Illustration by Steve Cutts

3 Simple Practices to Break Your Phone Addiction [My TEDx Talk]

For a podcast version of this article, check out Art Of Meaningful Work.

We touch our phones 2617 times a day, according to a recent study by Dscout. Heavy users, like you and me, click, tap, or swipe on our phones 5427 times a day.

And I caught myself doing that. A lot.

I feel compelled to touch it — to check e-mail, see who followed me on Twitter, and what the open rate was for that last e-mail newsletter.

However, over the last couple of years I started noticing it didn’t feel right.

I found this compulsion to keep “checking” things was starting to affect my ability to stay focused, pay attention, and spend quality time with my daughter. Even more than that, I started feeling unhappy, which was affecting all of my relationships.

It turns out I’m not alone.

You might feel the same way. As did most of the entrepreneurs, friends, and parents I talked to.

So I decided to investigate why this happens. Here is what I found.

Why We Get Addicted To Our Phones

When you receive a like, or a reply, or a new text — your brain interprets that interaction as positive stimulus, and it releases a burst of neurotransmitters.

Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Serotonin. These are chemicals that make you feel love, happiness, and joy.

They are also the same chemicals that make you feel motivated to want more of those feelings.

You unlock a new level of Candy Crush, you get a hit. You post a photo and someone likes it — you get a hit. You check e-mail before going to sleep, you get a hit.

With every one of those interactions, especially if you unlock some new content as a result of it, you are rewarded by a tiny fountain of joy that floods your brain.

As this continues to happen: Stimuli, reward, stimuli, reward… a compulsion loop is created.

This is why people can’t stop using their phones while driving. Or at the gym. Or at the dinner table.

It is the same kind of behaviour seen in nicotine and heroin addicts.

Here are the three simple practices I adopted over the last 6 months, that have allowed me to fight back.

Practice #1: Block

This is a simple practice of setting aside time to do important work.

The first element is to remove distractions.

This means setting your phone on airplane mode, blocking out time on your calendar, and if you happen to be working on a computer exercising your willpower NOT to open a new tab and start perusing Facebook or checking e-mail. There are apps that can help. For Mac there is Self Control, or if you use Chrome, there is Stay Focusd — a plugin that has similar functionality.

The second element is dedicating the time.

Great thing about a block of time is that it has a start and an end. So if you crave that Instagram dopamine hit, you’ll still get it, but with a slight delay. This allows you to break the pattern of compulsively checking things, and at the same time retrain your brain to concentrate, and reject distractions.

I use 2 hour blocks. That is enough time to move the needle on a project. Time that would otherwise be spent scrolling through screens, or binge watching a Netflix series.

You have to to remember that saying that “you don’t have time” to invest a couple of hours of work on your side project, on your novel, or even to play a board game with your family, is an excuse that keeps us stuck. It’s an excuse that leads to regret later in life.

If you want to do meaningful work, you have to fight for time to do things that matter.

Practice #2 (dis)Connect

You see it all the time. A family rolls into a restaurant, they sit down, and while they’re waiting for their food to arrive everyone is on their phone, in their own world, somewhere else.

You see it at conferences, and at business meetings. The phone, or the laptop, becomes the awkward third wheel cajoling you steal a glance.

When I meet with someone, I want us to be present, pay attention, and have a productive use of our time. And you can’t do that while compulsively checking your phone every five minutes. It breaks the conversation, and interferes in the relationship we’re building.

So I often ask that we turn our phones off, put them on airplane mode, or at the very least put them somewhere out of sight.

When you do that, it becomes a promise: “I promise to respect your time and I promise to be right here, with you.”

The conversation immediately becomes deeper, and more meaningful. To truly connect to the person across the table from you, you have to make a decision to disconnect from the world that is available at your fingertips.

It can be as simple as moving your phone out of sight when spending time with people that matter to you.

Practice #3: Immerse

To break a pattern of automatic behaviour, I found that we need to experience something of greater magnitude. Something that demands our undivided attention.

It turns out that if you engage multiple senses with an activity, your brain has to dedicate more of its resources to process all the information and movements you are tasking it with.

When I was younger, I trained MMA — and let me tell you — there are few more immersive experiences than trying not to get punched in the face. While we sparred, nothing else even had a chance to enter my sphere of attention. I didn’t think about my job, sales quotas, and certainly didn’t think about my phone.

I imagine skydiving would have a similar effect.

Now, maybe you’re not into dodging kicks and punches, or jumping out of a perfectly good plane… and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken on some less risky hobbies.

A couple of years ago I picked up urban sketching. It’s drawing or painting on location of whatever you see: people, houses, coffee shops. I found the process of translating what you see to paper, mixing colours, and recreating a scene on a page equally as immersive as MMA used to be.

It appears that acts of creative expression can be very immersive. They require most, if not all, of your attention. And that makes it a lot easier to start breaking that compulsion to check your phone every 5 minutes.

My advice is to find something that you can get lost in. Maybe try the Japanese practice of forest bathing, picking up a brush and learning to paint, or if you feel adventurous — take a martial arts class.

These three simple practices: block, connect, and immerse have allowed me to fight back against the compulsion to “check” my phone every 5 minutes. I hope they inspire you to do the same.

Because, here’s the kicker.

While I was researching for my TEDx talk, I came across studies by PEW research that found that an average smartphone owner spends about 2.5 hours on their mobile device every day.

If you take into consideration the average lifespan of 81 years, and assuming that you sleep at some point — on average, we’ll spend about 13 years of our lives staring at a phone.

That doesn’t take into account computer, tablet, or TV time.

My hope is that you’ll use some of what you read here today to take some of that time back for yourself — and do things that matter.

Try writing a book. Go out and take photos. Start a passion project. Fix a broken relationship.

We only get one run at this.

Featured image used by permission from Steve Cutts (Amazing Artist!)


Originally published at ernestbarbaric.com on May 16, 2017.