)
I wanted to do something about it when I starting to read a lot about the lost art of focusing. The premise was that millennials were losing the ability to focus because they were always being disturbed by their connectivity and phones. This struck a chord in me as I could clearly see myself doing the very same. I didn’t lack focus, I chose to destroy it. I had to do something about it.
For any change in habit I needed to understand why I did it. Why did I feel the need to constantly check the phone?
At the time I was very interested in news. World news, sports news, tech news, news news. I wanted to keep on top of everything and had a bookmark folder with about 25 news sites which produced around 20–50 articles a day. They weren’t exclusive either! I would read about a tech launch (say the launch of a new phone) on at least three websites. At one point I found Google Reader which was a RSS feed reader. I promptly moved everything in there so that I could read all of the news on Google Reader instead of going into each website several times a day to check the news.
I also prided myself on being a fast replier. I would reply to people on Facebook, email or sms within an hour so somehow it made sense to keep checking your phone very often.
Lastly at the time I was very self-conscious and had low self-esteem. To avoid looking awkward I would often use the phone as a crutch in order to look important or busy. In reality I was just refreshing an empty mailbox.
Step by step
Determined with undoing the habit I started to take steps towards the goal.
I wanted to stop the constant newsstream I had created for myself. And the first thing was to cut news sites one by one. To begin with, I did a great purge. I removed most of the high frequency news sites that were posting exactly the same as any other. While this accounted for perhaps 80% of all incoming items I still kept my news fix satisfied by keeping one or two sources of news.
Living with less news made it even more pointless to check the phone. Instead of always finding at least a few unread articles I would now not find anything and this helped a lot. In the end I cut off most of the high frequency news sites. I have 5 medium-high frequency news sites now and leaving the RSS reader for a day results typically in around 200–300 items waiting for me.
My other weakness was to reply quickly. The cure for that was to let messages sit around longer. I started by first ignoring messages for a bit which didn’t work. I didn’t like to leave something go unfinished and in some cases I completely forgot to reply as well if I didn’t reply instantly. Then I tried to reply to all messages in a defined blocks of time in the day but that didn’t work for me. I then permanently set the phone to not vibrate for messages or notifications which helped greatly as I would sometimes not notice messages. That and a mentality change of learning not having to reply instantly finally got me out of the habit. I still reply as quickly as possible when I see the message, I am just not scanning for messages.
As for not looking awkward in public, I found myself not caring what others thought about it. I came to the realization that others don’t really care about whether I stare out in the air or look at my phone. Which makes it much easier to leave the phone in the pocket.
As an unexpected bonus, I discovered how buying a new, faster and bigger phone would actually wean me off the smartphone addiction. I had a phone for 3 years which served me well but was getting slow. That helped keeping me away from checking the phone since the speed was so infuriating that I would prefer not to check the phone. I bought a new phone that was significantly larger and faster, well aware that I might use it more , but it actually had the opposite effect. I use it less since it’s too big to carry around in my pant pocket so I mostly keep it in the pocket of the jacket which makes it even harder for me to use it.
The new features of the cursory glance on a phone really helped me as well. Now instead of unlocking your phone and having full access I would get the information that I needed on the lock screen without having the temptation to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or something else. Now I can glance and see the gist of an email, and decide to answer it now or later.
Now these are not the only ways to do it. Other people have written a lot about this and some things they suggest are:
Timeboxing — putting in dedicated timeboxes to check your phone will make you put off the random checking into a more structured way of interacting with your phone. I didn’t like the rigidity of it but for some people it helps.
Dumb phone — some people decide to just get a dumb phone that only calls and receive sms’es. This will ensure that you cannot be tempted by facebook and other apps because they are just not available. This was not an option for me as I use facebook and emails for communication and very rarely calling or texting.
What I gained
I was fairly realistic in my expectations of what would happen if I cut down the amount of times I checked my phone. I expected to spend less time on the phone of course but also that it would help me focus for longer.
Not only did I feel that effect, there was also a spillover effect. Since I cut off most of my news sources I have become a bit more oblivious to what happens around the world which is not necessarily a bad thing. I focus for longer but also gained more energy and willpower to achieve other things. I started to become more conscious about my time and I feel a greater control of where I direct my time.
I never expected this much from leaving my phone untouched for a bit but it is definitely something I would recommend everybody to try.
Try out some of these techniques and reply if it worked for you. Other suggestions are also very welcome!