Going to an isolated wellbeing retreat where you hand your mobile in at the door might sound like a refreshing idea for many who own a smartphone. It’s scary to think that on average we check them once every 12 minutes during our waking hours.
But does abstinence work? It’s easy to avoid your phone when you’re doing yoga for six hours a day and you don’t need to order any online shopping or check your calendar. A digital detox is like a fad diet.
It’s true that taking every app off your phone for a week, leaving Facebook altogether, giving yourself a maximum of an hour a day on your phone, or spending a month without access to the internet can be fantastic learning opportunities.
I know because I’ve tried all of these at least once in the last few years. But the intention is never to sustain this level of intensity. It’s to learn from the extremity and then find a healthy mid-point (although you still won’t find me back on Facebook).
What matters is consistency, and how you’re using your phone on a wet work day in November. How healthy is the relationship when you do actually rely on your device for getting work done, or navigating around a city, or need to hear from people?
Tips to reduce your mobile phone use
1. Create a charging station – I have a “charging station” for all my devices (watch, tablet and phone) based in the kitchen. It means I charge my phone at night there, and often leave it in the kitchen when I’m sitting in the living room, too.
2. Buy an alarm clock or use a smart speaker – I’m obsessed with my Sonos music system and I use it as my alarm clock in the bedroom, waking myself up to my favourite music. This means I don’t rely on my phone as an alarm and can keep it out of the bedroom.
3. Have a dedicated phone drawer – Out of sight is the only way to guarantee out of mind, so have a drawer in your desk where your phone lives. Even better, keep a battery pack in the same drawer, so that you can charge the phone while it sits in the drawer. Giving it a reason to be there will help your motivation.
4. Fill the spaces in your life – Just like smokers “need something to hold” when they give up smoking, phone addicts need something else to cling to. If you’re not quite ready to embrace boredom in the spaces between activities, keep a book or magazine with you, or perhaps a notepad for ideas and reminders.
5. Morning rituals – Get up. Do some exercise. Eat breakfast. Drink some water. Have a shower. There’s no reason to involve your phone in any of these activities. Leave it alone and spend the first hour of the day without it. Even better, put it in your bag and go to work. Similarly, create “phone zones” and “no-phone zones” in your house.
6. Ninja stealth mode – Using airplane mode on your phone is a great way to deliberately “slow down the world” and give yourself rest in the evenings, or focus during the workday.
7. App minimalism – If you’re finding it hard to change your behaviour, why not change your phone instead? You don’t need to buy one of those retro Nokia 3210s. Instead, delete any app you’ve not used for a few weeks, and restrict the home screen only to high-function, low-distraction apps. I deliberately “hide” messaging apps away from the home screen. Apps like Freedom (iOS) and QualityTime (Android) also allow you to schedule timed sessions where you set in advance what apps you’re allowed access to or not.
8. Remove email – Of course, there are times when you need to access emails on your phone, especially if you’re travelling or need access to an event or ticket confirmation message. But on a day-to-day basis, you can survive.
9. Remove notifications – You’ll learn to put your phone down much more easily when it doesn’t feel like it’s tapping you on the shoulder to remind you about your next dopamine hit every five minutes.
10. Move to a low-data tariff – Constraint can be a wonderful thing, and this will give you a financial incentive to be off your phone.
11. Go black and white – In your phone’s settings, you can probably strip the colours out from your screen. This makes your phone feel less addictive, because all your apps look boring in monochrome.
12. Night-time settings – All the studies point to how overuse of phones affects our sleep, but there are a range of things you can do to help. I use my Fitbit app to set a reminder about winding down and coming off my phone, which flashes up just before 10pm each night. Apps like Twilight strip out the blue light and make your phone screen gradually darker. You can also set your phone to automatically turn off at bedtime.
13. Vary devices for different tasks – If you have a phone and a tablet, or a phone and a laptop, then the usual way we tend to deal with this is to use all the same apps across both devices. But why not make a rule that each app can only be on one device? Perhaps your tablet becomes just for “reading and gaming”, whilst your phone is for “music apps and photos”. Switching between devices can help to break the habit.