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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

I’m writing this blog in a café. To my right a middle-aged couple are scrolling through their phones. They make no conversation or eye contact until their breakfast arrives, momentarily breaking the spell. Both phones remain on the table, within fingers reach. To my left a mother and daughter are enjoying a coffee together, engaged in lively debate. But the daughter’s phone rests nestled between her forearms on the table: she checks her phone four times in half an hour. My phone sits by my side, flashing insistently to alert me to a notification. I will myself not to check it.

This is our new normal. Young people crowding around tables, staring at their phones – tapping, scrolling, sharing content from time to time. Parents with their heads down, absorbed by their smartphones while their children play. Business meetings cluttered with screens. We live in a hyper-connected world, with all its advantages, but in my last blog, I set out the case for becoming more aware of how we use technology so we can get a better balance in our lives. Now it’s time to turn the lens inwards and explore my own relationship with my phone, sharing tools and techniques that can help reduce our growing reliance.

While I don’t use my phone to excess, I have found the growing use of WhatsApp groups in the last year has led to a creeping habit of constantly checking alerts. My natural tendency is to try to respond to all requests or communications so I can quickly get sucked into a digital vortex, distracted from my original task by the constant beeps and flashes. I want to take back control of how and when I’m accessing my phone and I also want to successfully role model how to use technology in a balanced way so that my children grow up valuing face-to-face interactions more than screen time.

So just how big a digital problem do I have? First, I took a short addiction quiz at the digital detox website itstimetologoff which suggested that while I wasn’t addicted, I could do with re-evaluating my phone usage. Then I used the Quality Time app (as well as a pen and paper!) to monitor how I used my phone (Moment is an equivalent app for iPhone users) and discovered:

  • I turn on my phone within minutes of waking up and don’t turn it off until shortly before I go to sleep at night.
  • I access my phone between 30 and 50 times a day, albeit for very short periods of time.
  • I spend around an hour in total on my phone every day.
  • The main apps I use are WhatsApp, Gmail, Facebook and news websites.

If you measure me against the average user who accesses their phone 150 times a day, I may look relatively moderate, but since I also access email and Facebook on the computer, I know this is only showing part of my screen consumption and I’m also aware this has grown over time. Adam Alter, Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, makes a powerful case in his TED talk for us to rethink our growing attachment to technology. The graph below shows the amount of non-screen-based personal time we now have after sleeping, working and carrying out survival-based activities. The yellow slither is “where your humanity lives,” Alter says, “and right now it’s in a very small box”.

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So, what can we do about it?

  • Try putting your phone in a different room, in a drawer, or leaving it in your bag, particularly if want to avoid distractions for a specific period of time. After all, if you were trying to lose weight, would you walk around holding your favourite chocolate bar?
  • If you use your phone to wake you up, buy an alarm clock. Then you can turn off your phone before bed and leave it downstairs to keep temptations out of the way. It might also help you wait a little longer before turning it on in the morning, allowing you some clear head space to think about the day ahead.
  • Allocate some designated online/offline time. Alter suggests choosing an occasion you do every day to keep screen-free (like mealtimes); itstimetologoff recommends a 5:2 digital diet; or you could try food blogger Sarah Wilson’s trick of being unavailable for a day each week.
  • Leaving your phone at home – or on silent – go for a walk, connect with nature, look up, notice your surroundings, smile at a stranger, make eye contact with the people around you. There’s an explicit link between increasing your offline experiences and improving your mental health so challenge yourself to make your next event or experience phone-free, recording it only in your memory.

Technology itself also has plenty of great tools that can help you reduce your use:

  1. Pick up the phone! This may sound counter-intuitive but remember that when we first bought our mobile phones, it was so we could make phone calls and send texts (tracking my own usage was a stark reminder just how relatively little I now use these functions). Making a quick phone call can often avoid the need for multiple messages through other channels.
  2. Turn off notifications on the apps you use the most – or on all of them – leaving you free to choose to respond to messages at a time convenient to you.
  3. Cal Newport, a computer scientist and author who tries to encourage people to re-think their attachment to social media, writes in his book Deep Work about a social media pioneer who bought a return plane ticket to Tokyo so they could focus, distraction-free. For most of us, using airplane mode will do!
  4. Consider using one of many productivity or usage apps to help you focus or limit your usage. Shine Offline suggest a few favourite ones in this blog like the Goodtime productivity timer, Offtime, or Pocket. If you’re a Samsung customer, you could try the new Thrive App which limits all notifications, calls and texts except for those from people you’ve specified in advance, or if you like the idea of gamifying your usage, there’s the Android Digital Detox Challenge. ShutApp Digital Detox blocks apps for a certain amount of time or if you’re on the hunt for a parental control app, OurPact lets you control the house WiFi and set limits on how much time your children are spending on their devices.

It’s early days for me, but so far I only feel good about being more in control of when I look at my phone. I’ve set limits for daily screen unlocks, Gmail, Facebook and WhatsApp usage. I turn my phone on after breakfast and turn it off a clear hour before bed and I’m making a concerted effort to check it less often. I’ve unsubscribed from 80% of emails and turned off all app notifications (which has probably been the most liberating change so far). I haven’t experienced any withdrawal symptoms yet and I don’t feel out of the loop: it seems the world keeps turning without me checking on it every half an hour!

Our relationship with our devices is highly individual – there is no single solution that will work for all of us – but why not jot down the top 3 digital habits you’d like to change and experiment with some of the ideas I’ve highlighted in this blog. You may need to be a little prescriptive at first and set some rules, but instead of thinking of this as giving something up, re-frame it as using technology in a better way and reclaiming something far more rewarding. In Alter’s words, “life will become more colourful, richer, more interesting” and you’ll soon start reducing your screen time because you want to, not because you think you have to.

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