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The 5 Step Guide to Breaking Your Phone Addiction, for Good

How to keep social media apps from stealing your time through triggers and habit replacement

Photo by Terrie Schweitzer.

The average person spends over 4 hours a day on their phone. That’s 28 hours a week. That’s a part-time job — hell, it’s almost a full-time job.

But that’s just the average American. What about you? How much time do you spend on your phone a week? Go ahead and check right now. It only takes a few minutes; I’ll wait. (Here are instructions on how to do so for iPhone and Android).

Since it’s only fair, I’ll share how much time I spend on my phone in a week as well:

Image for post
The top number is crossed out for one important reason: I don’t count time using Google Maps toward my screen time. I use Google Maps to check traffic during my work commute, and this is not the sort of phone use which contributes to my unhappiness as a person. It represents a majority of the time spent on my phone, so I choose to exclude it. When I exclude Google Maps from my total phone time, it comes out to 16h 24m. Divided by 7, that’s a daily average of 2h 20m a day.

All in all, I use my phone a little over half as frequently as the average person.

My reduced phone usage didn’t happen by accident; I spent two or three months laser-focused on the task of bringing my phone use under control. I’d wager that at the height of my phone addiction I spent more than 5 hours a day on my phone.

And no, I didn’t settle on anything extreme like deleting all the social media apps off my phone (I tried that for a while) or turning my phone black and white (I tried that too). In the end, I got the best results with some simple changes that you can make in about half an hour.

I’ve written this guide to walk you through them.

Why I Didn’t Take Some Common Advice

Before getting started, I’d like to explain some changes I am not going to ask you to make:

  1. Deleting all your social media apps. Every time I’ve ever tried to do this, I ended up having to download them back because a friend made a Facebook event, or they wanted me to look at a particular Instagram account, or for some other legitimate reason. We’ll go over ways to break your social media addiction that don’t involve deleting apps.
  2. Reducing your home screen to six apps. Some people find success this way, but I’m not one of them. There are apps on my phone that I use infrequently, but when I use them, I need them. These are usually utilities, like my altimeter, TinyScanner, and Authy. We’ll be going over ways to organize your phone and reduce its footprint without getting rid of these apps.
  3. Forcing yourself not to use your phone. We live in a smartphone world. If you manage to cut your phone entirely out of your life, you will find yourself in situations where everyone but you is using their phone (such as waiting in line, or in the car as a passenger). The stoic ideal might be to sit there in contemplative silence, but sometimes I’d rather do something with my time. We’ll be going over ways to use your phone productively, rather than trying to cut it out entirely.

I tried all these things, and while they worked for a while, the changes never stuck. There are two reasons for this:

  • When you eliminate a bad habit, the trigger for the habit is still there. If you don’t replace that trigger with a new positive habit, the old negative one will reassert itself. Waiting in line, boredom in a car and situations where other people use their phones are a trigger you can’t escape. In my experience, you can fight it, but not forever. If you don’t design a positive response, you will break. This guide will show you how to design a positive response.
  • Any change based on flatly deleting an app you use creates frustration because you encounter a situation where you might have wanted the app, and now it’s gone. In my experience, I would quickly re-download the app and use it. The problem came later when it sent me dozens of big, bright notifications to control my behavior. This guide will show you how to make sure only important notifications get to you, so you control apps instead of apps controlling you.

Without further ado…

Step 1: Figure out which apps are healthy and which are toxic

To figure out the best solution, we have to make sure we’ve fully identified the problem. The problem with your phone addiction isn’t your phone. If that were the case, the right thing to do would be to trash the phone.

No, the problem is with the apps you have on it.

To break your phone addiction, the first thing you need to do is identify which apps are causing a problem and which aren’t. In other words, determining which apps with which you have a healthy relationship, and which apps with which you have a toxic one.

When your relationship with an app is healthy, it makes your life better. You don’t feel a compulsion to use it. You use it when you need it, and the rest of the time you don’t think about it. Sometimes, you feel happy after using it. Healthy apps typically include the basics, like your banking apps, calculator, phone, calendar, map, etc. This also includes educational apps, apps that help you relax, meditating apps, study apps, basically anything which makes you happier and healthier.

When your relationship with an app is toxic, it makes your life worse. You often feel a compulsion to use the app many times a day. Using unhealthy apps makes you feel worse than if you hadn’t used them. Using it gives you little to no benefit. Unhealthy apps, in most cases, includes all social media. It also typically includes phone games, especially free ones with in-app purchases.

The goal of curing your phone addiction is to de-emphasize all apps with which you have a toxic relationship and emphasize all apps with which you have a healthy one. The apps that are toxic for people varies from person to person; for instance, most people have a toxic relationship with Instagram, but some Instagram influencers have a healthy relationship with it (or at least they say they do).

Before getting started with this guide, sit down and decide which apps are healthy and which are toxic for you. It’s a good bet that you have a toxic relationship with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and any other social media you have. Some people also have a toxic relationship with email. Others have a toxic relationship with phone games.

In summary, if these things are true, the app is probably toxic

  • You feel a compulsion to use it.
  • You feel worse after using it than if you hadn’t.
  • You regret using it.
  • It makes your life worse instead of better.
  • It gives you little to no benefit.

Make a list of your toxic and healthy apps. You will probably find you have far more toxic ones than healthy ones.

Step 2: Delete any apps you don’t need

There’s no point in reorganizing and optimizing apps you don’t need, so the first step is to delete apps you don’t need.

If there are any apps you don’t use at all, delete them. Maybe you had plans to use the app in the future, or perhaps you used to use them, but now you don’t. Whatever the reason, if you don’t use it, it’s got to go.

Bonus: If you’re big on data security, don’t just delete the app: take the time to delete the account associated with it. Sometimes you can do this in the app, and sometimes you need to contact the company’s customer support. Then it’s like it never existed.

Next, delete all your phone games. Yeah, I know, phone games are amusing — but the whole problem here is that you spend too much time with your nose in your phone instead of living your life. If you like games that much, invest in an actual gaming system.

I’m not making you go without. Later in this guide, we’re going to go over healthy apps that can replace your phone games. But welcoming healthy habits in your life means saying goodbye to the unhealthy ones, so goodbye phone games.

Step 3: Rearrange your remaining apps

A big part of why you waste so much time on Instagram is because Instagram is accessible. It’s on your phone, possibly even on the home screen. When you open your phone, it’s so easy for your eyes to find the Instagram icon that sometimes you’ve opened it before you’ve even realized. This is true for any app that you waste time on that you wish you didn’t.

Many people recommend that you delete apps you spend too much time on, but I disagree. I think that’s an extreme fix that often backfires. When I removed all my social media apps, I didn’t waste as much time on my phone — but I also missed out on things. I missed parties because I didn’t see Facebook invitations. I didn’t see big news from friends because I wasn’t checking their Instagram.

I recommend a milder fix: hide apps you don’t want to use in groups.

Hide apps in groups

Here’s what this looks like on my phone:

The only pages on my iPhone
Inside the “Social” folder.

I still have the unholy trinity of social media on my phone: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But they are as hidden on my phone as they can get. They are on the second page of a group on the second screen of my phone. To get to my social media apps, I have to use three gestures (swipe right, tap the group, swipe again). Each gesture is an additional opportunity for me to remember this is a waste of my time.

It has to be on the second page of a group for a reason: you can see the preview of apps on the first page. You might think a tiny icon wouldn’t make a difference in use, but I know from experience that it does. Out of sight, out of mind. When my social media is on the first page of a group, I learn to click into the group to get to the app out of habit. When it’s on the second page, the habit never forms.

Clear out your home screen

In addition to hiding the apps I don’t want to use, I place the apps I do want to use in a prominent position: my home screen. We’re going to go over good apps later in this guide, but for now know the cardinal rule: never put an app you don’t want to use on the home screen. Any apps on the home screen are going to get used more than apps on any other page, so make sure the apps that are there are ones you want to use.

To recap:

  1. Hide apps you want to discourage yourself from using in the second page of groups.
  2. Place apps you want to encourage yourself to use on the home screen.

Step 4: Turn off (most of) your notifications

If you turn off all of your notifications, you’ll miss important things. I know this from experience; after re-downloading all my social media apps, I decided to turn all notifications off. Muting social media was almost as bad as not having social media at all because I was still missing parties and people’s news. So you do want notifications — but only the ones that matter.

Turn off notifications in-app

Almost all the apps we use every day have a menu in them where you can customize the kinds of notifications you get. That way, you only see what you want to see, not what the companies want you to see.

Facebook: I have a lot of complaints about Facebook, but their notifications aren’t one of them. They offer a very granular level of control over their notifications (which is good, because by default it seems like there are about a hundred thousand of them). I have turned most of their notifications off.

Instagram: Instagram, too, has pretty good notification control. Here are my Instagram settings:

Twitter: By now, you should be seeing a theme. The notifications menu is pretty easy to find, and I have most of mine turned off.

Snapchat: Here is how to find Snapchat settings and custom notifications. I turned off New Story notifications, which means I only get a Snapchat notification if someone has snapped me personally. Of all my notifications, I’m the most pleased I customized Snapchat.

Do this for every single app for which you get notifications. If you get a lot of notifications on your phone, this might take some time. Typically, custom notifications are going to be in the Settings or Profile section of the app that is sending them.

Some apps won’t have their own in-app notification menus, and that’s fine. Just make sure to take a look at all of the ones that do.

Turn off badges

Unfortunately, you can’t stop there. Customizing notifications reduces the number of notifications you get, but the ones you get will still demand your attention. The next thing we need to do is reduce the power these notifications have over you.

Badges are those little red circles that go over apps. That red circle draws your eye and makes your brain think ‘urgent.’ Accordingly, badges should only be used by things that actually are urgent, like missed calls. That way, you get to them instead of them getting lost in the notification deluge. Someone tagging you in an Instagram photo isn’t urgent, and shouldn’t demand the same level of attention as something that is.

Badges are not turned off in the app; they are turned off in the Settings app of the iPhone. To do this, open Settings on your iPhone and scroll down. Where it starts listing all of your apps is what you’re looking for. Select the app you want to turn notifications off for, and you will see a section called Notifications. Open that, and you’ll see Notification options. Switch Badges to OFF.

Settings > App > Notifications

Turn off badges for every single app that isn’t as urgent as a phone call.

Turn off notifications

Earlier, you turned off notifications for apps within the app. But some of those apps didn’t have an option to turn off notifications. Most (if not all) of these apps do not have important notifications. Since the app didn’t give us an option to customize notifications, we have to turn them all off. (Believe me, you’re better off without them).

In the Settings menu, navigate to that app’s notification preferences. Go ahead and switch “Allow Notifications” to OFF.

Step 5: Download healthy apps

Now that you’ve deleted your phone games, hidden your social media, and silenced your apps, your phone is going to be a lot quieter than before. At this point, you’re like a smoker who threw away all her cigarettes; you got rid of the nicotine, but your desire to smoke still remains. And like the smoker, you need to replace the urge to smoke with the urge to do something else.

Unlike the smoker, who has to give up smoking entirely, you can trade your dependence on toxic apps for a dependence on healthy apps. Replacing bad habits with good is the most sustainable way to break a phone addiction.

So, instead of using toxic apps like social media, use healthy apps. Here are some of my favorite:

Duolingo: A game that teaches you languages. It is the perfect thing to do when you’re bored and on your phone. While everyone else is scrolling Instagram and melting their brain, you are learning a second language. (My best friend has a 794-day streak on Duolingo, meaning he’s played it every day for 794 days).

ProgrammingHub: ProgrammingHub is similar to Duolingo, except instead of being a game that teaches you a second language, it teaches you code. Code is an insanely useful skill in our tech society, and turning your Instagram time into code time could literally change your career.

VocabularyBuilder: I like learning other languages, but I also want to be fluent in my native English. VocabularyBuilder by Magoosh is ostensibly a study app for the GRE, but I’ve found it to be a great way to expand my English vocabulary for fun.

Magnus Trainer: A game that teaches you chess. It breaks down chess into component parts and has mini-games to help you master various aspects of chess. Switching out toxic apps for Magnus will give you the skills you need to slay at board game night. Plus, being good at chess makes you feel really smart.

Elevate: Elevate is an app with mini-games to sharpen your brain. Unlike Luminosity or other ‘brain game’ apps, Elevate’s mini-games teach you real-world skills. My mental math, vocabulary and reading comprehension have all gone up since I’ve started playing their games.

Brilliant: My favorite of the bunch, but also very pricey at $119/year, Brilliant is an app that teaches you mathematics and science. If you are not a nerd, this is perfect for you: it makes these topics which seemed so unapproachable in high school suddenly fun to learn, and in bite-sized pieces too. After I downloaded this app, not only was I using it, but a group of my friends and I sat around and solved it’s logic puzzles together, which was actually a lot of fun.

Duolingo, Brilliant, and ProgrammingHub

The one thing these apps have in common is that they are educational apps. In addition to being fun to use, using them teaches you things you will find yourself using in real life.

You know how some people are so smart and seem to know so many things? It’s because they spend their spare time enriching themselves instead of using toxic apps. Being like them is as easy as downloading educational games instead of normal, soul-sucking ones.

Put them on your home screen

Once you download healthy apps, place them on your home screen. Home screen placement is a critical step because it means that when you compulsively open your phone (which you will), your eyes see these apps before they find anything toxic.

Spend some time interacting with these apps. You want to be familiar with them so that the next time you feel triggered to pick up your phone, it’s easy for you to open them. If you are dreadfully bored and you see you haven’t set up Duolingo yet, you might pass over it in favor of finding your social media.

I’ll be straight with you. Healthy apps are not as satisfying or fun as toxic apps. Full functionality is usually not free. I’ll briefly explain the reason here:

Healthy apps are less addicting and more expensive because, with a toxic app, you are not the priority. You are the product.

In toxic apps, advertisers are the priority. These apps sell you to them.

Healthy apps, on the other hand, make you the priority. They are trying to make your life better. The problem is, no one is paying them to make your life better but you.

The apps I’ve suggested here have reasonably satisfying free versions, but this isn’t common for healthy apps. As a rule, you should get used to the idea that you have to pay for quality apps (which is the way it works for literally any other type of product, by the way).

This brings us to the end of our guide. If you have a great phone optimization tip I missed, reply and let me know!

Written by

Personal growth writer & author ✺ seeking wisdom ✺

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