When do you know you have an unhealthy relationship with your phone?
For author and science writer, Catherine Price, the moment came late at night when she was feeding her newborn baby and realized her attention was caught in a love triangle: Baby staring at mother. Mother staring at phone. Phone shining down on both of them.
“I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s first impression of a human relationship, let alone with me,” she explains.
That moment was the catalyst for a multi-year deep dive into the science around why we’re so attached to our phones.
Her new book, How to Break up With your Phone, details what she’s learned and provides a 30-day program for building a healthier relationship with your digital devices. Think of it like couples therapy for your phone.
In this interview, we spoke with Catherine to understand just how much of an impact our phones really have on us and her best tips on creating and maintaining a healthy balance with your technology.
Jump to a section:
- How our phones moves faster than our brains
- Even average phone use is killing your ability to focus
- Your life is only what you pay attention to
- A 30-day plan to create a better relationship with your phone
- Who’s responsible for our relationship with technology?
Our phones move at a speed our brains can’t keep up with
It’s long been accepted that multitasking is a myth.
Our brains are actually incapable of doing two tasks at once. And so when we think we’re “multitasking” we’re really just switching between tasks quickly.
Which as you can probably understand, puts an unnecessary amount of stress on our brains.
“It’s difficult for our brains to stop and switch directions, just as it’s hard for a car to do so. You need to slow down to reorient yourself on the new thing,” Catherine explains.
Which makes sense. But what you might not realize, is that your phone is constantly asking you to change directions at lightning fast speeds.
“It is disturbing to realize that with our phones, we are constantly interrupting ourselves from what we’re doing. Even if the distraction is very short, we’re still pulling ourselves away, and that means we will have to devote more time to getting back to what we were originally doing.”
Catherine references a study saying the average person “checks in” on their phone 52 times per day. Adding up to close to 4 hours a day staring at a screen.
However, it’s not just multitasking between your phone and the rest of life where we end up trying to multitask. Every app on your phone is an opportunity to be distracted.
Just consider Twitter or Facebook for a second. Every post opens up a world of opportunities to go off in a completely new direction.
“You have these multiple levels of attempts to multitask, and attempts to hold information in your working memory that’s extremely exhausting to our brains. That alone makes us less efficient. Let alone the fact that we’re making ourselves switch so often that it’s slowing us down in general.”
How even average phone use is killing our ability to focus
This level of constant multitasking doesn’t just wear us down on a daily basis. It can actually cause a much larger, long-term impact on our ability to focus.
In his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr explains how our brains are constantly changing and adapting to the stimuli in our environment.
So it no surprise that spending 4 hours a day staring at a screen designed to control your attention is having unintended consequences.
“If you spend 4 hours doing anything, you’re probably going to get pretty good at whatever that thing is,” says Catherine.
“The question is, what are we doing? What are we training our brains to do? With our phones, the answer is that we’re training our brain to be distractable.”
Unfortunately, while we might think we should fight against distractions, our brains actually prefer them. Catherine says that evolutionarily, it made sense for us to be aware of distractions in our environment because they could be predators or other threats.
“When we build up our ability to read or concentrate or focus, that’s actually highly unnatural for our brains and difficult to maintain.”
Our phones provide the constant little interruptions and distractions that are extremely appealing to our brain—intense, repeated stimuli, which is the most effective for changing the way our brains work.
“The time you spend on your phone allowing yourself to get sucked into the cycle of distraction and reward seeking, is undoing some of the hard work that you’ve been doing over the course of your life to maintain the ability to avoid distractions.”
And just like it takes hard work to shed pounds but it’s too damn easy to put them back on, it takes time to develop our concentration but not very long to lose it.
Your life is only what you pay attention to
As the Zen Buddhists say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
If you’re spending a significant portion of your day being distracted by quick interruptions and stimuli from your phone, that’s eventually going to bleed into the rest of your life.
“When we think about concentration as choosing something to focus on, in reality, the bigger part is ignoring everything else. The responsibility of ignoring everything else falls to the prefrontal cortex, which is a relatively new part of our brain, and it gets easily tired and stressed.”
When that part of our brain gets tired, it offloads the work to a much older section—one that’s more than happy to be distracted by interruptions and new stimuli. And again, there are significant impacts here as well.
The constant interruptions provided by our phones can break down our long-term memory and even our ability to be creative.
As Catherine explains, our brains aren’t simply filing cabinets we shove memories into to retrieve later. Instead, creating long-term memories involves developing physical networks of associations. The more associations you have between experiences and memories, the more likely you are to draw connections between seemingly unconnected things—the basis of creative thought.
The more interrupted we are, the less connections we make.
“You only remember what you pay attention to. And our phones are constantly interrupting those connections and distracting us.”
A 30-day plan to create a better relationship with your phone
So, if our phones are so dangerous and distracting, should we just ditch them?
Maybe. But I can’t see that happening anytime soon.
Instead, Catherine says we need to understand how they fit in our lives and why we want to keep them around.
Echoing behavioral designer Nir Eyal’s adage that “despair is the first step to defeat”, Catherine’s plan revolves around creating a positive relationship with your phone through a few steps.
“The reason it was 30 days, is it takes time to change a habit, and it does take work to change your relationship. I wanted to give people a very easy to follow plan in little bite sized pieces that they could follow.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of Catherine’s plan:
Week 1: Tech Triage
The beginning of the program revolves around the guiding question of: What do you want to pay attention to?
Before you can fix the situation, you need to understand your personal relationship with your phone. This means tracking your time and being aware of when you’re reaching for it and why.
“We often try to jump in and start changing stuff without really taking the time that’s necessary to understand why we’re reaching for our phones, and how we feel when we are on our phones. And I think those are very powerful questions to ask.”
Catherine explains how in her own experiment, she started noticing how it was never a joyful feeling that was pushing her to grab her phone.
That insight alone was enough to get her to start questioning her own actions, using a technique she calls “What for? Why not? What else?”
“This is exactly as it sounds. What are you picking it up for? Why are you doing it right now, situationally or emotionally? Then, what else could you do, either to achieve the same end, or just a totally different alternative for that moment in your life?”
Week 2: Removing triggers and changing habits
The second week of the program is all about removing your phone’s triggers. That means apps, notifications, and even where you store or charge your phone.
“I have type one diabetes, and if I were to spend a lot of time in a bakery, my blood sugar would be worse. It’s a lot better for me to just remove the trigger and not walk by bakeries. That’s a very effective thing to do with our phone, too, which goes to keeping it out of your bedroom. You don’t see it, you’re not going to be as pulled to use it.”
Catherine suggests a bunch of strategies that all act as “speed bumps,” slowing you down from falling victim to the triggers on your phone. Things like, taking the social media apps off your phone and only accessing them through your browser or turning off all notifications.
“For me, I just had to take email off my phone again. I realized I was getting back into a cycle, and I have a problem with the amount where I was just checking impulsively.”
Week 3: Rebuilding your attention muscle
With an understanding of what’s important and what part of your relationship with your phone is getting in the way, it’s time to take a break. Week 3 is all about reclaiming your attention, culminating in a full 24-hour break from your phone.
This starts by recognizing the purpose your phone is serving, whether as entertainment before bed, or your alarm clock, and replacing those actions with something else.
“This is actually one of the hardest parts. You have to say, ‘Okay, well, what do I actually want to fill my time with?’ That goes back to the menu thing that you mentioned. It’s like you have to actually say, ‘What do I want on my menu before bedtime? What do I want on my menu for a half an hour break, or a five minute break, or just life in general?’”
“For me, it was reading more and meditating more. I also knew I wanted to play more music. So I made a point of leaving my guitar out and having exercises on the piano that I want to do.”
For Catherine, the most important part of this week is to be able to forgive yourself when you mess up. Even recognizing you’re using your phone in an unhealthy way is succeeding.
“I think it’s really important to forgive yourself, reassess, recognize it’s an ongoing process, and that by reassessing, you are succeeding.”
Week 4: Making your new relationship official
In the final week of her program, Catherine offers advice for maintaining your new relationship.
“Everyone’s relationship is personal,” explains Catherine. “Over the course of the month, my hope is that you will figure out what that personalized relationship should be, or what you want it to be, and then have a plan for how to create and maintain it.”
Should it really be our responsibility to fix the ways technology impact our lives?
With all the media and attention around how “addictive” technology has become, the bigger question seems to be: Should this even be our responsibility?
Should we have to go through a month-long program just to counter the effects of apps made by billion-dollar companies with unlimited resources, all targeting our attention?
For now, Catherine says, that’s unfortunately the case:
“Companies use the idea of personal responsibility as a easy way out—an excuse that does not address the fact that they are designing their products specifically to make it harder to exercise personal responsibility.”
“It sounds like a cop out to say, ‘you should just deal with it on your own. We don’t need to help you.'”
“For example, if Facebook—and they would never do this—but if they were to actually ask you, ‘How much time do you want to spend on Facebook during this session?’ Then give you a gentle nudge by saying ‘You’re reaching your limit. Do you want to continue?’ If they built in stopping cues, it would be very helpful.”
While you won’t see Facebook giving you nudges away from their platform anytime soon, if you’re a RescueTime user, you can use our Alerts to know when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on social media and even block distracting sites throughout the day.
As we’ve written about in the past, technology isn’t going anywhere soon. Which means it’s up to us to be deliberate in how we want to use it. And not let it use us.
Check out Catherine’s book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, to help build a healthier relationship with your digital devices. And then check out how RescueTime can help you be more aware of how you’re spending your time on your phone and computer each day.