How to stop your smartphone from ruining your life

By Jodie Cook for Forbes

We win at life when we are in control of the devices that we use to facilitate our day-to-day. We lose at life when they control us.

Addiction is defined as a compulsion towards a particular substance or activity. Being addicted to your smartphone, specific apps or the internet zaps your energy, reduces productivity and has harmful implications including anxiety, compulsion and inability to focus. The Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction designed a test to see if you’re addicted to your phone.

In Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism, he differentiates between compulsory and optional technologies. Compulsory technologies are those devices, apps and actions that you absolutely need to do – to keep your job and pay your bills. Optional technologies include everything else. Within the book he advises that readers conduct an analysis on those technologies that are compulsory and optional to them, then take steps to reduce or eliminate those they deem optional.

In Thrive, by Arianna Huffington, she talks about training your mind to resist checking your smartphone. It’s not easy, but it can be done and she describes the benefits in happiness and wellbeing of achieving this level of control over your device.

In a nutshell, the way you stop your smartphone ruining your life is by using it less. Sounds simple, but unless there’s a plan in place it probably won’t happen. Here’s the plan:

Wear a watch
If every time you want to check the time you reach for your phone, you run the risk of regularly starting the spiral of scrolling and checking that you’re trying to avoid. In James Altucher’s book, Choose Yourself, he talks about the loop he finds himself in whenever he picks up a device. Checking his blog comments, Twitter mentions, Amazon rankings and others is a 20-minute loop that he can do multiple times per day if he’s not careful.

Part of not letting your smartphone ruin your life is breaking habits. Wear a watch and reduce the number of times you need to pick it up all together.

Buy an alarm clock
Start your day the best possible way by being in control of it. If your smartphone is your alarm clock, it’s the first thing you touch in the morning, which probably means your first few minutes are dictated by whatever happens to be on your screen. If that’s a new text or an email you need to respond to, suddenly you’re not in control of how you spend your time. Buy an alarm clock that goes next to your bed and wakes you up without you needing to touch your phone, and then only pick your device up once you’re washed, dressed and ready to attack the day.

Get better at describing and remembering
You’re in a conversation and trying to name that actor in that film that was also in that other film. Or you’re talking about that video you saw of that dog doing that cool thing with the frisbee, the next thing you know, you’re pulling out your phone to look it up or to show your mate. Instead of giving in to this compulsion, cultivate your skills in remembering and describing. If you can always Google something, your brain learns that it doesn’t need to retain information. It learns to rely on your smartphone. Furthermore, if you can always show someone a picture, you won’t need to be good at describing anything. Practice recalling information and telling stories without the need for visual aids. It’s an art.

Set some rules
It seems crazy that our smartphones can connect with long lost friends from all over the world, yet we use them just as often to ignore the close friends right in front of us. There’s a word, ‘phubbing’, that means snubbing someone by being on your phone in their company. The person opposite you wants to spend time with you, as you do with them. You’re not going to live forever, your time on this planet is finite and then you’ll never see them again, so make the most of them whilst they’re here and give them your attention. Some personal rules I follow: don’t use your phone in company; don’t use your phone when you’re walking somewhere. The first is to develop friendships; the second is to avoid walking into lampposts.

Use the screen time monitor
Apple iPhones have a feature where they monitor your screen time and give you usage reports, including percentage change week to week. In 2017 the average American adult spent 2 hours and 51 minutes on their phone each day. Paying attention to this guidance is useful for gaining awareness of how much you’re looking at a screen. However, don’t just swap one screen for another. It’s all very well deleting Facebook from your phone but if you’re just going to use it on your laptop you haven’t changed your actions, just swapped which screen you’re looking at. Read a book, get outside, go for a meal – find alternatives to looking at screens all together.

Use the downtime function
Another feature of the iPhone is the ability to set a downtime timer, when your apps are blocked and out of use unless you manually override the block. My smartphone is set to ‘downtime’ between 10pm and 7am. One day soon it will be 9pm and 8am but I’m taking baby steps! See what you can do and experience how good it feels.

Turn off notifications
I read an article from the blog of Joel Gascoigne, founder of Buffer, whereby he conducted an experiment and turned all his smartphone notifications off. Notifications, really, are someone else’s priorities entering your space. Joel discovered that, at first, turning notifications off led to him checking apps more regularly, but then he grew to enjoy not having any and noted its positive influence on his focus and productivity, “with zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realised when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back.”

Join the zero notification movement and see if it works for you!

Batch activities
You could check your emails, messenger and social networks every five minutes, or you could check them once a day and whizz through deleting, responding and delegating in one go. I’d wager that doing that latter would take far less time and break your concentration far less. What else could you batch? In Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, his motto is “less, but better”. Less checking email regularly but better responses when you do, because you’re focused on one task. Less checking social networks throughout the day but more enjoyment when you commit to catching up with your newsfeed once in the evening.

Switch to greyscale
If the above haven’t reduced your smartphone usage, try this. On your iPhone, go to settings > general > accessibility. Then under the ‘vision’ setting locate ‘greyscale’ and toggle on. This setting turns your entire phone to greyscale, and makes it look far less inviting. The app icons for social media platforms are designed to be bright, colourful and inviting. They’re designed to catch your attention and pull you in. Take away their power by making them look very boring indeed!

Have a higher purpose
Finally, and perhaps the most philosophical of all the ten ways to stop your smartphone ruining your life, is to have a higher purpose. Were you really put here, on this planet, to scroll apps, live on WhatsApp and respond to emails? Of course you weren’t! If you’re allowing yourself to get distracted easily, do you need to look further inside and find out what you’re trying so hard to avoid? Addiction and compulsion is one thing, but procrastination to avoid your work is another. Find a role doing work you get happily absorbed by, actively cultivate conversation with the person right in front of you, pick up a new sport or hobby, or just hang out with people who make you forget to check your phone.

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