Get off your phone: 9 ways to reduce your screentime and protect your focus

There are more than a few good reasons to get off your phone during the workday. Beyond being a general distraction, more and more studies are showing how our screen time negatively impacts everything from our sleep and memory to attention span, creativity, productivity, and even health.

As Catherine Price writes in The New York Times, even just having our phones in sight causes a rise in cortisol—the body’s main stress hormone—that may threaten our health and shorten our lives.

It may sound like an exaggeration to say that putting down your phone is a matter of life and death. However, even without those grand stakes, reducing your screen time is guaranteed to help you focus during the workday.

So how do you get off your phone and spend more time on the things that matter? Here are 9 proven ways to help you.

How to understand how much you actually use your phone (and why it’s probably more than you think)

You can’t change what you don’t see.

Unfortunately, few of us really know how much we use our phones during the day. An hour? Two? Without a clear picture, it’s easy to brush it off as not a big deal.

But it is.

According to our research, most people pick up their phones 58X a day and use them for 3 hours and 15 minutes. It’s probably fair to say that if you were spending that much time on Twitter you’d be desperately looking for a fix.

That’s why the first step in training yourself to get off your phone is insight. Here’s an example from my own life.

Using RescueTime’s mobile app, I’m able to track my total screen time and daily pickups and then set goals around my usage. Here’s what that looks like on my Monthly Dashboard.

Screentime monthly
See your mobile time against all your device and offline time using the RescueTime desktop app.

Not only does this give me a clear view of how much I use my phone, but also how my usage impacts the rest of my day. I don’t use my phone for work, so looking at my phone time against my overall productivity gives me a good idea of how distracting it really is.

Going a step further, I can check my daily phone pickups directly in the RescueTime mobile app. (Note: This information stays on your device and is never shared.)

screentime pickups

The more we mindlessly pick up our device, the more we fracture our focus. In fact, one study found that context switching between even just two tasks (like your phone and your laptop) kills 20% of your productive time.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

9 ways to get off your phone when you need to focus

So why do we pick up our phones so much during the workday?

As we wrote in our post on how to fight distraction, there are two types of distractions we need to be aware of: Sensory (external) and emotional (internal). Unfortunately, your phone hits both of these.

So while there are practical tips for shutting off notifications and making your phone less appealing, the psychological reasons why you’re picking it up in the first place are equally as important.

1. Do a notification audit so only truly urgent messages reach you

Changing your phone’s notification settings is one of the easiest ways to protect your focus. Yet according to research, ⅔ of people leave them on default settings. All it takes is 5 minutes and a bit of prioritization to do a notification audit.

Head to your phone’s notification settings (on iOS that’s Settings > Notifications) and change the notification settings on your apps based on what category they fall into:

  1. Instant. Apps where you want to know things as soon as they happen. Leave notifications as they are.
  2. Relevant. Apps where you only want to know things when you’re open to new updates, but not immediately. Turn off all notifications except for app icon badges.
  3. Kill. Apps where you really don’t need to get any notifications from them. Turn off all notifications and alerts.

You might be tempted to just go cold turkey right away. However, fine-tuning your notification settings is an easier way to slowly break away from your phone’s power.

2. Clean up your clutter and delete the apps you use in times of stress

You can go a step further and do a similar audit on your apps. Which ones deserve to stay? And which should go?

An app cleanse can feel daunting. However, there are two ways you can approach it.

First, think about it from a practical standpoint. As the authors of Make Time write, you should only keep apps that are tools (like your clock, calendar, and maybe email)  and delete any that are “infinity pools” (i.e. pull to refresh apps like social media or news).

Next, assess how apps make you feel when you use them. As Catherine Price writes in The New York Times:

“Which [apps] do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen. Or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how it feels.”

Pay attention to your physical responses to these changes as well. Stress often manifests as shortness of breath or a contraction in the chest. If you notice this happening when you open an app, it should most likely go.

3. Track your screentime and set daily limits and goals to keep you accountable

Feedback is essential for making any major change like this. Start by deciding what a reasonable amount of daily screen time is for you. Pick a number that’s high enough that you won’t constantly miss it and get disheartened.

Then, using the RescueTime mobile app, create a screentime goal directly on your phone. For example, I have a limit of 1 hour of screen time a day.

Mobile goals
Goals can be created, edited, and deleted directly from your phone.

Once you’ve set your goal you’ll be able to track it alongside your other goals and see trends. For example, you can see that I did a terrible job at limiting my screen time during the month of May (although my time is trending down).

Screentime goals for the month

4. Physically remove your phone from your surroundings

Our phones rarely leave our sides. And while many of us claim this is due to convenience or necessity, it’s most likely just habit. Unfortunately, that means we’re vulnerable to grabbing our phone at any moment and getting lost in a Twitter thread or email.

As Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker:

“I carry my phone around with me as if it were an oxygen tank. I stare at it while I make breakfast and take out the recycling, ruining what I prize most about working from home—the sense of control, the relative peace.”

Sometimes you need a hard break when you want to get off your phone and focus. Leaving your phone in another room or putting it away in your bag instead of on your desk can create a barrier and help you stay off it.

5. Follow the Digital Minimalist detox

Short breaks during the day can help you reduce your screentime, but changing your relationship with your phone takes more work.

In his book, Digital Minimalism, computer science professor Cal Newport suggests a month-long detox to help you separate the ‘good’ aspects of your phone (and other technologies) from the impulsive, habitual ones.

(You can read our full guide to becoming a digital minimalist here)

Cal calls this process a “Digital Declutter”. Basically, it involves spending 30 days without using any ‘optional’ technologies—anything where their “temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your profession or personal life.” Work email is not optional. Twitter most likely is.

At the end of the month, you get to decide which ones you bring back and how you’re going to use them. The goal is to reset your phone habits so you can choose the apps and tools that match your values.

6. Practice “doing nothing” to reduce the urge to pick up your phone

Removing anything you spend 3-4 hours a day on is going to leave a large void in your life. And if nothing else, our phones are amazing for filling all those empty moments in our lives.

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” writes artist and Stanford professor Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. When you try to limit your phone usage, you’ll be faced with something so many of us hide from. Boredom.

While Cal’s ‘Digital Declutter’ involves finding activities to fill that time, there’s another option. Embrace the boredom.

This might sound, well, boring. But as we’ve written before, there are benefits to boredom, from increasing your creativity to helping improve your productivity.

Practically, this means being aware of all the usual times you find yourself reaching for your phone: Grocery store lineups, while watching TV, on the bus, etc…

You might want to try keeping your phone in a different pocket (or in your bag) so you can’t pull it out as frequently. Or follow Price’s advice and use a wallpaper that asks whether you need to open your phone right now.

Catherine Price wallpaper-min

7. Buy a clock/watch (and get your phone out of the bedroom!)

One of the reasons it’s so hard to get off your phone is that they’ve replaced so many other basic tools. It’s just too easy to get distracted by notifications and apps when you’re using your phone as a basic watch or alarm clock.

There are also some serious health implications when you use your phone as an alarm clock. Not only does the blue light from your phone or tablet impact your ability to fall asleep, but having your phone next to you can cause some strange nighttime habits.

A new survey found that one in three teenagers report waking up at least once per night to check their phones, while a quarter of their parents do the same thing.

Do yourself a favor and leave your phone out of the bedroom.

8. Set a timer after each time you use your phone

Even if you don’t use your phone for much each day, the frequency of your ‘check-ins’ (even if just for one or two seconds) can have a huge impact on your focus.

In fact, a single pickup of your phone can set off a chain reaction of distraction. In our study on mobile habits, we found that 50% of screen time sessions start within 3 minutes of the previous one, meaning your focus is being turned into Swiss cheese.

There are a few ways you can combat these bad habits.

First, you can set a timer on your phone after each time you use it to make yourself more conscious of the time between pickups.

Next, you could use an app like Forest that grows virtual trees as long as you don’t use your phone (the longer you stay off, the bigger the tree).

Lastly, you can use RescueTime’s pickup report to track how often you’re picking up your phone for and try to change your habit from lots of short pickups to one or two longer sessions a day.

9. If all else fails, go gray

Finally, if you still find it difficult to get off your phone, make it less appealing.

There’s a little-known feature on your phone that will turn it from a cacophony of colorful app icons and notifications to a dull, easier to ignore slab of gray.

iphone grayscale

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


It would be great if there were a one-click button that would help you get off your phone. But unfortunately, it takes a bit more work.

And while technology can help you build a better relationship with technology, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook entirely. As Larry Rosen, co-author of The Distracted Mind wrote:

“…nothing on your phone is going to change that behavior until you change the psychology behind it.”

Getting off your phone is only half of the equation. You have to know why you want to get off it in the first place. And while that will be up to you, we hope these suggestions help you get there.

What works best for you? Tell us your top tips for how you get off your phone in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

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

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