I can’t browse the web on my iPhone. Fortunately.
Two months ago I asked my wife to enable parental controls on my iPhone. So I can’t open Safari. I don’t have a Twitter app, or a Facebook app, or Slack app, or any social media apps on my iPhone and I can’t install anything either because my AppStore is blocked too. Everything else works. I can check the weather, call an uber, listen to music, open maps or use messengers.
I love it. For years I felt like a slave to my own smartphone. I can’t imagine living without it but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I used to spend every spare second to check the news, or my twitter feed, or to start reading something on medium because I totally needed to do it while waiting for 30 seconds in a coffee shop queue.
I would open my iPhone dozens of times a day, whenever I had a chance. A bathroom break, waiting for a lift, getting on a train, being on a boring conference call — any excuse was an opportunity to do something distracting on my smartphone. I would take my phone to my bedroom to check news for “just a couple minutes” and then wonder where an hour had gone. I hated it and I still was doing it. It’s an addiction, of course. Our brains crave small, unpredictable updates.
It was making me miserable. It was driving my anxiety up, it was distracting me from whatever I was doing, it was making me less present to whatever I was doing and whoever I was interacting with. Waking up in the morning and checking the news the first thing is not healthy but it’s so tempting. I tried to use my willpower to stop doing it but that never lasted for too long.
If Medium posts are anything to go by, I’m not alone. If you are reading this, it’s highly likely that you are addicted to social media. For how many of us is a glowing screen the first thing we see in the morning? I can’t take it anymore, this is ridiculous. I realized social media was a vehicle to feed my ego, escape reality and flood my brain with quick bursts of dopamine. New research suggests the possibility that cognitive damage associated with multi-tasking could be permanent. What‘s damaged in the process is the ability to delay gratification. As a former email addict, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to escape this tornado of digital stimuli. Please, please, please consider doing this. This last link is actually awesome, you should read it now.
Two months ago the UK voted for Brexit. I spent the following day online, glued to the screen, reading whatever everyone had to say on Brexit (hint: nobody had any idea). At the end of the day, I noticed a deep feeling of disappointment with myself. I could have spent this day in the company of my wife or my friends. I could have spent it with nature. I could have read a book. I could have done so many things that’d be more fulfilling and useful that refreshing Guardian, BBC and Twitter 100 times an hour. So that was the day I asked my wife to disable web browsing, social media and news on my smartphone.
It’s been two months and I’m so happy I have a healthier relationship with my phone. It’s still useful if I need to do most things — music, messengers, maps, GPS, meditation and mindfulness apps, etc — but I can’t check my twitter feed or google something random. My phone is boring, as it should be.
I changed my other habits over the last two months as a result too. I started using my Kindle much more: my brain still craves information but now I offer it to read books instead. I started using a mindfulness app that allows me to record and track my mood much more often. So instead of opening a news website I often use this app to reflect on my emotional state when I have a spare second. I call it “my methadone”.
I also found an app called SelfControl for my Mac that blocks a black-list of distracting websites (mine starts with twitter.com, bbc.co.uk, the guardian.com and a dozen similar ones) for a period of time (from 15m to 24h). The trick is that you can’t reset the timer — uninstalling the app or restarting the computer doesn’t help. I often set the timer for a few hours in the morning and have a less interrupted day.
Another thing that helps me is disabling notifications from nearly all apps and having the DND mode enabled 24/7. If you call me, I will pick up only if I happen to be using the phone at that very moment. The chances are I will see a missed call and reply to it later. I hate the urge to check my phone when I feel it buzzing in my pocket and don’t know who that is. If I’m talking to someone at that moment, my concentration is gone. So, my iPhone is in DND mode 24/7.
Of course, there are downsides. I have to ask my wife to occasionally disable parental controls to install updates or new apps. Sometimes I do need to google something actually important. Sometimes I come across something cool but I can’t tweet it. Snapping a photo and sharing it on slack with my colleagues is impossible either. If you send me a link over WhatsApp, I won’t be able to open it.
Yet, it’s been two months and I still really like it. I’m less distracted and anxious. I tend to stay in the present moment more. I’m less worried about what I may be missing on Twitter. I still read news and follow social media but do it in a more controlled way on my laptop, so I spend less time doing it. Overall, I think I’m happier. I hope my wife Anna, the holder of the secret parental lock key she swore not to forget, is happier too: we spend more time together.