How to Overcome Your Phone Addiction With Mindfulness
My 3-week experiment allowed me to reclaim control over my devices without feeling like I’m depriving myself
Phone addiction is one of the problems many people acknowledge, but can’t be bothered to solve. You certainly know it isn’t making your life any better. But do you realize the practical consequences it has on your mental health, relationships, and goals?
I’d noticed that I had a problem with compulsively checking my phone a while ago. However, it took time before I admitted just how destructive it was to my wellbeing.
One part of me wanted to break the unhealthy habit. But another part clung to it heavily. Deep down, I was afraid that I might not be able to reclaim control over how I used my device. It seemed like something that required a good deal of self-control, which I worried I didn’t have.
With time, however, I got a hunch that maybe there was another way to overcome phone addiction. Because I’ve been practising mindfulness for a few years, I started to look for solutions there.
What if, instead of trying to control my addictive behavior, I could put an end to it by giving it more attention?
In this article, I will describe exactly how I went from this initial question to overcoming my phone addiction by applying mindfulness. I will describe the three-week process I went through, so you can also follow it. By the end of this read, you’ll have the tools to reclaim agency over how you use your devices.
Acknowledging the Problem
“I discovered that living the life we want requires not only doing the right things, it also requires that we stop doing the wrong things that take us off-track.” — Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal’s words resonate with me because, for a long time, I was focused exclusively on the former. Since I discovered self-improvement, I introduced new, beneficial behaviors in my life. I started exercising, journaling, meditating, tracking my habits… you name it. I believed that doing those things would change my life.
What I overlooked was that quitting the unhelpful stuff was equally as important. All of the constructive habits I started could only help me so much as long as their impact was impeded by my clinging to destructive habits.
One of them was phone addiction. Because I was constantly distracting myself by checking notifications and hanging out on social media, I couldn’t focus on what was important. For example, even though I built a solid writing habit, I couldn’t fully capitalize on it. When I was writing, my attention would repeatedly divert to my phone.
Acknowledging this was the first step to changing things for the better. Just like with any addiction, the prerequisite to the intervention is admitting that you have a problem in the first place.
If you still can’t bring yourself to name your compulsive phone use as an addiction, you may read the definition of behavioral addiction from The American Addiction Centers below. Remember that behavioral addiction is different from substance addiction in that most people don’t experience physical withdrawal symptoms with the former. Keeping this in mind, see if you can recognize yourself in this definition:
“It is the compulsive nature of the behavior that is often indicative of a behavioral addiction, or process addiction, in an individual. The compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional in the home and community defines behavioral addiction. The person may find the behavior rewarding psychologically or get a “high” while engaged in the activity, but may later feel guilt, remorse, or even overwhelmed by the consequences of that continued choice. Unfortunately, as is common for all who struggle with addiction, people living with behavioral addictions are unable to stop engaging in the behavior for any length of time without treatment and intervention.”
To paraphrase: If you compulsively use your phone despite knowing that it undermines you, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a behavioral addiction. Now that we sorted that out, let’s start looking at how a mindfulness intervention could solve the problem.
Finding Helpful Methodologies
Controlling my behavior with willpower has always been tricky for me. It felt like an uphill battle. Whenever I was able to tame a temptation for a while — be it binge eating, excessive drinking, or checking my phone — it always seemed to come back at me later with even more impetus.
Then, I’d usually give in. Because I felt like I’d deprived myself of something nice, I easily convinced myself that I deserved a reward. And so the unhealthy cycle was reinforced once again.
Here’s how Nir Eyal put in his book Indistractable:
“An endless cycle of resisting, ruminating and finally giving in to the desire perpetuates the cycle and quite possibly drives many of our unwanted behaviors.”
For example, if I refrained from drinking for two weeks, I’d give myself permission to party hardy after that. Then, I would often drink the equivalent of all the alcohol I “missed out on.” The same thing happened with food. After I’d successfully finish a rigid diet, I would allow myself to binge eat until I felt sick.
To me, the sense of deprivation I felt when I tried to overcome behavioral addictions was the hardest thing to deal with. Timothy Pychyl explains this through what he calls the “pleasure principle.” According to him, this principle directs most of the human behavior when we’re faced with any kind of temptation.
“The most important thing to understand is that we ‘give in to feel good.’ That is, we want to feel good now and we will do whatever it takes for immediate mood repair, usually at the expense of long-term goals.”
Knowing how real the pleasure principle was in regulating my behavior, I worried that trying to ignore it wouldn’t cut it. To overcome phone addiction, I needed a different approach. Something that would allow me to observe my behavior and realize experientially (not just intellectually) that I’m better off when I don’t give in.
That’s why I started researching mindfulness-based interventions.
The scientific evidence that mindfulness can help deal with addictions is plentiful, therefore I won’t cite it all here. But I want to share the two bodies of research that inspired me to devise my personalized, experimental intervention—and exactly how this helped me establish a healthier relationship with my phone.
The impact of mindful attention on resisting temptations
At some point, I came across a paper called The Benefits of Simply Observing: Mindful Attention Modulates the Link Between Motivation and Behavior. It describes a study with Utrecht University students who came to the campus canteen for lunch. The researchers wanted to check whether or not applying mindful attention would impact their food choices.
The participants of the study were assigned to three groups — one experimental and two control groups. The experimental group underwent a short mindfulness training, while the other two, respectively, underwent a different kind of training or no training at all.
During the mindfulness training, the experimental group was shown various images and instructed to observe their minds’ reactions to them. Some images typically enticed a sense of attraction, some aversion, and others were rather neutral. The students were told to pay attention to whatever they experienced in response to the pictures — and to recognize all those responses as temporary mental events.
Afterward, all the participants went to the cafeteria to order lunch. The researchers monitored their food choices and observed that the experimental group participants were less likely to give in to the temptations of unhealthy snacks.
Reading this gave me the first hunch that maybe the key to changing my compulsive behavior was applying mindful attention. After all, the temptation to check my phone didn’t seem that different from resisting junk food.
But what would “applying mindful attention” mean in practice?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—which uses mindfulness as one of its main methods—pointed me to practical solutions. The whole ACT approach is built around being with your experiences exactly as they are. In particular, this means feeling the discomfort instead of running away from it.
This spoke to me because I sensed that my compulsive phone use was triggered by emotional and mental discomfort arising throughout the day. If I learned to experience that discomfort exactly as it was, maybe I wouldn’t need the phone to distract myself from it?
Stephen Hayes, the creator of ACT and author of the book Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life, refers to the ability to be with our discomfort as “willingness.” He explains why we need this willingness, and what happens when we go without it:
“The goal of willingness is flexibility. When you are able to be fully present in the here and now without being judgmental or without pushing away experiences (thoughts, feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, and so on), you have much more freedom to take needed steps to action. If you are willing to have an emotion, feeling, thought, or memory instead of attempting to control it, then the agenda of control is undermined, and you are free from the inevitable by-products of this agenda. These by-products are fairly predictable. First, you lose the war with your own internal content. If you refuse to have that internal content, you’ve got it. If you aren’t willing to lose it, you’ve lost it. Next, you lose the ability to control your own behavior in a flexible and effective way.”
Controlling my phone use in a “flexible and effective way” was exactly where I wanted to go. I figured that to get there, I needed to observe the discomfort that triggered my compulsive behavior.
Before I started developing my “willingness,” I resolved to start with something even more basic. I needed to become more mindful of how and when I used my phone and what exactly qualified as “compulsive behavior” for me.
So I set up an experiment to do just that.
Week 1: Becoming Aware of My Phone Use
In the spirit of inviting organic, unforced change, I started the experiment with something so easy I couldn’t fail at it. During the first week, I didn’t intend to change anything about how I used my phone. I just wanted to become more aware of that use.
I didn’t have a good way to discern how compulsive behavior differed from healthy behavior. I only intuitively felt in which moments it was the addiction, rather than practical reasons, speaking.
Based on that, I decided to track the times when I felt my phone use qualified as compulsive.
What I did
Each time I caught myself using the phone as a distraction, I checked and noted the hour. Depending on where I was, I used a piece of paper lying on my desk or the Evernote mobile app.
Whenever there was an obvious note I could make about the circumstances, I added that, too. These included info such as “dopamine boost as I saw claps on Medium,” “just after getting on the train,” “waiting for an article to get published,” “an escape from discomfort during a family meeting.”
What I noticed
After the first week, I had several insights about my phone use. I also had hard data to support them, so I couldn’t escape the truth anymore.
- I checked my phone once per hour on average — sometimes more if I was going through a lot of discomfort.
- I realized that most of my compulsive phone use was triggered by boredom, annoyance, anxiety, or other uncomfortable feelings.
- The problem extended also to my laptop use when I would distract myself from writing.
- My go-to places on both phone and laptop were Medium, email and (less often) Twitter.
- In some instances, I opened these apps without consciously deciding to. For example, when I hang up after a phone call, I would mindlessly open Medium app without realizing what I was doing.
- There were some moments in my day when I was more likely to check my devices — while eating breakfast, as a distraction from work, or when I was standing in a queue.
The first week allowed me to finally define “compulsive phone use” and discern it from a “healthy” one.
Whenever I opened Medium, email, or Twitter for the primary purpose of distracting myself from discomfort and/or with the hope for it to improve my mood, I saw this as a compulsion. It turned out that I not only did this on my phone but also on my laptop.
I learned that there was a purpose behind my behavior: to relieve discomfort, even if just for a brief moment. However, I suspected that this relief was only illusionary. To confirm this hypothesis, I resolved to further observe my compulsive device use in Week 2.
Week 2: Observing the Intended vs. Actual Functions of My Behavior
To design the next part of my experiment, I drew upon a tool recommended by Stephen Hayes in his book. It’s called functional analysis, and it draws upon the notion that any human behavior, even if it seems to make no sense, has a purpose behind it.
I already suspected that the intended function of my compulsive device use was to relieve discomfort. However, I also wanted to take note of what the actual function was. In other words: were the soothing outcomes I hoped for actually occurring?
To document Week 2, I used a modified version of a table proposed by Hayes. I decided to describe 4–5 instances of addictive phone or laptop use per day. The table I completed daily looked like this:
What I did
In the first column, I noted the time of the event. In the second, I wrote about what particular thoughts or feelings prompted the desire to distract myself. In the third column, I described the instance of phone or laptop use — i.e. which apps I opened what exactly I did there.
The last column was for rating how effective my behavior was in relieving discomfort. I used the following 0–4 scale.
0 — the discomfort definitely deepened
1 — it seems like the discomfort deepened
2 — I can’t see a difference between before and after
3 — it seems like the discomfort subsided
4 — the discomfort definitely subsided
What I noticed
I confirmed that compulsive phone use was typically triggered by emotional or mental discomfort. Actually, I had to postpone Week 2 of my experiment because the first time I tried it, there was not enough discomfort to track. I spent that week in a rented flat with two very close friends and I felt so uplifted in their presence that I didn’t look at my devices out of discomfort.
The following week, I returned to my routine and compulsive habits came back. I realized that phone or laptop distraction only improved my mood in those rare cases when I found something I hoped for in my notifications (e.g. an email with good news about my article). However, 90% of the time, I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw. Hence, my discomfort either deepened or remained as it was.
This meant that compulsive device use was typically making me even less comfortable. Seeing it on paper allowed me to realize that the instant gratification I thought I was giving to myself was an illusion.
Each time I reinforced my phone addiction, it just made me feel worse.
The above realization was empowering because it finally made one thing clear: my strategy for mood enhancement wasn’t working 90% of the time. Every time I checked my notifications, I was almost surely signing up for a mood decrease, rather than increase.
Because I learned this experientially, my approach to addiction was starting to change on its own. I began to see every instance of compulsive behavior as a choice I was making.
Either I gave my discomfort an almost-sure boost, or I resisted the temptation to check my phone to, at least, not worsen my emotional state.
The reasons for making the right choice were clearer than ever because I’ve experienced them, rather than just read about them. But then I was back to my initial, practical question:
How could I resist the temptation of checking my devices without feeling a sense of deprivation?
Week 3: Introducing Ten Mindful Breaths
The above issue was important for me to address. Because I knew that depriving myself of something usually backfired in the past, I didn’t want to repeat this mistake. That’s where the study of Utrecht University students came in.
In the experiment, the researchers have demonstrated that applying mindful attention just before ordering food decreased the chances that people went for unhealthy meal options. I thought that the same mechanism might help me whenever I was faced with a choice between fiddling with or ignoring my devices.
What I did
During Week 3, I stopped tracking my behavior and committed to one simple action. Whenever I’d feel the urge to check my phone or laptop as a way to escape discomfort, I decided to take ten mindful breaths first.
I didn’t commit to not checking the notifications afterward — that would involve control and willpower. The only deal was to pause for the duration of ten breaths and observe how the temptation felt in my body.
As long as I did that, I was free to do whatever I wanted later on.
What I noticed
This is when the experiment became amazing to the point of miraculous. After the first few “breath pauses,” I discovered something incredible.
Whenever I took the time to observe the temptation, by the time I completed my ten breaths, the urge was typically gone. If it didn’t disappear entirely, at least it felt much vaguer.
Taking the time to give full attention to my discomfort started changing the course of my behavior.
Not only did the urge to check my devices subside, but it created room for more conscious decision-making. During the time I spent breathing, I also had a chance to remember the precious lesson learned during Week 2 — that distracting myself would most likely make me feel worse, not better.
Whenever I granted myself a pause between urge and reaction, I had a chance to remember this: resorting to compulsive device use didn’t help me. Sometimes, during the ten conscious breaths, I imagined how I might feel if I checked my notifications. When I realized this would most likely make me more anxious, bored or angry, it was natural to give it up.
Mindfulness, combined with experiential knowledge of how my addiction impacted me, allowed me to let go of compulsive behavior organically. This meant that I didn’t feel like I was depriving myself of anything.
On the contrary, the vision of checking my notifications started seeming like an act of depriving myself of peace of mind.
The Follow-Up to the Experiment and the Takeaway
My discoveries were very promising, but when my experiment ended, I was faced with one more challenge. I was, once again, left out in the open. The fun, experimental framework I followed for the past three weeks was gone.
I worried that I would easily fall back into my old habits.
And indeed, they started creeping in already a few days after I finished my “formal” intervention. But I knew that what I had worked out was too precious to lose.
To keep myself on track, I wrote out a few guidelines to abide by as I moved forward. These are a handful of points to help me remember my key learnings, especially the one tool I can always use: mindful attention.
These are the guidelines I created for myself:
- When in doubt, count ten mindful breaths and then proceed. This simple act can alter the course of your behavior.
- Mentally examine the reward of this particular phone use against its costs. Remember the most likely effect it’ll have on you. Is it really worth it?
- Talk about the experiment with other people whenever you get a chance. Voicing your discoveries will help reinforce them in your behavior.
- Keep the evenings screen-free — preferably, stop using devices around 6 p.m. This ensures that every day there’s a long period when you’re away from your phone and laptop.
- Allow time for intentional distraction. These are a few “cheat moments” throughout the day when you get to distract yourself guilt-free. This way, the devices don’t become “the forbidden fruit” which could invite unnecessary temptation.
My “cheat moments” are these:
- In the morning with breakfast
- Just before work
- During work no more often than once per hour
- One time after work, during the afternoon
These are my guidelines to keep my device use in check. Yours may be completely different, depending on what you discover in your experiment. Remember that the main point of creating them is to remind yourself about the key learnings connected to your addiction.
Since I finished the experiment, I’ve been reviewing my guidelines once a week or so. I feel much happier about my phone and laptop use now. I can’t say I always have it under perfect control. There are days when I indulge in distraction, just like in the old days.
But something has changed since then. Whenever I become aware that my phone use is harming me, I naturally put it down — and I don’t feel deprived. Since such mindful moments naturally arise more and more frequently, I believe I’m on the right track.