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Q1. Would you like to feel more in control of your smartphone usage?
If your smartphone makes you feel out of control, it’s not your fault: many of the most popular apps (such as social media and games) are deliberately designed to be difficult to stop using. Here are some suggestions for things to try.
Turn your phone’s screen to black and white. The bright colors of our phones are designed to trigger the release of dopamine, which is a brain chemical that is behind most of our phone cravings. When you turn your phone’s screen to black and white, less dopamine will be released, and your phone will feel much less appealing.
Identify your priorities by asking yourself what is important to you in life. See if you can come up with five things (e.g. your family, a hobby, fitness, your friends, etc).
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(If you’re helping your kids with their own phone habits, you can do this exercise as a family.)
Put these notes in places where you’ll see them frequently, such as your bathroom mirror, or your car dashboard, or your computer. (You can also take a photograph of a loved one holding one of the notes and set it as the wallpaper for your phone itself.) Then, every time you encounter one of your notes, you’ll be reminded to focus your attention on what matters to you the most. The more you do this, the less tempted you will be to spend time on your phone.
Q2. Does spending time on your smartphone negatively affect your mood? (For example, does it lead you to experience an increase in anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, etc.)
Much of the content that we encounter on our phones is likely to trigger an emotional response (e.g. jealousy, anxiety, fear, depression, frustration, anger, etc)—and once you let those emotional triggers out of your phone and into your brain, you can’t put them back. Here are some suggestions that can help.
Each time you pick up your phone or open an app that you know might trigger an emotional response, ask yourself, “What is the best possible thing that could happen if I open this app? What is the worst? Which is more likely to occur?”
[[For example, perhaps the best thing that might happen if you open social media or your email is that you will receive a kind note from a loved one that will brighten your day.
But the worst thing that can happen is that you will receive a nasty comment, or a stressful email from your boss or a colleague that will pull you out of your current experience (e.g. spending time with your family) and bother you all day.]] Then ask yourself, “Which is more likely to happen?” — and also, “Is it worth the risk?”
If you notice that a particular app consistently triggers negative emotions in you, then take the app off your phone. For example, you may want to experiment with deleting or hiding social media or the news for a week, and then notice what difference it makes in your mood.
You can also curate the content that you see on your phone. For example, unfollow people on social media whose feeds make you feel bad. Get rid of your news app, and replace it with another that makes you feel better when you use it. If nothing else, make sure that your emotionally problematic apps are not on your home screen.
Q3. Do your current smartphone habits negatively affect your relationship with friends and family?
In order to feel close to another person, you need to pay full attention to them—and to feel like they’re paying full attention to you. By distracting us, our phones make us feel less connected to the people whom we’re with in person, including our children, our spouses, our colleagues and our friends. Here are two suggestions that can help:
Designate several places in your home or workplace as “no phone zones,” where phones are simply not allowed—for example, I recommend starting with your dining table, restaurants, and your bedroom.
At first, it might feel strange to tell people about these no-phone zones (it might help to post some playful signs!). But eventually, the people you spend time with will come to know that when they’re with you, all phones must be away. And they’ll also come to appreciate how nice it feels to have your full attention, too.
Write down (or print out) some conversation prompts and put them in a bowl on the table. Then, when having a meal with family or friends, use the conversation prompts to connect. You can ask things such as, “What’s something that delighted you today?” or “What’s the last thing that made you laugh?” or “What’s something that you’re fascinated by?” Notice how different it feels to connect in this way, compared to “spending time” together where everyone is on their phone.
Q4. Do your current smartphone habits negatively affect your sleep?
There are many ways in which our smartphone usage can negatively affect sleep. Here are three suggestions that can help:
Get your phone out of your bedroom. Not only do our phones keep us awake by showing us stressful or overly stimulating content at bedtime, but the blue light from our phones’ screens affects the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps our bodies wind down for sleep.
Set up a charging station for your phone that is outside of your bedroom (or at very least out of arm’s reach), and do the same for your kids. Then, put something enjoyable on your bedside table that will help you relax—like, for example, a book.
Get a standalone alarm clock. Most people use their phones as their alarm clocks — but think about it: in order to silence the alarm, you need to touch the alarm. If your phone is your alarm clock, then you are guaranteeing that your phone will be the first thing you interact with in the morning.
Q5. Do you feel like your relationship with your smartphone has negatively impacted your overall ability to focus and pay attention?
If you feel like your smartphone has ruined your attention span, you’re not alone: many people report that they feel like they’ve lost their ability to focus. Here are some suggestions that can help:
First, make your phone more boring by reducing temptations and replacing them with tools that can help you regain your ability to focus. For example, take social media off your home screen (ideally delete the apps entirely) and replace them with something that supports a positive, attention-building practice, such as a meditation app.
Take a few minutes to adjust your phone’s notification settings. I call notifications “interruptions” because that’s what they actually are: alerts that interrupt what you had been doing and demand that you focus your attention on something else, usually for someone else’s benefit. So ask yourself what you actually want to be interrupted for—and then turn everything else off.
Spend a week engaging in 20 minutes per day of an attention-building practice (you can continue this for longer than a week, but it’ll be easier to do this if you treat it as an experiment).
For example, you could meditate. Or, if meditation does not appeal to you, try this: set a timer for 20 minutes, put your phone in a different room, and spend the time reading a physical book (not an ebook) or newspaper.
It may feel shockingly hard at first to concentrate for more than seconds at a time. But if you keep this practice up for a week, you may be shocked to discover that your attention span is improving (and pleasantly surprised by how nice it feels).
For more suggestions on how to create better boundaries with your device so that you can scroll less and live more, please check out my 30-day, interactive, SMS-based course, delivered right where you need it the most: on your phone.
(Use the code vivo for 15% off!)
— Catherine Price
Founder of Screen/Life Balance, and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life