Atomic Habits — The Four Laws of Behavior Change Applied to Your Cell Phone

Josh Duffney
Apr 26, 2020 · 5 min read

In the book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones it introduces four laws of behavior change. These laws can be used to form new good habits, but they can also be used to break old bad habits. I’ve used these four laws to break my bad cell phone habit. Like many of us, I used to carry my cell phone everywhere. And I would check it every spare moment I got. I was addicted and addiction has side effects.

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Atomic Habits — James Clear

Over the last two years I’ve been actively modifying my technology habits to improve my mental health, focus, and, attention. In that time I discovered my cell phone usage is a leading indicator of my mental state and peace of mind. Limiting and constraining its usage has improved my quality of life. Here is how I’ve used and continue to use The Four Laws of Behavior Change to maintain a healthy relationship with the technology in my pocket.

Make it Invisible

The first law of The Four Laws of Behavior Change is Make it Invisible. This is pretty easy to do with my cell phone. I keep it out of sight as much as possible. In practice this means, I keep in off my desk when I’m working. Often in the cabinet next to my desk. On the weekends it means in the kitchen draw with other miscellaneous tools.

I’ve found that after 30 minutes or so I forget about my cell phone. But, if I can see it I will check it. For that reason, I have several routines to keep it invisible. To avoid grabbing it first thing in the morning I charge it far away from my bed. On workdays I log into all my two-factor applications then put my phone in the cabinet. And on the weekends if I’m not on-call the phone goes in the kitchen drawer.

Create routines to keep it invisible.

Routines

Use implementation intentions to create these routines.

At 8:00 am I will sign into my applications then put my cell phone in the file cabinet.

Make it Unattractive

I found putting myself phone out of sight work. But then a different problem occurred. At first I didn’t put my cell phone on silent. I never really noticed it before, but I got a lot of notifications. It wasn’t an issue when I had my cell phone right next to me. It was actually exciting at first then well… disappointing when I realized it was a post I didn’t care about or a spam email.

What was once exciting was now annoying. I had to make a choice. Do I get up and check it or do I deal with the suspense and anxiety of not checking it? As my cell phone cried for my attention I’d cave in and get up to check it…

I then decided to implement the next law. I decided to make it unattractive. As I deleted apps, I felt like I was getting back at them for interrupted me and annoyed me. It felt good until I got to apps like Twitter and Slack. Could I really uninstall these? Was it even a responsible thing to do? What if I didn’t reply to that Slack DM from a director or VP? It was a slow process, but one by one I deleted them.

There are certain apps that I couldn’t delete. They were too convenient. Applications such as my banking app, Spotify, and Fandango. If I couldn’t delete it then I disabled notifications.

Be honest with yourself. Do you really need them installed? Delete it and give it a week to find out. This includes email.

Make your cell phone unattractive by deleting noisy applications. If you can’t delete it. Disable the notifications.

My phone has used up enough of my time. So I’m going to put it away for the day. — The SysAdmin Show 041

Make it Difficult

After uninstalling applications and disabling notifications I noticed I’d do one of two things. I’d either temporarily reinstall the app, login, check it, and delete the app or I would check unnecessary things like my Amazon wishlists. My willpower was obviously failing and I needed to make it more difficult.

As a technologist, I naturally turned to technology to solve my problems. Fortunately, there was a solution. I found an application called Freedom. Freedom allows you to create schedules and rules around the technology you have access to. I decided to use Freedom to block the apps I am most addicted to. This will come as no surprise those apps are social media apps.

I installed the Freedom app on my laptop and cell phone and used schedules to block Twitter, LinkedIn, and email for certain hours of the day. I also realize the value in those platforms and tools, but unfettered access to them was too much.

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freedom.to

Use Freedom or other applications to block yourself from problematic applications.

Make it Unsatisfying

I found that putting the previous three laws into action makes my cell phone pretty unsatisfying. My cell phone usage dropped from 3 hours a day and 172 unlocks on average to under 1 hour a day and 50 unlocks. In the beginning I found myself unlocking my phone and locking it again as I realized I had nothing to do. It was an old habit that was slowly starting to fade.

With time my phone became increasingly unsatisfying and I found more meaningful things to do besides unlocking it. I found that the fourth law, Making it Unsatisfying took care of itself with time. Today, my daily cell phone usage is under 30 minutes on average. My unlock average is between 20–35 times per day.

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moment usage

Conclusion

Creating healthy habits around my phone has been nothing short of life-changing. I’m calmer, more focused, and most importantly it gave me the mental space to deal with the stress in my life. We all feel on some level that we spend too much time on our phones, but stop there. I challenge you to take the first step. Become aware of how much time you’re spending on your phone. And if those results bother you. Choose to do something about it.

Digital Minimalism has become a way of life for me and if that topic interests you, I invite you to follow me as I seek control over the technology I use instead of it controlling me.

Twitter is my journal. You can follow me @joshduffney

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Josh Duffney

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Running in debug and sharing the logs

Age of Awareness

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Running in debug and sharing the logs

Age of Awareness

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