How To Break Your Phone Addiction

Life is more than a glowing screen; here’s how to claim it back


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How To Break Your Phone Addiction

I’m grateful that I finished university before the smartphones were invented. I enjoyed three wonderful and chaotic years with my classmates, full of misadventure, alcohol and actual human conversation.

I can only imagine what university is like today. If the students leave their dorms at all, it’s presumably to congregate in a room and stare at tiny screens together. The simple joy of boredom has been lost forever. Which is a great shame because that was the trigger for most of the mischief if I recall correctly.

Today it’s hard to imagine we ever survived without our pocket companions. Research from phone monitoring apps shows we spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on our phones each day. On average we check our phones 58 times per day and half of those pickups are within 3 minutes of the last one. That’s a phenomenal amount of attention to dedicate to an inanimate object.

No wonder people are struggling with low productivity. In little over a decade, these devices have become indispensable parts of our lives and a source of constant distraction.

Why Are We So Addicted?

Despite our advances as a species, we’re still ill-at-ease in our own heads. And this is not a new phenomenon – history suggests we’ve always struggled with this. But mobile phones now provide an escape that’s available 24/7.

As soon as unpleasant feelings arise, we reach into our pocket for the antidote. A bit of scrolling and a few notifications soon delivers a cheerful dopamine hit. Suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bad after all.

It’s reminiscent of the scene in The Matrix when Neo wakes up in the real world. He discovers he’s been living in a nutrient bath, plugged into a giant machine that simulates his reality. As he gazes around, he sees millions of people still plugged in and unaware of what life is really like.

It seems we’ve built our own Matrix and plugged ourselves in.

How To Break The Spell

We’re not slightly addicted to technology. We’re heroin addicts. And heroin addicts don’t turn their life around by trying to moderate their intake. There’s no mild inconvenience that defeats the habit. You don’t get clean by putting the heroin on a high shelf.

This is why many of the standard solutions to phone addiction don’t work. If you put your social media apps on a different screen, you’ll just scroll to that screen when you need a fix. If you change your phone to black-and-white, you’ll still reach for it when you’re bored. Turning off all your notifications won’t stop you checking if you have any notifications.

There are only two approaches that work: buying a feature phone or crippling your existing phone.

Feature Phones

The opposite of a smartphone is a feature phone (also known as a dumbphone). Like the predecessors of the iPhone, they can make calls, send text messages, play Snake, and that’s about it.

There are many benefits to buying a feature phone. Battery life is measured in weeks rather than hours, while their price can be a tenth of a modern smartphone. Many models are incapable of accessing social media or even email. So, no matter how tempted you feel, there isn’t any possibility of cheating.

Feature phones can also help establish your new identity, which is important for behavioural change. Each time you pull out your retro phone you reinforce that you’re a superior human who doesn’t need mod-cons. You’ve got a dumbphone and you’re proud of it.

However, resorting to feature phones is a little extreme. Smartphones have improved our lives in many non-distracting ways, including:

  • the ability to take amazing pictures and videos;
  • instant access to maps and other navigation aids;
  • improved communications tools, like WhatsApp;
  • data safety, thanks to cloud backups.

For these reasons (and more), I think a feature phone should be a last resort. A much easier approach is to cripple your existing phone.

Crippling Your Smartphone

The apps on your phone fall into two categories: tools and distractions.

When you’re staring at your screen while someone is talking, you’re almost certainly using a distracting app. Into this category falls social media, games, shopping and web browsing.

Living alongside these apps is an army of tools that make life better. This includes the camera, Google Maps, meditation timers, weather apps, and so on. You only turn to these apps when you need them; they don’t distract you from everyday life.

The trick to crippling your smartphone is to remove all the distractions and keep the tools. You need to delete all the apps that could plausibly distract you, such as:

  • Social media apps
  • Shopping apps
  • YouTube, Netflix etc.
  • Games
  • Business apps (work email, LinkedIn, etc)

I would recommend going a step further and removing music apps and even your personal email. The further you go in this process, the better.

Now comes the critical piece. Because you’re an addict, you need to prevent yourself from lapsing. It’s trivial to reinstall these apps when you’re feeling in need of a pacifier. The answer to this problem is parental controls.

On my iPhone, I’ve used the parental controls to disable app installation and remove the Safari web browser. My son chose the parental code, which means I can’t revert the settings without him. I’m now unable to access the web, social media, emails or anything else distracting on my phone.

Lessons From Going Cold Turkey

You’re going to find it tough when you break your phone addiction for the first time. I’ve gone through a detox process three or four times before, so I’ve learned a few things to watch out for.

1. The urge takes a while to fade

For a couple of weeks, you’re going to pick up your phone on autopilot. It’s a strange experience to discover your phone in your hand, without any recollection of choosing to pick it up.

Take time to notice what you were doing when the reflex fired. Something made you reach for a distraction. See if you can sit with that emotion for a bit. This is the personal growth that comes from breaking phone addiction.

Soon enough, the urge will reduce. Then you’ll realise how addicted other people are. You’ll be sat at a party, talking to others and relaxing, while noticing how many people are buried in screens around you.

2. Your brain will seek other distractions

It’s not easy to go cold turkey, so your brain will be looking for other ways to escape. You must be vigilant, otherwise you’ll spend just as much time staring at other screens to get your fix. Based on my previous experiments, here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Cheating by sitting on your laptop all day.
  • Eating endless snacks to fill the void.
  • Using caffeine as a substitute for dopamine.

3. You’ll convince yourself it’s time to start again

Each time I take a break from my phone, it lasts a few months and then I convince myself to re-install the apps. Even after all that time, my brain still misses the easy fix of social media and web browsing. It concocts clever arguments why I should revert to normal.

I’ll typically rationalise that having a crippled phone is crazy behaviour. I’ll tell myself a lesson has been learnt and it’s time to return to normality, albeit with some moderation. But as we discussed above, moderation never works.

So as I sat in my garden yesterday, peacefully enjoying the sun without a screen in my hand, I decided this was going to be the final time. There’s no need to go back.

Goodbye phone, hello world.