When checking my messages got out of control, I sought the advice of experts on addiction: smokers. It worked.
My phone habits got healthier when I applied classic stop-smoking techniques that have been proven to work.
Like many people, I used to check my phone basically any time there was a lull in activity of more than 30 seconds. If I was having dinner with my partner and he went to the bathroom, my phone would be out in an instant. If I was waiting for a train. If I was waiting for the kettle to boil. If I was listening to a podcast and it got a bit boring. If I was listening to a friend and they got a bit boring — well, I wouldn’t actually take it out then. But I’d feel a twitch toward it.
Apart from the almost-certain damage I was doing to my attention span, I tended to automatically check Twitter, meaning my partner would come back to re-join the nice date we were having, and my mood would be completely soured because Someone Was Wrong On The Internet.
So: That had to stop.
I tried turning notifications off on every app. I just got anxious and opened the apps more often.
I tried deleting the apps that caused problems—social media, news, messages—from my phone. I ended up just accessing them in the browser.
I tried using apps like Stay Focused to block my access. I’d just disable them.
I tried just not checking my phone — the cold turkey method — and folks, it didn’t go great. All it did was add a layer of guilt to my bad habit and sour mood.
I thought: I have to get smarter about this. Who knows about addiction? What addiction has been studied in-depth, for decades, with an absolutely massive group of experiment subjects, to establish the best-practice methods? Cigarettes!
I looked for the methods that have strong research backing. The most recommended by far was “having a strong support network” but that’s not a specific method, so I won’t go into it here. Others, like acupuncture, seemed to be in the “it’s probably a placebo, but who’s it hurting?” category. When it comes to addiction, if a placebo effect gets you to stop smoking, I guess that’s an unalloyed win. But I personally wasn’t motivated to try them.
My Shortlisted Methods
I settled on making a serious attempt with the substitution method, urge-surfing (commonly recommended to heroin addicts, so presumably powerful), and the book “Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Quit Smoking.” Sadly there’s no Chantix for phone addiction.
The Substitution Method: Switch Out Behaviours
Chewing gum when you feel the urge for a cigarette is an old standard, and research shows it’s effective:
“Results from this study indicate that chewing gum reduces craving and helps with withdrawal”
Part of the impulse to smoke — and certainly to check your phone — is muscle memory. So I came up with a list of “healthy” things I could do that use the same muscle memory. I thought of it as replacing junk food with vegetables. Most of them involve a note-taking app of some kind — ideally one with a widget that fills up your whole home screen. This substitutes writing on the phone for reading messages. (Needless to say, you also need to have all notifications blocked, or you’ll immediately be distracted by them.)
7 productive ways to use a notes app when you have a minute to kill
- Write a To-Do list — any errands or stray tasks that are floating around in your head. Getting them down makes you feel even less frazzled than just the absence of checking social media.
- Write a list of bigger projects or activities you want to get to if you can find a free evening. This is more of a daydream list, so it can leave you feeling hopeful.
- Gratitude practice. Come up with three things you’re grateful for right now.
- Make a bullet-point plan for a story, blog post, or letter you’ll write later.
- Write a haiku about your surroundings, your date, or your lunch. The idea isn’t to turn you into a poet, it’s to get you to pay close, interested attention to your surroundings. Plus a haiku is really short. It’s fun.
- List habits you’d like to try and develop. List habits you’d like to leave behind at some point. List habits you’d like to try for 30 days as an experiment.
- List 10 ideas for anything (this is James Altucher’s Become an Idea Machine daily practice). The short time limit actually makes the practice more effective because you don’t have time to second-guess yourself.
My favourite substitution activity: The Poetry Foundation app
I saved this till last because it’s the one that turned out to be the most effective for me, probably because it involves consuming content, instead of creating it, and that’s often better suited to the brainless mode I’m in when I check my phone. Instead of consuming social media, however, I’m getting my mind expanded with poetry.
The Poetry Foundation app (Android|ios) has two roulette wheels: one with topics (family, death, etc.) and one with moods (melancholy, nostalgic, etc.). You can make a choice manually or give a wheel a spin and get a random selection of poems by one of the classic or contemporary greats.
This is absolutely perfect when you have a minute to spare — suddenly you’re a person who has read heaps of poems. I often don’t “get” them, but every now again I hit gold with something that really moves or inspires me that I never otherwise would have seen.
Physical substitution activities
I never had much success with these, but I think they’re worth mentioning: stretch for 30 seconds, do 20 calf-raises, do push-ups off the countertop while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew, that sort of thing. Think about how smug you’ll be able to feel at getting more exercise.
The substitution method: my results
After coming up with a clear list of substitution activities, I found it much easier to divert my phone-checking compulsion into a list-making compulsion. Sometimes, though, I was tired, I was stressed, I was anxious — I didn’t feel like becoming an idea machine. I just wanted some content to distract me.
That’s why the poetry app ended up working so well for me; it was pure consumption. I think the lesson here is: Don’t try to be too virtuous. It would be a real success to not be on stress-inducing social media or the latest news updates all the time. You don’t need to also become a productivity master on top of that.
The substitution method diverted my media-checking compulsion, which improved my mental health, but it didn’t really stop the compulsion — I still pulled my phone out every time I was even slightly bored. I just did healthier things with it.
Urge-Surfing: Riding the Wave Until It Passes
Urge-surfing is a technique developed by Alan Marlett, Director of the Addictive Behaviours Research Center at the University of Washington. A 2009 study showed that even brief instructions in urge-surfing resulted in students smoking much fewer cigarettes in the week following than the control group.
The theory behind urge-surfing is that urges come in waves. When you feel a craving — for heroin, for cigarettes, for gambling, for anything — it ramps up, like a wave, over the first 20 minutes, and you feel desperate and frantic, like it’s just going to get more and more intense until you die or explode or something. But that isn’t the case. If you can ‘ride’ the wave instead of fighting it, it will subside around the 30-minute mark.
You might have spotted an obvious problem with applying urge-surfing to phone-checking: I don’t actually have 30 minutes to spare every time I feel the urge to see if I have any new emails.
But then, I usually don’t need to resist the urge for that long. Just a couple of minutes will see me through to whatever else is going on in my life. It seemed worth trying.
How to practice urge-surfing:
- Remember the image of your urge as a wave. However intense it might feel, like all waves, it will break and disappear.
- Focus on one area of the body where you can feel the physical sensations associated with the urge and notice what is occurring. [I felt it in my hand and my hip — my phone pocket. I chose to focus on my hand first.]
- Pay attention to the sensation. Notice its exact position. Where are its boundaries? Is it round or spiky? Hot or cool? Tightly knotted or loose? Does it have a colour associated with it?
- Keep paying attention as you breathe normally. Do the qualities you noticed above change as you breathe?
- Be curious about how the sensation changes over time.
- When you think something like, “I wish this urge would go away,” or, “I wish I could just give in to it,” don’t judge the thought, just be curious about it. Then go back to paying attention to the physical sensation. Has it changed?
- Repeat this process with any other parts of your body that feel a physical sensation as part of your urge.
- Is the urge getting stronger? Weaker? You’ll probably notice both: that it comes in waves, arising and subsiding. Just keep noticing.
- Eventually, the urge will peak and then subside enough for you to get on with your day.
Free audio guide
The Addictive Behaviours Research Centre has helpfully provided a free mp3 to guide you through the urge-surfing process. It’s eight minutes long.
Urge-surfing: my results
It worked, but it’s very boring. When I used it, I succeeded in not checking my phone, but I was also just kinda standing there breathing and noticing my hand. My sense is that urge-surfing is better suited to more destructive addictions where making it through the day without using or putting 10 grand into the slot machines is absolutely worth a boring half-hour a few times a day.
However, I did end up finding a use for this method. I struggle with sugar cravings — especially when it’s late, I’m bored, I can’t go out because of the COVID curfew in my area, and a blueberry cheesecake can be delivered to my doorstep in minutes. Since I’d been experimenting for my phone addiction, I gave urge-surfing a go for this. The 30-minutes thing is true. I did lose the urge and felt a lot better for not having given in (there’s nothing wrong with the occasional treat, but eating an entire cheesecake out of boredom is not something I personally want to do).
Other times, though, I’m like, “But I don’t want to listen to the urge-surfing recording, I want a cheesecake.” When it’s an impulse that’s incredibly easily fulfilled, it still takes a decent amount of willpower to even try the method of resistance.
Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Quit Smoking
Allen Carr’s book promises that after you’ve finished reading it, you’ll never smoke again. I’d heard of it because my brother successfully used it to quit smoking. (Less anecdotally, this 2020 study found Carr’s methods are as effective as traditional smoking cessation treatment.)
The book begins with a thorough breakdown of all the negative effects of smoking. He reminds you of the truth that you already know: You don’t want to keep doing it. To replicate this, I read a few articles on the evils of social media and phone addiction and the masterminds behind it — there’s about a million, just Google.
Carr notes that there is a huge disconnect between what we want and what we actually enjoy. They’re different neurological processes. That’s why you can desperately crave, for example, an entire blueberry cheesecake, but when you actually eat it, it’s only OK. Or why you often don’t feel like going out with your friends at all — it seems like kind of a hassle — but when you actually see them, you have an amazing time.
So Carr recommends working to really notice and internalise that disconnect. He tells smokers to pay attention to their next cigarette. It’s like mindfulness but for noticing the unpleasantness. How does it taste? Not, “how did you imagine it would taste when you were craving it,” but how does it actually taste? Does it smell nice? Do your hands smell nice? How do you feel — do you actually feel more relaxed, or do you feel worse?
I tried this mindful attention process with my phone compulsion. The next time I took out my phone, I took a moment to notice my wellbeing levels beforehand. Then I opened Twitter.
A pretty standard mix of notifications: People have liked or RT’d my posts, some nice comments, one annoying comment that misses the point. What’s happening in the news feed? Oh god, some awful new thing a politician has said. A genuinely funny joke. A shooting. An update from an IRL friend, great news about their career. Someone’s been cancelled but I can’t actually tell what they’ve done from the feed. I should Google it to find out what they did.
I paused and paid attention to my body. Do I feel better than I did 30 seconds ago, or worse? Inevitably, it was worse. My brain felt frazzled and crunched up. My body felt more tense and defensive. The experience had been a net loss. Unquestionably.
The more I really paid attention to the reality of how much I “liked” checking my phone, the easier it became to resist the impulse. It just became…obvious.
Set a date for when you plan to quit
Carr recommends setting a date and then looking forward to it. Don’t think, “Oh god, I have to quit. That’s gonna suck.” Tell yourself, “I can’t wait till I quit! I’m gonna be so much less stressed, I’ll have more free time, I’ll be a more attentive friend…” See quitting as a glorious opportunity, something to anticipate, not a burden.
(You can get an overview of the other parts of the Easy Way method on this page of Carr’s website, but a warning that the site has a pretty hard-sell approach to his seminars and stuff. I’d recommend sticking to the book, which you can buy in the usual places.)
Allen Carr’s Easy Way: my results
This book was by far the most effective method at not just resisting my urges but actually removing them. I think it helped that I’d already tried the substitution method. I had a very clear, visceral sense memory of the difference between checking Twitter for two minutes and reading poems for two minutes. Allen Carr doesn’t approve of the substitution method, but I think they work well together.
In the end, it wasn’t so much like choosing the obviously better option — I mean, I’ve known for years that there are better options than getting tense and wired every time I have a “break.” It was more like the decision was made for me at a layer deeper than my usual verbal thinking brain. It just settled there and became reality.
In fact, the urge to check my phone faded to the degree that I sometimes forget to check my phone all day, to the annoyance of co-workers trying to contact me, and I kinda miss the poetry app — since I no longer have the urge to check my phone, I no longer divert the urge towards poetry.
Breaking My Phone Addiction Has Given My Life More Breathing Space
If this were a clickbait article, I’d tell you that I’ve been transformed, I lost 10 kilos, I speak French now.
But the difference is noticeable. It’s like having a pebble in your shoe all day and finally removing it. Phone addiction is a constant, low-level annoyance and distraction that you really shouldn’t just put up with.
I mean, I still check the news every day, I haven’t gone full Walden. I get angry and upset, and people are still Wrong On The Internet in ways I feel the urge to explain to my partner. But it doesn’t occupy all my spare moments, throwing me off-course every time I transition between tasks. There’s been a real improvement in how I flow through my day.
There’s a little more space, a little more room to breathe. Tell me you don’t want that, too.