How I Broke My Addiction to My Phone, It Wasn't About the Hacks
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
I'm a Millennial, born in the age of the internet. As a kid I wasn't glued to my computer as I am now. I went outside and played, I built with my LEGOs and created stories to show my parents. But as I got older I became more intertwined with technology. It began with being able to text (this was the days before unlimited texting was widely common), then bringing my iPod everywhere to listen to my songs, and finally with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But these were reserved for when I had my personal computer which was every day after school. I didn't have access to social media constantly until I got a decent smartphone in college, I was glued to my phone after that.
And have been that way ever since. I had all of the social media apps downloaded on my phone: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and even Reddit. I was constantly checking all of theses sites for new updates or notifications. I have always prided myself in being and optimizer and obsessed with personal development. I have spent countless hours reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching Youtube videos on topics related to habit building, and productivity systems. But there was one place I didn't optimize, my social media and phone use.
Frankly, it was because all of these services were so addicting. When I got sick with Covid in October I spent hours scrolling through Instagram's reels (their version of the Tik Tok "for you" page). I use RescueTime to track my time use on the computer and phone. I was disturbed looking at the amount of time I spent, at this point it became less about "enjoying Instagram" and more of a unconscious mindless task. It's similar to when you start snacking when you're not hungry, because it's easy and you're bored.
I wanted to change this, I knew all of those hours spent scrolling through Instagram could've been spent elsewhere. Now, I'm not saying to totally give up all social media, that's difficult for many of us. But I am saying to become more mindful of the time you spend on it.
But how do we do that? Well I for one didn't know. I used all of the previous tricks of "turn off all notifications" for non-urgent apps like notifications for your mobile game or the Starbucks app. But even with that I still constantly checked my phone for possibly missed notifications.
I needed something more extreme. I didn't need more hacks, I needed a lifestyle change.
When I saw one of my favorite authors, Cal Newport, wrote a book on this subject, Digital Minimalism it went on my reading list. Below I'll be going into the basic overview of his book and then how I've begun to implement his teachings into my life.
Below is an overview of the article:
What is Digital Minimalism?
Newport says forget all of the tips and tricks to decrease your social media use. Instead he argues for adopting a philosophy of technology use which provides clear answers of what tools you should use and how you should use them.
But first, it is not our fault that we are obsessed with social media, these social media companies design their apps/platforms to be addicting. These tech companies encourage behavior addiction in two ways: (1) intermittent positive reinforcement (the likes on a social media post, notifications from the app); and (2) the drive for social approval (like how Snapchat has streaks with friends, it's a confirmation that the relationship is strong), we are looking for approval from our digital relationships.
What Philosophy should we subscribe to then?
Digital Minimalism - you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
Digital Minimalism has three principles:
Clutter is costly - having a cluttered digital life outweighs the minor benefits of each individual piece of clutter it promises
Optimization is important - it's necessary to truly reflect on how you'll use this technology and use these selectively, similar to the law of diminishing returns there is a point where you will experience less benefits from using these online tools
Intentionality is satisfying - being intentional about how you use a tool is significantly more satisfying from just having a general commitment
How to Become a Digital Minimalist
First there's a digital declutter process you will use to determine which technologies you will implement into your life.
Put aside a 30-day period which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. These are apps, sites and tools. And the pick technologies that you can step away from them without creating harm or major problems in either your professional or personal life. Stepping away from email for 30 days is probably not a good idea. But stepping away from Instagram may work for you.
During the 30-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. Focus on exploring higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you're avoiding (like doing home improvement work, joining a volunteer organization, gardening).
At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from scratch. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how you will specifically use it to maximize this value.
Then there's the high level techniques:
Spend Time Alone - giving the brain regular doses of quiet time where you are alone with your own thoughts
Don't Click "Like" - focus on conversation (face-to-face meetings, video chats or phone calls) over connection (texting, emailing, or hitting like) to build better relationships with others
Reclaim Leisure - renovate free time by cultivating high-quality leisure activities/hobbies
Join the Attention Resistance - combine high-technology tools with disciplined operating procedures to extract value from these attention-seeking tools
How I Implemented the Digital Minimalism Practices
As with my article on deep work, I have slowly begun implementing a practice from each of the chapters. There is quite a bit of overlap between Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. It was easier to establish these habits.
Spend Time Alone - Leave the phone at home
Don't Click "Like" - Consolidate texting
Reclaim Leisure - Schedule low-quality leisure
Join the Attention Resistance - Turn devices into single-purpose computers
#1 Leaving the phone at home
Leave your phone at home or if you're having a hard time with that idea, in a harder to access place (in a glove compartment in your car or bottom of your backpack). Do this while running a quick morning errand, for a whole night out, or when walking around the block.
I've started to leave my phone in the car or at home when I'm exercising my dog (going to the park or on walks around my neighborhood). This has allowed me to focus on spending quality time with Luna (my dog), but gives me more time alone. If I feel for safety reasons that I need my phone (if I'm walking really early in the morning or late at night), I will take my phone but leave it on silent and in the bottom of my fanny pack (yes, I wear a fanny pack while I walk my dog, it's useful). This allows me the comfort of bringing my phone with me but I'm less likely to pull it out because it is in an inconvenient spot.
#2 Consolidate texting
Keep your phone in Do Not Disturb ("DND") mode by default, meaning no interrupting text messages or phone calls. You can include a few exceptions like your spouse, immediate family, or kids to be able to reach you. Otherwise if you want to see if anyone has sent you something, you must turn on your phone and open it.
Previously I turned off all notifications from my phone (social media apps, Gmail, my fitness app) but I still received notifications for text messages and phone calls. This practice took it a step further, with silencing all text messages (unless there are certain exceptions) by default. I've had DND on my phone for the past month and only certain calls and messages (from my immediate family and close friends) can get through to me. Initially I was scared I was going to make others mad by not responding promptly, but no one noticed a difference. Also it has let me remained more present in what I'm doing, I'm no longer interrupted by text messages (not like I was getting many before but the occasional text message from my friends). I have also shifted my mindset to focusing on conversation over connection. I use texting to schedule conversations with people. I understand texting is connection not conversation.
#3 Schedule low-quality leisure
Determine specific time periods during which you'll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. Otherwise, stay offline.
I have begun to schedule my shallow time (social media checking, and emails) for specific times during the day. The weekdays and weekends are different, on the weekends I have scheduled slightly more time and freedom to conduct these shallow works. For a typical weekday I have my shallow work at three times of the day: in the morning, during lunch, and at night. This lets me get the benefits of social media (Twitter, LInkedIn) for a few hours a day but I also am not constantly checking these services. Since these are blocked by default using the Freedom App, but I'll get more into that in the next section.
#4 Turn devices into single-purpose computers
Transform computers or smart phone into single use technologies in the short run. The power of a general purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do (browsing the web, email, using programs like Word or Excel), not the total number of things it enables the users to do simultaneously. This means only using your devices for one task at a time instead of multi-tasking and having many different programs at once. Set up a schedule that blocks optional sites and apps completely with the exception of a few hours in the evening.
I downloaded the Freedom app on my phone and desktop. And instead of creating specific times when sites are blocked manually, I decided to create a schedule where optional sites are blocked by default. I did this by creating several blocks during my day when optional sites (Youtube, Hulu, Twitter, etc.) are blocked and have a few short hours when it's not. I have 3 blocks: (1) morning hours, (2) afternoon/evening hours and (3) for when I should be sleeping. While Freedom does allow you to block apps you cannot create different lists for when you want certain apps blocked. For instance in Freedom you can have several lists like: Entertainment, Social Media, Shopping and you can decide when to block those lists. See below for an example of my blocks:
Block 1 - Entertainment, Social Media, Shopping
Block 2 - Social Media, Shopping
Block 3 - Entertainment, Social Media, Shopping
See for Block 2 I choose not to block entertainment because I use Youtube for educational purposes as well. And during the evenings I let myself watch Hulu or Netflix shows. But with the apps I can block it only has one single list so you can't block Youtube in the morning hours but not at night because the way the app is set up. I use my Forest app and when I'm working I set a timer or countdown, this prevents me from using Youtube when it's not productive (like when I'm writing), but I can use it when it is productive (when I'm learning guitar through tutorials).
Enough about Freedom. I realized this commitment to single-use devices is why I own a Kindle. I could read off my smartphone (or buy a tablet that can do many other tasks besides reading) but I wanted a device that could only do one thing, read ebooks. If I solely used the Kindle app on my phone I would be tempted to text others, check my email, or do any other shallow task besides reading. This lets me focus on reading. I could use physical books but I prefer using my Kindle for novels and books that are text heavy, since I can carry many books with me at once (I can switch between 2 books quickly without carrying around a large paperback), and I also review my highlights using Readwise.
I've been a digital minimalist for just a month and I've noticed My social media use has gone down dramatically.
I spend a lot more time on high quality activities like playing the guitar, spending time with Luna, exercising, hanging out with my friends, and volunteering at the local animal shelter. But I don't feel deprived or like I'm a hermit, I still watch my favorite shows and Youtube videos, along with browsing Twitter and LinkedIn for quality content, it's just not the bulk of my time now. I feel less like I'm wasting my time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram stories, my time has become intentional. And I am happy to say I have joined the attention resistance.
Now, I understand some people may think this is extreme, and it may be. But, while many people may not want to become full-blown digital minimalists. I encourage you to try at least one of these practices for a month and see how your life has changed. If I had to recommend one it would be scheduling your shallow work.
Hopefully you found this article helpful and maybe join me and others to become a digital minimalist.
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