The Technology Addict’s Guide to Reducing Phone Usage

A strategy to practice digital minimalism by mindfully hiding your phone

Bryan Ye
Bryan Ye
Nov 14 · 15 min read
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I grew up with the rise of technology, so it has always been an integral part of my life. I started playing video games as a child, and slowly migrated to social media as I grew up. I was aware of technology’s grip on me, but I didn’t want to do anything about it; after all, it was difficult. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what I could do.

But then I read Digital Minimalism. In the book, Cal Newport provides a convincing argument to join the quiet movement of digital minimalists. The most notable to me was the ability to control technology rather than have it control me. Upon finishing the book, I reflected on my habits and realized the severity of my addiction. Understanding that something had to change, I started taking action.

Newport introduces strategies like a digital declutter, where you set aside a 30-day-period to take a break from all optional technologies in your life. But these strategies were vague. I was addicted: addicted to Snapchat, addicted to Instagram, and most of all, addicted to Facebook Messenger, because I couldn’t stop messaging people. Nevertheless, Newport had convinced, persuaded, and seduced me. I was indoctrinated, so I needed to find a way to practice the philosophy that worked for me. So I created my minimalistic iPhone. The new setup changed my life; when I used my phone, I only used the apps I intended to use.

But that wasn’t enough. I needed something more. Along with how I use my phone, I needed to change when I use my phone. So I created a strategy:

  1. When I’m doing something, put my phone as far away as possible.
  2. No restrictions on when I can use my phone.
  3. If I do use my phone, I have to put it back to the inaccessible place where it belonged.

The idea behind this is to make your phone as hard to use as possible. I didn’t have the willpower to restrict myself, so I decided to change my environment instead.

I incrementally integrated the strategy into all parts of my life. This guide covers the parts of our lives that we probably have in common, including sleep, work, and exercise. But the essential part of the strategy is the process: you can apply it anywhere.

Let’s start with the first thing we do every day. Before we even wake up, we sleep.

😴 Sleep Without Your Phone

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

— Ernest Hemingway

Ever since I got a phone, I slept with it next to me. I would wake up in the middle of the night and unconsciously scroll through social media, text my friends, and then, I would wake up with only the slightest recollection of the events that transpired. I knew this needed to change.

I decided to put my phone in another room while I sleep. This sounds easy, but it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever accomplished.

I felt like I was being separated from my baby. The agonizing anxiety made me rush to my phone as soon as I woke up. But as the days passed, I became more comfortable; as I became more comfortable, my separation anxiety disappeared, and my sleep improved; as my sleep improved, I couldn’t justify sleeping with my phone anymore.

So this became a cornerstone of my strategy: sleep without the phone. If you’re going to do anything in this guide, I recommend this. It requires a low amount of effort for a high return on investment — less than a minute to put your phone in another room for an entire night of undisturbed sleep.

To sleep without your phone:

  1. Find a place with a power outlet that’s out of reach from your bed, preferably in another room.
  2. Charge your phone while you sleep.
  3. If you used your phone as an alarm, replace it with another alarm (that isn’t another phone!)

But sleep isn’t the only time we use our phones. After we sleep, we wake up.

📋 Accomplish the First Task Before Touching Your Phone

“Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.”

— Lemony Snicket

A report from IDC research showed that 80% of smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up. I was one of those people—and it didn’t take me 15 minutes to check my phone. I checked it immediately.

It’s easy to get the first dopamine hit of the day from your phone. There’s a sense of satisfaction from checking: a hope that someone important messaged us, sent us a photo, or tagged us in a meme. Though, a deadly dissatisfaction follows — a dissatisfaction that creates desperation to escape the blank space of solitude.

Then, I found the Tim Ferriss Show, where Ferriss interviews world-class performers, including Neil Gaiman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lebron James. Everyone is different, but they all have similar habits. Almost every podcast guest has a morning routine, even though they may vary (common ones include meditation, journaling, and exercise). Somehow, every high-achiever had a morning routine. I couldn’t chalk this up to coincidence. I had to try it myself.

Combining my need to stop checking my phone with my desire for a morning routine, I decided to replace my hedonistic habits. I started doing morning pages: three longhand pages, written in a stream of consciousness.

To replace your routine of using your phone first thing in the morning:

  1. Choose a morning routine. Meditation, journaling, and exercise are common, simple, and effective ones. Start with something easy.
  2. Depending on your willpower, choose a place to do your morning routine that isn’t the room with your phone in it. I don’t trust myself, so I journal before I leave my bedroom.
  3. Do your morning routine before touching your phone.

If you do your morning routine before touching your phone, you’ve succeeded. You’ve taught yourself that your sanity is more important than your phone, and have started on a road to healthy habits.

Do more before touching your phone

You might want to do more. You don’t have to check your phone right after your morning routine. There are other things you can do, like brushing your teeth, making breakfast, or in my case, writing 1,000 words. Once you’re comfortable enough to do more, integrate these other activities into your digital minimalism.

To accomplish more before touching your phone:

  1. Do your morning routine.
  2. Do other activities that don’t involve technology.
  3. Check your phone.

Eventually, you’ll reach a point where checking your phone is the last thing you do before you leave home. But where do you go when you leave home? I can’t answer that for you, but most people work, go to school, or do something else. And to do that, they need to commute.

🚌 Commute With Your Phone in Your Bag

“I don’t need anyone else to distract me from myself anymore, like I always thought I would.”

— Charlotte Eriksson

I’m going to assume that you use public transport, or at least that you have before. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do on public transport except to play with your phone. And that’s what most people do. If you take your eyes off your phone and glance at everyone, you’ll find that most people glue their eyes to their phones. When you do this small act of people-watching, it’s like waking up from a dream, but everyone else is still in the dream.

But watch people for long enough, and you’ll find that some people aren’t on their phones. Some read books. Others have their headphones in and have a look of concentration that suggests they’re listening to a podcast or audiobook. I have been both of these people, and I started with the latter.

It’s an effective way to reduce phone usage. The problem with putting your phone in your bag is that you become bored. You have to face the blank space of solitude. So replace it with something that helps you learn. I use podcasts, audiobooks, and physical books, but if you want to, go for another analog activity, like Sudoku puzzles.

Listen to podcasts and audiobooks

I couldn’t move from compulsively using my phone to not using it all. So I started small. I listened to podcasts and audiobooks instead of using social media. This productivity hack sounds fantastic at first, but there’s a problem…I kept taking my phone out to scroll through social media each time what I was listening to became dull.

The instant gratification from checking a newsfeed and pulling the “pull to refresh” button is more addictive than the delayed gratification of learning. The result: I constantly checked my phone.

So I put my phone in my bag as soon as I launch something to listen to. It’s a cheap trick, but it worked perfectly. The idea was to make it as hard as possible to reach my phone. Unzipping my bag, looking for my phone, grabbing it, then zipping my bag up again was annoying. So I stopped using my phone for other things while listening to podcasts and audiobooks.

The trick came with another intended benefit: I could hear my phone ring through my headphones if someone called me. This tactic requires wireless headphones or a hole in your bag to put wires through. I use AirPods, and they do the job.

To listen to podcasts and audiobooks without your phone:

  1. Connect your headphones to your phone.
  2. Put on a podcast or audiobook.
  3. Put your phone in your bag.

Read physical books

I wanted to take my digital minimalism further. So I replaced digital audio with physical books. This replacement was a game-changer for me. Not only did it remove technology, but it helped me learn faster. I read physical books faster than I listen to audiobooks.

But I became paranoid that I could miss important calls, so I turned my phone off silent and increased my ringer volume to its maximum limit. But then, I was scared someone would steal my phone. So I decided to keep my bag within sight.

These are simple ways I overcame my fears. If you have anything you’re afraid of, instead of giving up on reading on public transport, find a way to overcome it.

To read physical books without your phone:

  1. Turn your phone off silent and turn your ringer volume to its maximum limit.
  2. Put your phone in your bag while taking out a book.
  3. Keep your bag close to you, and within sight, so no one can steal your phone.
  4. Start reading.

Use a bag whenever you can

Some people commute without a bag. If you’re one of those people, try to find a way to integrate a bag into your commute. It doesn’t have to be a big one, just big enough to carry a book.

I don’t only read on my commute to work; I read on all commutes. I wear streetwear and wasted a lot of money on my Supreme bag. I thought I was only going to use it for music festivals or other events, but I’ve found that it’s the perfect size for my commute: small enough that it doesn’t obstruct my comfort, but big enough that it fits a small-medium sized book.

I’m probably the only one in the world who carries a Supreme bag with a book inside. Carrying a bag just to read a book is a ludicrous idea to most. When security guards at bars and clubs check my bag, they expect to either find something to confiscate or at least nothing odd, but instead, they find a book. Then, they laugh in disbelief. And I laugh with them because I don’t know what other reaction to have.

I’m not recommending that you spend absurd amounts of money on a bag. The key takeaway here is to find your way to integrate digital minimalism. Decide that putting your phone away while commuting is important to you, and you’ll find a way to do so.

So, you’re keeping a book with you everywhere you go. Let’s assume you’re going to work. Or at least, let’s assume you do work. That’s another place to keep your phone put away.

👔 Work With Your Phone off Your Desk

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” ‘

— Cal Newport

You might already stay off your phone at work. Perhaps your workplace doesn’t permit it, or maybe you’ve somehow had the discipline to stop yourself. But that wasn’t the case for me. I’m allowed to use my phone at work, and I can’t control myself from using it. There are others in the same situation, like writers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs. If you’re one of these people, try working with your phone off your desk.

The freedom to check your phone makes it a crutch for boredom. Work is like reading — there is a delay in satisfaction. Phones give an instantly instant dopamine hit. But you don’t even need to check your phone for it to be a distraction. A 2013 study suggests that just having your phone within sight is enough to divide your attention.

Keep your phone out of sight

So I applied the same principle that I did with every other part of my life: make it as hard as possible to get my phone. A phone in sight triggers the availability heuristic, which lets me know that I could grab my phone and quickly cull my boredom. So I removed it from sight. I, again, put my phone in my bag, and then I put my bag on the floor.

Choose a place to put your phone that isn’t within sight. An ideal location is somewhere you can still hear incoming calls, but annoying enough to reach that you won’t check it all the time.

I still use my phone at work. I take it out of my bag when I’m taking a break, going to the bathroom, or if I need to check something. But I always put it back in my bag to condition myself to believe my phone is inaccessible.

To keep your phone off your desk:

  1. Keep your phone out of sight.
  2. Put your phone in your bag and your bag on the floor.
  3. Take your phone out whenever you want, but always put it back in your bag.

Keeping my phone out of sight at work reduces my phone usage and increases my productivity. When I get an urge to check my phone, it isn’t worth it (most of the time). I have to reach into my bag, take my phone out, check something that I didn’t even want to check, and then put my phone back in my bag — a long process for short satisfaction.

Removing the option of having a phone is too scary, but keeping it further away isn’t the same hurdle—so this works to reduce your usage.

Of course, work isn’t the only place you can keep your phone put away.

🏋️‍♀️ Exercise Without Your Phone

“A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.”

— A.A. Milne

Some forms of exercise, like yoga and martial arts, force you to be without your phone. If you do one of those, you know the benefits. But for the rest of us free creatures suffering from a lack of self-control, we need other strategies.

My exercise of choice is weightlifting, and I don’t use a personal trainer, so I have to keep myself accountable. For years, I used my phone during rest periods. I told myself that there was nothing to do while resting, so I might as well use my phone. I created a habit of using my phone every time I was bored.

I didn’t know what I could do to keep my phone put away. If I wanted to use the lockers, I would need to bring a lock, and I hated the idea of buying one. I debated the idea for years, but eventually, with all the other digital minimalism I’ve integrated into my life, I knew I had to stop using my phone while exercising. So I bought a lock, and it became the purchase that gave me the highest return on investment: $5 for better workouts forever.

I don’t know what exercise you do, so I can’t tell you the exact steps you can take to exercise without your phone. But ask yourself, “How can I exercise without my phone?” and try to find an answer that works for you. Your body will thank you.

To exercise without your phone:

  1. Put your phone in a safe place.
  2. Exercise.

Right after I started locking my phone away, I hit a personal record on the bench press. I was shocked. I didn’t know the mental impact of using my phone had. Only half of my mind focused on exercising. The other half focused on photos, messages, and memes. Seeing that exercising without my phone made me stronger, I decided to lock my phone away for every workout, and I haven’t used my phone while exercising since.

Integrate this small habit, and you’ll exercise mindfully, making you both physically and mentally healthier. Speaking of which, socializing is essential to a human’s mental health.

🎎 Socialize With Your Phone Out of Sight

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

— Elbert Hubbard

A 2012 study found that if a phone was within sight during a face-to-face interaction, it had adverse effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality, regardless of whether anyone used their phone. These findings suggest that leaving your phone on the table during the conversation makes you appear less attentive. Phones trigger thoughts about wider social networks, creating an atmosphere that insinuates the current interaction is unimportant.

I didn’t need experiments to convince me of the destructiveness that phones have to social interactions, but it certainly validated my beliefs. Data from my life supported this argument. Every time a friend took out their phone while I was talking — even to check the time — I felt that they didn’t care about our friendship.

Recognize that phones worsen relationships

Acknowledging that phones are detrimental to relationships is another opportunity to practice digital minimalism while receiving the benefits of improved social interactions. There is one caveat: your friends might still keep their phones out during social interactions. And when you’re consciously trying not to use your phone, you’re going to be painfully aware of the fact that your friend isn’t.

But that’s okay. Focus on what you can control. I’m not one to tell other people what to do, so I don’t tell my friends to stop using their phones. I sit back and watch them use their phones. I don’t blame them, because I was exactly like them before I started my journey to digital minimalism.

Timed interactions are another obstacle from keeping your own off the table. If you only have a limited amount of time with someone, for example, if you have a meeting, you need to keep track of the time. If you keep your phone off the table, you need a watch (or some other way to keep track of the time).

I bought an analog watch (and avoid smartwatches) to keep a non-digital item on me at all times. If you want to take another opportunity to reduce your digital footprint, I suggest you do the same.

To socialize with your phone out of sight:

  1. Get a watch.
  2. Never take your phone out while talking to someone.
  3. Use your watch to keep track of the time.

I can’t tell you exactly how this has made my friends feel, or if they’ve even noticed. But it has made me more focused during social interactions, even when other people aren’t. To be honest, it can be isolating, especially when I see my friends on their phones. For me, it’s worth it. I know I’m taking another step in reducing my use of technology without hindering any other part of my life.

The Results: More Mindfulness

Notice that throughout this entire guide, I didn’t tell you to uninstall any apps, stop using your phone, or give yourself a social media diet. Those strategies might work, but I created this guide to distinct from that type of advice.

These tactics don’t require any tinkering with your setup or tracking how long you’ve used your phone.

You don’t need to do anything drastic. If I were to sum it up in one sentence, it would be: put your phone as far away as possible when you’re doing something else. Everything here is an application of that.

I do all the tricks in this article, but you don’t have to. I would even err on the side of caution with trying to do too many at once. I started with one thing: not sleeping with my phone. One became two; two became three; and so on.

It was an iterative process to integrate my phone reduction techniques into my life, and I still have more capacity to improve. There are other activities the idea can be applied to like shopping, hiking, or concerts. I don’t know where you use your phone the most, so I can only hope I’ve provided an understandable enough process for you to apply it to your own life.

If you do, minimalism will reward you. You’ll be more mindful of how you use your phone. You’ll be more mindful of the impact a phone addiction can have on you. You’ll be more mindful of your everyday life. It has rewarded me with things, and I can’t go back to the hedonistic autopilot mode I was in before.

Good luck practicing digital minimalism.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

Bryan Ye

Written by

Bryan Ye

Words @Atlassian. Based in Sydney. I have a lot of thoughts; here are the less crazy ones.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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