Our 6 must-reads for building a better relationship with your phone

With the latest news that the world’s top 2 smartphone makers are building tools to help you spend less time on their devices, it’s clear we’ve reached a tipping point with our relationship to technology.

Dubbed “digital wellness” initiatives, these new features seem pretty clear reactions to our current relationship with our phones.

Just look at the Google Trend results for the term “smartphone addiction”:

Smartphone addiction Google Trends

While the term first appeared briefly in December 2007 (just a few months after the launch of the first iPhone), it really started to take off steadily since early 2011.

We’ve spent nearly a decade worrying that these devices are taking over our lives. And as Larry Rosen, co-author of The Distracted Mind, wrote a Wired article after Apple’s announcement:

“This is certainly a start in providing options to stem tech addiction and obsession, but nothing on your phone is going to change that behavior until you change the psychology behind it.”

Over the past year, we’ve spoken to some of the leading experts on technology addiction, digital detoxes, and creating a healthy relationship with our phones. We’ve collected all of their best advice in one place.

1. Even average phone use is killing our ability to focus. Create friction between you and your homescreen.

The moment science writer and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price, realized she needed to change her relationship with her phone happened late one night. Catherine had recently brought her newborn daughter home, and while feeding her late night, she looked down to see that her attention was caught in a love triangle: Baby staring at mother. Mother staring at phone. Phone shining down on both of them.

You’ve probably been in a similar scenario: sucked into the light of your phone until the world slips away and time flies past. Unfortunately, the more you let that happen, the harder it is to come back and focus in the real world. As Catherine explains:

“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.”

Add to that the constant context switching that happens on your phone from email to social media to SMS, and it’s no wonder our phones are killing our attention.

To change this and reclaim control over her brain, Catherine developed a 4-week program to help you disconnect and then rebuilt a more healthy relationship with your phone. While the program itself is incredibly useful, the most important piece of advice is to start with understanding why you’re picking up your phone in the first place.

When she asked that question for herself, Catherine realized it was rarely a joyful feeling that was pushing her to grab her phone. Instead, it was boredom, being nervous or anxious, or feeling depressed. Now, she uses a technique called “What for? Why not? What else?”

Using custom lockscreens (you can download here), she creates friction between herself and her phone. Giving her an opportunity to ask whether she could achieve what she needs at that moment without opening her phone.

How to break up with your phone lockscreens

2. Do a “Notification Audit” to stop pings and dings from taking over your life

Author and behavioral designer Nir Eyal began his career teaching companies how to make their products more “addictive.” His book, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products, has become a guide for app makers who want your attention. But, he now explains, the problem isn’t making apps better. It’s that they’re too good and people need help separating themselves.

The problem, is that we feel powerless in changing our relationship with our phones. But, as Nir explains:

Despair is the first step to defeat. If we believe that there’s nothing we can do, we don’t do anything about it. We say, ‘Oh, it’s not my fault. It’s Facebook.’ Or, ‘It’s email.’”

Instead, we need to take control over how much we let our phones into our lives. And that starts with changing our notifications. According to research, ⅔ of smartphones never change their notification settings. In other words, we’re giving all these apps that were designed to take our attention full permissions to do so.

One option here is to simply take just five minutes and turn off all the notifications you don’t want to hear from. But that might be a little too simplistic. Instead, you can do a notification audit and split your apps into 3 categories:

  1. Instant: Anything you want to know about as soon as it happens. Leave notifications as they are.
  2. Relevant: Anything you want to know about when you’re open to new updates, but not immediately. Turn off all notifications except for app icon badges.
  3. Kill: Anything you really don’t need to know about. Turn off all notifications and alerts.

Fine-tuning your notifications is a better compromise than turning them off completely. Big changes like going cold turkey can cause anxiety and make us fall back into our old habits. Try putting just one or two apps into the “Kill” and “Relevant” sections, and add more over time as you become more comfortable with getting fewer notifications.

3. Try a 24-hour digital detox from your phone

Our phones are incredible tools. And in fact, a small amount of daily screen time has been shown to increase our happiness. But most of us go past that limit pretty quickly. In fact, on average, we spend 4+ hours a day staring at our screens.

To find that sweet spot, we need to understand both extremes. So while most of us have been living on the higher end, it’s important to understand what it means to go without your phone. This is where a digital detox becomes an important exercise.

Pick a day where you’ll be able to be without your phone for a full 24 hours. Weekends are better as you’re less likely to need to do something urgently or have people get in touch with you. If this sounds terrifying, here’s what you can expect from a full day without your phone:

  • Your brain will initially crave content but then your imagination will return: Our phones give us a hit of dopamine every time we open them up as we never know what we’re going to see (scientists say it’s like a slot machine for the mind). And going without that constant access to content will make you anxious and bored. But very quickly your brain will fill in the spaces—daydreaming, coming up with new ideas, and remembering songs, ideas, and movies.
  • You’ll be happier. A study by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge found that “Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness.”
  • You’ll sleep (a lot) better: The blue light most digital devices emit causes our brains to get out of “sleep” mode and can ruin our natural rest cycles. While looking at your phone first thing in the morning starts your day off with a hit of social envy and stress.

4. Master your device’s Do Not Disturb mode

Sometimes you just need a break from all the things on your phone that want your attention. You’re not looking for some long-term solution, but just a chance to step back and reclaim your focus. In this case, your device’s Do Not Disturb mode is your best friend.

As RescueTime CEO, Robby Macdonell, writes, many people know their device has do not disturb mode, but don’t realize how useful it is. Or how easily they can turn it on.

Here’s where to find it on your phone:

Android

To enable Do Not Disturb on Android, just swipe down to show your notifications. You should see an icon that looks like this in the row at the top:

Android DND

Tapping this will turn Do Not Disturb mode on.

Total effort: One swipe + one tap

Android DND process

It’s worth noting that if you’re using RescueTime Premium, Do Not Disturb mode can be automatically triggered on your Android device whenever you start a FocusTime session.

iOS

On Apple devices, Do Not Disturb can be found when you:

  • Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to launch Control Center.
  • Tap the Do Not Disturb button (It looks like a crescent moon)

Total effort: One swipe + one tap

iOS DND

5. Keep distracting apps out of sight (and out of mind)

The goal of creating a better relationship with your phone isn’t just to break up with all the things you don’t like. But to find balance where you know you’re using it (and not the other way around).

The problem is that we often don’t know when our phone (and the habits it’s built in us) are controlling our actions. But think about this:

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 to them.

While we’re not going to teach you how to read a map here, there are some ways you can stop your phone from always being the easy option.

For one, move app icons off your homescreen. App icons are visual triggers that send you down a path when you see them. Try putting all your distracting apps into one folder and moving them off your homescreen.

Next, think about what your homescreen is telling you to do. There’s a reason notifications (and stop signs) are bright red. Our brains are naturally drawn to bright colors, and red is one that we’ve consistently connected with importance. However, you can get rid of this edge by making your screen grayscale.

The “feature” is quite hidden, however. So, here’s a quick guide on how to change your phone’s screen color.

6. Replace your phone habit with something more positive

When it comes to how your phone builds habits, there are 3 steps:

  • A trigger that sets off the behavior (in this case, a ring, notification, ghost vibration, or other)
  • An action (checking your phone, scrolling through social media, reading a text)
  • A reward (seeing a funny photo, talking to a friend, getting invited to an event)

While the majority of advice around how to use your phone talks about changing settings or notifications, but ignores another powerful technique: replacement.

Rather than just trying to remove the trigger that makes you use your phone, we can also actively try to change the action we take once we’ve been triggered. Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Instead of having social media and news on your front page, put a note-taking or writing app. Journaling has been shown to have huge mental benefits. So why not make that the action you take when you reach for your phone?
  2. If you want to go a step further, try replacing the action of reaching for your phone entirely. Carry a small paperback for when you feel yourself mindlessly grabbing your phone in lineups or while waiting for something.

“Digital wellness” isn’t just about knowing we’re spending too much staring at Facebook or Instagram on our phones. It’s about building a better, sustainable relationship with these incredible devices. And while apps and tools can help you, it all comes down to wanting to make that change and committing to it.

So while this is far from the definitive guide to building a better relationship with your phone, it’s a great starting point. People have spent years researching what our phones do to our mental wellbeing. And even implementing a few of these options should help you on your own path to better digital health.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.