Using our phones make us miss the things that really matter, that are right in front of us.
Our phones are amazing tools. We have access to a world of information in our pockets. Used well, they make our lives easier, more fun, more inspired and connected. Which is great if we are using them for those things, but how often do we pick up our phone just because we have an urge to check it? When we use our phones without thinking about why, it drains our time and energy and can make us stressed, anxious and depleted.
"Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we're too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the phone." ~ Steven Spielberg
Since I had a breakdown a few years ago, I’ve been rebuilding my life and it’s taken me on a journey to live more mindfully. I’m trying to be fully present in the life that I’m living, to experience it wholeheartedly. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced to living a more mindful life is my phone. I created an addiction to it, and it was a constant and very persistent distraction.
When I first started using a smartphone I loved taking photos of every moment that I wanted to remember and checking social media to see what my friends were up to. I downloaded dozens of apps to inspire me, connect with my friends and family, to have the convenience of working anywhere, at any time. Though more and more I found that my phone wasn’t making me feel more inspired, connected and content, it was making me feel empty.
Having dozens of reasons to pick up and use my phone was draining me of precious time with my children. I found that I was missing out on the things that made me truly happy because I was idly wasting time in an endless rabbit-hole of links and hashtags.
"We're living an era where capturing moments using our phones is more important than actually living these moments with whoever is beside us."
We can’t give them up completely, but we need to find balance.
Our phones are designed to be addictive. It’s really, really hard to break the habit of checking our phones incessantly. When we check the phone we get a little hit of dopamine. It’s a nice feeling, so when the phone pings again, we reach for it to get another hit. Each time we get a notification and pick up the phone we’re creating neural pathways in the brain that are wiring us to listen out for the pings and check them. When we’re away from our phones we can develop anxiety about what we might be missing out on.
Using willpower alone, I tried frequently to give up my phone. I can’t count how many times I deleted Facebook just to reinstall it a few days later. In these moments I imagined my only solution would be moving to a log cabin in the forest. Somewhere with no wi-fi, no phones, no distractions, no temptation to post a photo of the organic tomatoes I’d harvested from my garden that morning. Moving to the forest isn’t an option just now, so I need to learn to live with my phone.
To restore the balance so that it makes my life better, not worse. I don’t want to give it up completely. I think about the ways that technology does add value to my life. Through social media I’ve found a tribe of people that I met online who’ve become real-life friends, beautiful, generous, inspirational humans that I cherish. In Podcasts, I find thoughtful conversations about what it means to be a human doing good things in the world. Things that bring me feelings of hope in an online landscape saturated with negativity. There are so many upsides to the technology I have at my fingertips and I’m grateful for those resources.
I’m well aware that it’s so easy for the balance to tip too far the other way, where the phone becomes a time vacuum. Sucking away hours and hours on things that don’t make my life better, and can actually make me feel more anxious and depressed. Over time, I’ve worked out how to break my addiction and gain back control over my phone. Now when I use my phone it's mindful and purposeful, not just because it's there.
Here are my ten tips on how to break your phone addiction:
1. Know why you want to make a changeFor any real change to occur you have to think about why you want to make the change. Otherwise, when you’re in a moment of weakness, you’ll go back to old habits. Remember, you’re rewiring neural pathways, it’s going to take some time for that to happen. The catalyst for me to ditch my phone addiction was the realisation that I was missing out on meaningful things right in front of me because I was distracted by something totally forgettable on my screen. I imagined being older, in my twilight years and looking back on my life. Thinking how sad I’d feel reflecting on my years and knowing I’d wasted them looking at a little screen instead of looking at my children.
2. Turn off your notificationsI’ve turned off almost all notifications on my phone (and my computer). I don’t want instagram to tell me to ‘look here! Right now!’ I want to block out time and look at instagram intentionally, not just because it’s there. The only time my phone pings now is when I have a text message.
3. Use airplane mode to block out time to be uninterruptedWhen I’m in my studio I have a short window where I feel most creative. For the first couple of hours when I arrive I don’t want to be interrupted with messages or calls. If my phone’s on and I hear the ping of a message, I can’t help but look at it. So I put my phone into airplane mode and it sets the intention that for the next two hours I’m going to focus on my work. Research has shown that just the sound of a receiving a message is enough to distract you, even if you don’t read the message. Psychologists at the Temple University in Philadelphia conducted experiments to see how phone use affects our ability to function well at work. “When the notifications broke their concentration, the subjects had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make rapid guesses. Subjects who received notification of a call — even if they didn’t pick it up — were three times likelier to make mistakes.” When notifications break our concentration and interrupt our thoughts all day we lose the ability to think clearly, and deeply. When I first started blocking out time, I used the Forest app to help me stay focused and stop me from unlocking my phone. With Forest, when you leave your phone alone for an allocated period you grow virtual trees, which earns currency to grow real trees. The Forest team partners with a real-tree-planting organisation, Trees for the Future, to plant them.
4. Declutter your phone screenOscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” I’ve all my apps inside one folder on my phone, and that folder sits on the second screen so I need to swipe across to see it. To access any of my apps I use the search bar to find them. On my iPhone its a quick swipe down on the screen to type in what I’m looking for. Having all my apps hidden away helps to remove the temptation to click on one just because it’s there. It makes me pause long enough to think, why am I looking at this, do I really want to check facebook again? Having an empty home screen helps keep my mental state clear because I’m not looking at all the digital clutter on my phone each time I unlock it.
5. Use your home screen to remind you of what’s most importantHaving a home screen clear of apps means I have a blank canvas to use for something more meaningful. I have some quotes, prompts and reminders that I’ve saved to my photos folder and I use them for my phone wallpaper. Prompts like Is this the most meaningful thing I can do right now? or Look up and look around, what do you see that’s worth taking in? or simply a reminder to Pause, breathe in, breathe out. I’ve given you a couple of my favourites here if you’d like to download them and use them on your own phone. In this way, my phone becomes a reminder to be mindful and think about if I’m on the right track with my goals to live an intentional life. Jordan Travers writes “We need to constantly assess whether our actions are bringing us closer to or further away from our goals because it is not possible to remain stationary”.
6. Don’t have your phone on the table when you’re with a friendI know it’s an obvious one, but it’s a big one. If you want to be really present, you need to put away your phone. French Philosopher Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. How often do we miss the opportunity to connect with someone because we’re distracted by the ping of our notifications. When you sit down to have a conversation with a friend give them your complete attention. Get in the habit of putting your phone out of sight when you’re talking to someone face to face. Just having your phone on the table while you’re with a friend at a café disrupts the flow of your conversation. Even if you’re not checking it, having the phone in sight is distracting for both of you. Subconsciously the other person can feel like you’re waiting for someone to interrupt, or give you a better offer for your company.
7. Don’t sleep with your phone next to youRemove the temptation to look at your phone last thing at night or first thing in the morning by moving it to another room. Have a phone-free period where you put your phone in a drawer or plug it in to charge overnight. Switch it to airplane mode or turn it off from 8pm to when you wake. If you need an alarm to wake you up, buy an alarm clock.
8. Delete the apps that don’t add value to your lifeIt’s a double-edged sword to have the convenience of your email, your calendar and your facebook business manager on your phone. At first, I thought it would make life easier, it turned out it just made it more painful. I did an audit of which tasks I really wanted to be able to do from anywhere. Do I need to check my work email at any time of the day, anywhere? No. Do I need to see my PayPal balance on the go? No. Do I want to shop on eBay while sitting in my car? No. Do I want to spend my time waiting in a queue playing candy crush? Not really. I still haven’t closed my facebook account entirely but I decided I didn’t need to have 24/7 access to it through my phone. I’ve deleted the app and now I only check it occasionally from my computer.
9. Don’t take your phone with you every time you leave the roomAre you in the habit of picking up your phone and taking it with you everywhere, from the kitchen to the dining room, from your bedroom to the bathroom? Create device-free areas in your home, where everyone agrees that phones are not invited. At my house phones aren’t allowed at the dinner table or in the bedroom. It means when we’re eating together we’re able to be present and when we’re going to bed we aren’t tempted to stay awake for hours looking at funny cat videos on youtube.
10. Decide what you’d rather be doing with your time
It’s much easier to avoid sitting on your phone when you’ve got something else you’d rather be doing. Make a list of things that bring you joy. It could be anything you love to do; reading, walking the dog, playing a board game, gardening, cooking, swimming. yoga, painting, running. Start with something easy that you know will make you happy. Instead of checking social media the moment you wake up, spend half an hour doing the thing that makes you really happy. By removing all of the temptations, I’ve broken the habit of feeling the urge to check my phone. I don’t have the anxious feeling of needing to look at it every few minutes. My phone is actually pretty boring now, and because I’m aware of so many other things I’d rather do with my time I’m not idly wasting hours looking at the screen. When I use my phone now it’s with intention and it’s become the tool it was designed to be, something that adds value to my life, not takes away.