How to curb your phone usage this year

Key Points
  • If you're feeling uneasy about how much time you spend on your phone, here are some tips for how to curb your usage this year.
  • The key is to have a big-picture, personal understanding of what habits you want to change and why, paired with a selection of simple "speed bumps" to help you along the way.
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In 2018, illuminating conversations about how our smartphones hijack our minds kicked into high gear. Those discussions led tech companies themselves to buy into the "time well spent" movement (even as they continued to undermine the trust users place in them).

If you feel uneasy about your tech habits, and want to become more intentional about how you use your phone this year, here are some strategies to help you take control:

Get a clear-eyed view of your current usage

As you gear up to make changes, first take stock of your current usage, and how it makes you feel in a big picture way.

Catherine Price, author of the book How To Break Up With Your Phone, suggested letting yourself get a bit philosophical about it.

"Every time you reach for your phone, ask yourself, 'What for? Why now? What else?'" Price says.

What do you want to do on your phone? Are you responding to a message, reading the news, using a tool like Uber or a list-keeping app, or going on social media?

Why are you doing it now? Do you have a utilitarian task to complete, are you motivated by boredom, or are you experiencing social pressure (i.e. everyone around you is on their phone, so you check yours too)?

What else could you be doing instead?

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Phones can act as digital drugs that we use to seek pleasure, or to avoid discomfort and pain, Price said. Being aware of your own motives — as well as how tech products have been intentionally engineered to siphon as much of your attention as possible — may make a trivial observation (such as frittering away 10 minutes on Instagram) take on a new weight (like that you were endlessly scrolling to avoid a hard task).

Along with that analysis, Price recommends creating a list of all the ways that you like using your phone, and all the usage behaviors that make you feel bad.

David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, advises that you start with an intense digital cleanse — try not to check social media for a whole day, for example — and then compare your typical experiences and emotions with those you felt during decreased usage.

"The first step of the resolution is to prove to yourself that what you're resolving is necessary," he added.

Yes, there have been studies showing that social media can be bad for your mental health, and exploring how your phone affects your memory or attention span in deleterious ways, but ultimately it won't be the science that curbs your usage. Your phone habits are so deeply personal and entwined with your life that how you actually feel is a better motivator for change than the latest research, Price stated.

Along with a personal analysis, new tools released in the last year will let you gawk in horror at concrete data about your phone usage, too. Apple, Google, and Facebook now all have tools to show you how, and for how long, you use your phone or individual apps.

If you're an iPhone user, check out Screen Time to understand how hours you spend on your device every day and week, with a break down of the amount of time you spend in individual apps. Google's Digital Wellbeing tools can show you the same kind of data, but many are currently only available for Pixel and Android One phones. If you're an Android user without access, you can use download an app that tracks your smartphone habits, like QualityTime or Moment, to track usage.

Facebook and Instagram both have dashboards in their settings to show you your personal activity and set usage goals.

Be specific about your goals and use positive framing

You can't actually just resolve to "use your phone less." Like with any goal, you need to have concrete ways to think about and measure your success.

"Set a positive intention, so it doesn't feel like a restriction," Price said. "Think about it as opening up this world of possibilities of what you're going to do when you're not on your phone."

Do you want to spend more time reading, practicing a new skill, or even just embracing boredom? You may want to limit your phone usage because of its negative effects — feeling like you have a shorter attention span or increased anxiety, or the complaints of your friends, partners, or kids — but you'll have something more beneficial to focus on once you figure out what you'll do with your increased time, Price stated.

For example, you could decide that you only want to spend 10 minutes on Instagram a day so that you can have more time to practice ukulele.

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Use your phone to help you stop using your phone

Now that you've developed the motivation for your cessation, there are ways to nudge yourself towards success.

The aforementioned tools like Screen Time and Digital Well Being let you easily set bite-sized goals, like only using Instagram for 30 minutes a day, or muting your phone from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Google's director of UX for Digital Wellbeing, Maggie Stanphill, said that feedback from users so far has shown an early indication that app timers correlate with decreased usage.

"This is a good indicator that by raising awareness of this behavior, users are exerting more self-control," she added.

If you've experimented with these reminders, though, you'll quickly see that the prompts are all too easy to change or ignore — which is why the first two strategies are so important.

"The technology will never really limit our use effectively," Dr. Greenfield stated. "We have to decide to do it for ourselves."

Build user experience roadblocks

There are a host of simple actions you can take to make your physical and digital environments as amenable to achieving your goals as possible.

While some of the following tips may seem gimmicky, they're ultimately meant to slow you down, so that you'll be more deliberate about how you use your phone. Think of them like little speed-bumps.

Turn off as many push notifications as possible

Obvious but vital. Value your own attention: Only let the apps you deem most important interrupt you (for me, that means chat apps, my calendar, and utility apps like ride-sharing services that only activate when I'm using them).

Put tools, not temptations on your home screen

This helps you avoid the pernicious behavior of finishing a task and then absently clicking on an app next to the one you just used.

Log out of an app every time you've finished a session or go so far as to delete it altogether, so that you can only access it through desktop or your phone's browser

The only downside of deleting an app, at least right away, is that you won't be able to track how much time you're spending in that product through tools like Screen Time.

Instead of using your phone's biometric passcode, set a long, numerical one that you have to enter every time

You can't subconsciously open your phone when you're using a long code instead of your thumb.

Turn your phone to grayscale

You can give your phone usage a real wallop by draining all of the color from your screen. Try it and you'll quickly understand how much less appealing your phone becomes.

Dig around in your phone's "Accessibility" settings to turn on grayscale. On an iPhone, find "Display Accommodations," and turn on "Color Filters."

On a Samsung device, find "Vision" and then scroll down to "Grayscale."

If your Android device has Google's Digital Well Being tools, you can have your phone automatically activate grayscale at designated times of day.

Kick your phone out of bed

The positive effects of banishing your phone before bed are vast.

Embrace other devices

In that vein, get yourself a regular alarm clock. Or a wristwatch to wear during the day. If you have a smart speaker, shoot it questions or commands you might have otherwise used a screen for. If you don't need to pick up your phone to put on your audiobook, you won't accidentally get sucked into unrelated activities.

Go easy on yourself

Like any habit, your phone usage is difficult to change. Be patient with yourself.

"Understand that your attention is fragile and you need to really work to increase that attention," says Larry Rosen, psychology professor and author of The Distracted Mind. "It takes practice."

If you aren't clear and deliberate about why you want to see a change, all the speed bumps or measurement tools in the world won't help you.

"You're trying to coexist with a device that's designed to addict you," Price said. "It's very difficult to have a relationship that's healthy and balanced with something that's designed to encourage an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship."

While most people can manage their behavior by putting in focused effort over time, it's a growing problem that sometimes requires professional intervention. Along those lines, Greenfield is opening up a 30 bed residential treatment center in Massachusetts this August, specifically for people with gaming or technology addiction.

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