Fifteen minutes after I’ve woken up on any given morning, I’ve likely done the following: checked Facebook, posted on Instagram, scrolled through three email inboxes, responded to Slack, WhatsApp, and text messages, and looked up the weather.
Whether this morning habit is sick or simply practical is fuzzy even to me. The new technology that led us here evolved so quickly, “it didn’t occur to anyone to ask about the psychological impact” until it was too late, said Lily Cushman, a longtime practitioner and teacher whose job running operations for Sharon Salzberg includes a hefty amount of phone time.
Now we are older and, perhaps, wiser consumers. We know that our phones’ alerts, notifications, and even colors are designed to snare us, and we’d like to ensure that we’re in control of our phone and not the other way around. But short of chucking the thing in a dumpster, how do we do it?
There’s an app for that. Actually, there’s a bunch of them, as well as a number of strategies you can try when you need to reconfigure a phone relationship that has turned toxic.
Step 1: Arm Yourself with Information.
As in any relationship, you have to get to know yourself first. How much do you use your phone, and where is your time going while you’re on it? Apple and Android have built-in trackers—Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing, respectively, that you can find through your phone’s settings. Here you can see your daily total usage, the breakdown by app, and the number of phone pickups and notifications as well as the time of day they occur. (I was surprised by my own numbers, which were low in everything except for text messaging: I was clocking between two and three hours daily on my phone just texting.) While I could choose to override the limit, the notification that my time was up was often enough to shock me out of a mindless scroll vortex.
The app Moment is another useful tracking tool if you’d like to be hit over the head with hard proof of your addiction. It calculates how much of your waking day you spend on your phone (the average is 23 percent), as well as total pickups and screen time for the week. (It’s Thursday as I write this, and I’ve been on my phone for almost 18 hours so far.) Moment lets you set different goals (like less screen time) and sends you nonjudgmental notifications when you don’t meet them.
Step 2: Take Action.
With your new, potentially horrifying information at hand, you can design a mitigation plan that fits your behavior. Cushman, for instance, balances her phone use by “implementing clear boundaries” during her day when her phone is work-only, personal-only, or on silent.
If you need help, Screen Time lets you set time limits on certain apps. I set mine for five minutes on any social media app, and while I could choose to override the limit, the notification that my time was up was often enough to shock me out of a mindless scroll vortex. Really serious phone abusers might consider Flipd, which will lock you out of all third-party apps and disable notifications for a predesignated amount of time. Of all the options I tried, I found this worked the best to successfully pull my attention away from my phone for a sustained period.
A host of apps—Forest, Focus, Remember the Milk, and Space—work through gamification. You choose the amount of time you’d like to be off your phone, leave the app open, and then do your thing in the real world. If you’re successful, you’re rewarded with a growing tree, candy, or (in the case of Remember the Milk) points that you can redeem at stores and vendors. I found I had to already be highly motivated to stay off my phone for these apps to alter my behavior; in fact, a simple old-school idea from the New York Times worked better: Wrap a thick, tight rubber band around the middle of your phone. It’s just annoying enough to make you give up on using it.
For those who would like to decrease their phone use not just for specific spurts but across the board, you can also try putting your phone in downtime or changing your phone’s screen to black and white (google for the instructions). Downtime will put nonessential apps in shadow and remove the red numbered notification on their corners, which works well to kill compulsive checking. And using your phone in black and white is so much less enjoyable that this might be enough by itself to curb your enthusiasm. I didn’t last for an hour on this setting before I changed it back.
Step 3: Enjoy.
Zen priest and professor Kurt Spellmeyer lost his cellphone over five years ago and never bought another one. While he relishes the freedom that comes with being untethered, however, he doesn’t think “phones are inherently samsaric.” Wrap a thick, tight rubber band around the middle of your phone. It’s just annoying enough to make you give up on using it.
“We can’t live the way Buddhists did in the 6th century BCE,” he said.
This is good news for those of us who like their phones or need them for work or personal demands. Cushman and Spellmeyer agree that a positive relationship is possible, and that we can use the same technology that imprisons us to set ourselves free.
“You can make it a place that’s really safe for you, that bolsters you, that reminds you of who you are,” said Cushman. What that looks like will be different for everyone and can change over time.
Personally, I realized that I like my morning flurry of activity. It fills me with energy, gets me excited about the day, and connects me first thing to my family and friends.
But the texting—it might take more than a couple of apps to save me from that.
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