Your smartphone screen is a slot machine. It taunts you, daring you to pull its lever and reap its rewards—a new Like, a text, an email you've been waiting on. But once you give in, caught yet again in an endless scroll, it leaves you feeling drained. Still, every time you put your phone down you find yourself twitching, itching to play again.
My rose gold iPhone 6 has come to occupy a rather unnerving place in my life. It is at once freedom and shackles. I can do almost anything from anywhere, but in order to enjoy such autonomy, I must remain tethered to my phone. It is codependence, dressed up in the guise of independence.
This is not the place that technology is supposed to hold in our lives. Technology, at its best, is intended to make our lives better, more interesting, more efficient. Instead, I frequently feel as though it is dragging me down. I'm out to dinner with friends, distracted from the conversation by the buzzing in my pocket. When I go running, keeping my phone on to use Spotify, it buzzes every half mile tempting me to stop. I'm at work trying to get down to writing, but Twitter and Facebook notifications keep popping up, tempting me away. I'm at the grocery store trying to buy ingredients for a delicious summer tart when I open Instagram instead of my shopping list and get so lost in the feed I forget why I'm at the store or maybe even whether I exist at all.
This is not a humane way to live. I needed to fix it. So I embarked on an experiment to figure out, first, how often I really use my phone and then what I might do to decrease its power of distraction.
I started by installing three apps to help me track my phone use:
- Checky, an app that tracks how many times per day you unlock your phone;
- Hooked, which tracks how much time you spend in each of your phone's apps; and
- Reporter, which will survey you several times a day with questions of your choosing. I programmed my phone to ask me when the last time I had looked at my phone was, whether it had caused me any anxiety that day, and how tied to it I felt.
(These are not products I would necessarily recommend. Hooked requires access to a disturbing amount of your data in exchange for its services. Checky is no longer maintained by the company that makes it and on some days seemed to lose count.)
Over the course of a week, I discovered that I was not quite the insane tech-addict I feared. I checked my phone about 30 times a day (slightly lower than average) and spent about two hours on it (average again, according to the app, but about half the average according to this AT&T survey). Clocking in at 40 minutes daily, Instagram was my biggest time-suck.
Even though I wasn't glued to my phone, its onslaught of notifications was a major source of anxiety. My phone was a mess of reminders popping up alongside message notifications, starting before I woke up until well after I went to bed. Worse, in the name of "efficiency," I had forwarded many of those notifications to my laptop, meaning that even if I left my phone in the other room, my life was still a barrage of incoming pings. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin has argued that the multi-tasking we think technology allows us to do "is a powerful and diabolical illusion," and this experiment made me inclined to agree. Every time I got a notification and jumped to attend to it, my brain got derailed from the main thing I was trying to do.
The first step was admitting I had a problem. The second was fixing it, so I spent a week trying out different methods to make my technologies less intrusive. I first consulted Karla Klein Murdock, a psychologist who runs the Technology and Health Lab at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, but she told me, disappointingly, that not much research has been done to pinpoint what exactly it is about our phones that's so bad. She did have one piece of advice: laying off tech in the hour or two before bed.
"It's cognitively and emotionally activating to use technology and what your body wants to do before bed is taper down," she said.
Without much from the annals of science to guide me, I was forced to commit to a lot of trial and error. Here's what I found:
Make your distractions harder to find
After hearing advice on tidying up your smartphone homescreen from Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims on the podcast Note to Self a few months back, I had already deleted many apps and arranged my phone to make it harder to absent-mindedly trawl.
The idea here is to turn your phone into a utility instead of a distraction. You are supposed to put all of your apps in as few folders as possible (ideally one, but I went with two, with my text messages and Google Maps still easily accessible). Because the folders can only fit six apps per screen, you're burying apps that would otherwise be just one thumb-tap away. That forces you to be more deliberate when opening an app. So if you're an Instagram-addict like me, you have to open up your phone's search function and type in "Instagram" rather than just subconsciously dragging your finger over to the Instagram icon whenever you've got a spare minute.
Start over to find out what you really need on your phone
Even if apps were buried, they could immediately surface through pinging me. So I decided to eliminate unnecessary distractions by deleting every deleteable app except for Slack (the communication platform we use at work) and those I was using for this experiment in order to figure out what apps I actually needed. I also turned off all notifications to experience notification radio silence.
I didn't just want to cut down the amount of time I spent on my phone; I also wanted to limit its psychological effects—to not feel a rush of anxiety and stress with every single buzz. To see if my experiment was working, I tracked my emotional state using Spire, a wearable that measures respiratory patterns to determine whether I'm feeling calm, focused or stressed
At first, it was uncomfortable. Without notifications to alert me that there was a reason to look at my phone, I found myself frequently "checking" to see whether there was something I had missed. Gradually, though, I got a little too used to ignoring my phone. Without buzzing prompting me to check my phone, I spent less than a minute each on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. One morning I realized I hadn't looked at my phone since 8 p.m. the night before, and found I had 15 unanswered texts and four missed calls.
By the end of the week though, I came up with a system that worked well for me.
Going analog and using airplane mode
Murdock, the psychologist from Washington and Lee, had urged me to consider things I was using my phone for that could be "decoupled" from my phone. Why not use an iPod for music rather than my phone when I run or why not trade my iPhone alarm for an old-fashioned alarm clock?
My to-do list app TickTick, I found, was a frequent reason I checked my phone, eager to cross off tasks I'd accomplished. It also sent me many, many notifications. So I deleted it and started keeping my to-do list on an old-fashioned piece of paper, which I found far less aggravating. I also started keeping my phone in airplane mode while I sleep, when I ran, and pretty much any time I found myself needing a little bit of mental space. Not looking at my phone two hours before bed proved too unrealistic, but usually I could squeeze in 45 minutes or so of device-free time which I found made me enter dreamland much more relaxed.
Turning off notifications or hiding them behind my lockscreen
Thanks to the exercise in deletion, I discovered that I only needed a few of the many notifications I had once received—the only ones I turned back on were texts, Slacks, calls and New York Times breaking news alerts.
Not all notifications are created equally and they shouldn't all display on your phone the same way. The iPhone gives you many options for how notifications appear: on your lockscreen, in the phone's notification center (accessible by pulling down at the top of the lockscreen) or on the homescreen.
Notifications for unanswered text messages on my lockscreen frequently sucked me into Phoneworld, so I changed my settings so that texts now only appear on my phone's homescreen and in the notification center. This meant I had to intentionally check to see whether I had a text rather than accidentally encountering them when looking at my phone to check the time. (I did opt to keep the sound and vibration on for incoming texts, so that those times when I was waiting for a particular text I didn't have to keep checking my phone.) I also disabled things like iMessage from forwarding to my laptop.
Having designated 'check my messages' time
Instead of jumping to answer every text in real time, I started checking my email, texts and other messages in one fell swoop every couple of hours, a tip I stole from my very smart friend Adam Fullerton. At first, I was nervous that people would be annoyed by my lagging response time, but it turned out that people seemed to hardly notice.
With fewer notifications, distractions like Facebook and Instagram became easier to resist. I felt more zen—like I had more agency in my relationship with technology—more focused, more productive and less scatter-brained. The data I was collecting on myself backed these feelings up. The week after implementing my newfound strategy, my Spire informed me that I experienced very few "tense" streaks—in fact, most of the times when I did, I was looking at my phone.
On most days, my phone use was down to less than an hour. When I was using my phone, it felt deliberate: I was actually focused on it when I was doing it.
"We've all been conditioned and have conditioned other people to feel like we have to be connected all the time," Murdock told me. "We find it punishing not to be responded to and we find it reinforcing to be responded to all the time."
But you can break that cycle. The hardest thing for me was accepting that it was truly possible to not tend to every need of my digital universe instantaneously—and that it might actually make my life better.
The boundaries that worked for me may not work for you. Making my to-do list analog and muting most of my notifications were the most helpful things in allowing me to disconnect. But you might not be an insane list-making task-master. Maybe you are someone who truly thrives on all those notifications from Twitter, who is energized by a tidal surge of incoming email. The important thing here is to scrutinize the place of every technological component of your life and ask yourself whether it really works. Do you really get joy or utility from being notified every time someone likes a photo you posted to Instagram? Really?
The technology in our life, like everything else, has upsides and downsides. If you ask yourself whether it's really making your life better, you might be surprised to find that the answer is no.