It’s probably unfair to say we’re “addicted” to our phones. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t take up a considerable amount of our time and energy each day.
In fact, there’s all sorts of numbers being thrown around to try to quantify our phone time. From marketing firm dscout’s claim that we “touch” our phones 2617 per day, to Deloitte’s latest survey that found the average American checks them 46 times.
Even Apple weighed in on our usage, revealing that iPhone users unlock their phones around 80 times every 24 hours.
We’ve all experienced looking down to see our phone open in our hand and not remembering taking it out. And so regardless of what number feels closest to your personal usage, they’re all a bit unsettling. Like our phones are using us, rather than the other way around.
But by understanding the psychology behind why we’re so drawn to our phones, we can start to find solutions to break free from their hold on our attention.
The psychology behind why you check your phone so often
If you want to understand where our dependence on smartphones comes from, you need to go back to a Stanford classroom in 2007.
At the same moment the first iPhone was preparing for launch and Facebook had just opened its platform to 3rd party developers, 75 students began studying under famed behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg.
Ten weeks later, the students—who included future product designers for Facebook, Google, and Uber—had built apps that had amassed 16 million users, made $1 million in advertising revenue, and had cracked the code for creating apps we just can’t leave alone.
The “secret” of their success was Fogg’s Behavior Model—a system that explains how we’re driven to act a certain way (in this case, use an app) when three forces converge: Motivation, trigger, and ability.
As writer Simone Stolzoff wrote in Wired:
“In Silicon Valley, Fogg’s model answers one of product designers’ most enduring questions: How do you keep users coming back?”
Motivation: Why you reach for your phone without thinking
The first part of Fogg’s model describes the motivations that drive us to use a product. Specifically, Fogg explains that every behavior is rooted in one of three core motivators: Sensation, anticipation, and belonging.
Think about the apps you use on your phone on a regular basis and you can see how they all fit into these categories.
Let’s take Facebook, or really any social media app as an example: There’s the sense of belonging the comes from connecting you with friends. The anticipation of seeing new and unexpected content every time you open the app. And the sensations you feel when scrolling through the feeds of people you know (happiness, anger, joy, jealousy, love).
Ability: How once you’re “in” apps make it so hard to get out
The second part of Fogg’s method describes ability—how we have to be able to easily use the product or else we’ll look for something else. Again, let’s look at Facebook. At this point, do you even have to question how it works? For years, the company has been making its interface easier and more simple to use.
Or, consider how Instagram lets you try different filters before you post a photo. Sure, there’s a functional benefit in letting you have control. But the real transaction, Fogg explains, is emotional: you get to feel like an artist.
It’s not just Facebook and Instagram that work this way. Apple, Android, and every other phone maker understands that for you to use their products they have to be simple and they have to be empowering.
Steve Jobs even once explained how making things “simple” was complex, yet all-important. Because once you get there “you can move mountains.”
Triggers: How apps and phones become unshakable
Finally, Fogg says none of these behaviors happen without a trigger. Some reminder that gets you to start an action.
When you first download a new app, the only way it has to reach you and set off the trigger is through notifications. The pings, dings, emails, and homescreen filled with red dots that remind you to take some action.
According to behavioral designer (and former Fogg student) Nir Eyal, nearly ⅔ of smartphone users never change their notification settings. Meaning every time we’re interrupted by one, there’s a chance we’ll do that action.
However, it’s not just these notifications that drive our app and phone usage. After being triggered to use a product enough times, the trigger becomes internalized. All of a sudden, we don’t need a reminder to check Facebook, but instead are driven by some emotional cue (like loneliness or a need for connection).
If you don’t think this is the case for you, just listen to this. According to Deloitte’s latest survey, the majority of smartphone users, regardless of age, check their phones within 5 minutes of waking up.
Before we make coffee, take a shower, or brush our teeth, we’re compelled to check our phones.
So, are we in control of our phones? Or do they control us?
It’s important to note that Fogg never intended his formula to be used to create a monopoly on your attention. Unfortunately, product developers have gotten so good at implementing it that the average user doesn’t stand a chance.
Deleting an app is about more than just freeing up screen space. It’s fighting against behaviors your brain actively wants to do. Apps make you feel good. They make your life easier. And they fulfill your emotional needs.
“Variable rewards” make us feel like we have to check in or else we’ll miss something important
When you see that red dot beside an app icon or feel your phone buzz, you don’t know what it means. Is it a phone call? An important text? A photo of you from that event last night?
This is what psychologist B.F. Skinner dubbed “variable rewards.” Skinner discovered that we’re more likely to continue to do an action if we don’t know what the result will be.
So, if every time you open Facebook you get a different response—maybe one time you see a photo of an old friend that makes you happy while another time you see a cooking tutorial video—you’re going to keep checking in.
Apps hide alternative options, setting you down a path of predetermined choices
The moment you open your phone or launched an app, you’ve already started down a certain path that’s designed to keep you engaged. Which is why Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, calls apps “magicians.”
They give you the “illusion of free choice while achitecting the menu so they win, no matter what you choose.”
“We fall for the illusion that the choices we’re given are a complete set of options. Or, that they’re the best options.”
We’ve developed habits and dependencies around using apps and checking our phone
Fogg’s system is nearly identical to the ways we develop habits. Our brains have been primed to follow patterns that give us rewards. And the more we repeat these actions, the harder they are to shake.
By some estimates, upwards of 40% of our daily actions are powered by habits.
What might even be stronger than habits are the dependencies we’ve built around certain technologies.
Think about your phone’s GPS and your map app. According to a recent survey, 80% of drivers under the age of 30 don’t know how to read a map. When using our phones is easier than any other option, we’re going to offload our ability.
How to take back control over your phone and app usage
So does this mean we’re destined to be willful servants to our phones? It doesn’t have to.
Your phone and apps might have a hold on your attention, but you can take some simple measures today to help separate yourself from that grip, little by little.
Change your notification settings
If you’re in the ⅔ of people still using default notification settings on your phone, stop. When you allow notifications to come in real-time, you’re leaving yourself constantly susceptible to triggers and distractions.
Head to your settings and turn off all push notifications from apps, as well as adjust your notification settings to not show previews or come up on your homescreen. That way, you choose when to check in, rather than being triggered by your phone.
Move app icons off your homescreen
Each trigger is designed to set off a chain of actions. So, every time you swipe open your phone, you’re set off down the path to check distracting apps. Even a little space in between can help slow the process and help you be more aware of how you’re spending your time.
Try putting all your distracting apps into one folder and moving them well off your homescreen. Personally, I’ve moved all my social media apps onto the fourth screen of my iPhone and have seen a significant drop in how often I check in.
There’s a reason those little notification dots are bright red. Our brains are naturally drawn to bright colors, and red is one that we’ve consistently connected with importance (think of why stop signs are the same color). However, you can get rid of this edge by removing the color from your homescreen.
The “feature” is quite hidden, however. So, here’s a quick guide on how to change your phone’s screen color.
Take a week-long phone distraction vacation
If simply moving or subduing the triggers on your phone isn’t enough, you might need to take more drastic measures. For author Jake Knapp, that meant removing all potential distractions from his phone.
“Maybe you can handle that temptation. Maybe you’ve got willpower. That’s great for you. But for me, willpower alone didn’t cut it.”
Jake’s solution was to remove anything distracting from his phone. This meant:
- Deleting Twitter, Instagram, and anything with a feed
- Disabling email
- Disabling Safari and other browsers
While you can always redownload or enable apps, what Jake found was that even a bit of a break from the constant pull on his attention changed how he interacted with his phone. As he puts it, it changed apps from “hot triggers” to “cold triggers,” meaning he needed significant motivation to want to check them.
Use a tool to control your distractions
Lastly, there are lots of technology solutions for your technology problem.
- The Thrive App from Arianna Huffington’s latest company turns off notifications, calls, and texts except for people from your VIP list
- Siempo changes your interface to help you question why you’re using your phone and can batch notifications for when you want to receive them
- RescueTime tracks the time you spend on your Android phone, giving you an accurate view of how much attention it takes and can also block distracting sites and apps for set periods of time.
- Forest encourages you to stay away from your phone for a set period of time by growing virtual “trees” that die if you leave the app.
Our phones aren’t going away anytime soon. And probably for good reason.
As much as we demonize the technology that infiltrates our lives, our phones are incredibly useful devices. We need to learn to work with them and use them in a way that’s beneficial to us in the long-term.
When we take back control over how we use technology, it works for us, rather than the other way around.
Lead photo by Warren Wong