How I’m changing my relationship with my phone and reclaiming my attention

It has been said that our lives are a culmination of what we pay attention to.  What we watch, listen to, and read shapes our attitude, our opinions, and our reality.  Now that we’re spending an average of 7 hours a day looking at one screen or another it’s impossible to deny the fact that our devices and their addictive apps are shaping our brains and affecting our quality of life.

The compulsiveness around my phone, that I started to notice last year, was troubling.  Whether it was to “check something” that felt innocent or to endlessly scroll social media, I found myself picking up my phone constantly.  Add to that the dings from texts and notifications followed by the impulsive need to look immediately, and I was starting to feel like my phone was in full control of my attention.  I became curious how I might feel and how I might spend my time if I were using my devices more intentionally and less impulsively.    

Our phones, along with most apps, have been designed to captivate us.  The longer we use them the more profits the tech companies rake in.  They’ve invested millions to figure out how to keep us hooked, subsequently fueling the attention economy that is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.  So breaking free is not as simple as having the will-power to do so.  Leveraging a variety of tools and implementing various techniques is how I’ve reclaimed ownership of my attention.  

Turn off notifications

Notifications are a direct threat on our ability to focus.  Whether it be deep-thinking for a project or focusing on a conversation with a loved one, we can’t do so when our phones are constantly lighting up and hijacking our attention.  Turning off all notifications may not be realistic for you, so audit what it is you really need to be notified about immediately.  Most things can wait.

Change your phone to greyscale

This has been a powerful one for me.  Removing the color makes our phones much less appealing to look at.  I am able to use my phone for the tool that it is without getting sucked into things that I had no intention of looking at when I picked it up.

On Apple devices:  settings -> accessibility -> display & text size -> color filters -> toggle to “on”

On Android: settings -> accessibility -> visibility enhancements -> color adjustment -> greyscale

Use the Do Not Disturb feature

Just because we possess a device in which we can be reached anywhere, anytime does not mean we need to be available.  Constantly reacting to the needs of others gives us no space to thoughtfully decide how to spend our time in order to move the needle in our life forward towards the goals we want to achieve and people we want to be.  Get intentional about when you want to be reached and when you don’t.  

Setting up and activating the Do Not Disturb feature will mute sound, stop vibration, and block visual disturbances. You get to decide what you block and what you allow.

Keep your devices out of the bedroom

If we want any chance of creating healthy boundaries with our phones I think it starts with them not being the last thing we look at before going to bed (which can affect our quality of sleep) and the first thing we look at in the morning (which can affect our mood for the entire day).  Try leaving your phone in another room and read a book instead.  

Set texting expectations with friends and family

Texting is my biggest weakness.  A message that needs a reply, for me, is a thing on my to-do list that can easily get checked off.  But it’s like whack-a-mole, for every one that you reply to, one, two, or three more pop back up.  And it never ends.  There’s no getting on top of it.  I’ve been deeply inspired by a friend of mine who has very healthy boundaries around technology.  Anytime I text her, I know that I may not hear back from her for a week.  I also know which friends I could text and hear back from almost immediately.  I realized I wanted to be the person that could take days to respond and no one would think twice about it because that’s just how I am.  It’s up to us to set the expectation and if we do that people will act accordingly.  If an immediate response is needed, we can call them on the phone.

Use analog options whenever possible

We’ve been conditioned to employ an app for so many things these days.  So much so that it’s easy to forget that there are other options, sometimes easier options than using an app. Before downloading a new app I ask myself if there is an analog way to address my needs. 

I was recently looking for a habit tracking app when I realized I could create a spreadsheet on my computer, print it out and track my habits that way.  In my quest to form healthier habits with my phone I was about to download an app that would cause me to pick up my phone more, not less.  Sure I don’t get all the shiny features and game-like rewards that come with every app these days but that is a compromise I’m willing to make in order to be less addicted to my phone. 

Audit your apps, delete what you don’t need

The more apps on your phone, the more potential for distraction and the hijacking of your time.  Take a look at each one and ask yourself how that app is serving you.  Delete those that make you feel like crap or are notorious for sucking you into more screen time.

Tip: You can experiment with this without losing the data you’ve create in the app.   For example, deleting the Instagram app off your phone doesn’t delete your account, it just deletes the app until you download it again and log back in.

Only check your email when you’re ready to respond

I’ve been known to be just as compulsive about checking my email as surfing social media.  I no longer look at email on my phone and only open my laptop to check email when I know I have the time to respond.  Instead of letting email be one more thing that piles on to the to-do list in my head, it’s addressed as soon as I see it.  

Choose a laptop or desktop computer whenever possible

A few years after the invention of the iPhone it was determined that the same features that keep a gambler addicted to a slot machine could be applied to the apps on our phones.  Facebook revenues, for example, skyrocketed after they went all in on the design features of the mobile app rather than investing in the website.  Websites, as viewed on desktop computers and laptops, are not as enticing and addictive.  If your social media use is running rampant but you can’t imagine going cold turkey, start by only using a computer to view them.

Turn off auto-play across all devices

While laptop and desktop computers tend to not be as addictive as phones and tablets, the auto-play feature on sites like Netflix and YouTube are an assault on our autonomy.  We don’t stand a chance to take control of our time back when this feature is feeding us content on a never-ending basis.  Turn off auto-play on all your devices.  I’m not against a good Netflix binge but at least decide for yourself when and what you watch next.

Proof that auto-play isn’t an innocent feature:  YouTube’s algorithms are formulated to “lead us into successively more extreme and polarizing videos”.  Sensationalist content keeps us hooked and so YouTube’s auto-play feature subtly leads us there without us even realizing it.

Be mindful of apps/websites with infinite scroll

I don’t know about you but infinite scroll messes with my head.  I find myself not wanting to stop scrolling until I get to the end, but there is no end.  Avoid them altogether or set a timer while engaging in content with infinite scroll.

Set a timer for social media and game use

This can shed light on how quickly and easily we take on a trance-like state while using these addictive apps.  A timer lets your rational mind decide how much time you’d like to indulge and the alarm going off snaps you out of it.  Opening addictive apps without a plan for how long you’re going to use them is a surefire way to lose hours of your life that you never planned on giving away.

These techniques have created the space for me to think about why I’m picking up my phone and how I’m using it.  I’ve made the shift from compulsive behavior to intentional use.  And because of it have been gifted with a noticeable shift in my quality of life.  I’m far less anxious, my mind is less scattered, my internal dialogue less negative, I can concentrate more easily, and I feel more creative and motivated.  The control I’ve taken back makes me feel like the fully-autonomous human that I am rather than a node in a network. 

It’s taken the cocktail of techniques above for me to get the upper hand on my phone use.  If that seems overwhelming, try one or two things first and build from there.  Commit to 30 days of using your phone in greyscale and see what happens.  Or try 30 days without social media apps on your phone, even if you still use the websites on your computer, just get them off your phone and see how you feel.  Experiment with it.  Bring awareness to why you pick up your phone and how you use it.  Does it bring value to your life or make you feel icky?  Adjust accordingly.  

recommendations for further knowledge and inspiration:

Documentary: The Social Dilemma
Book: The Chaos Machine
Book: Digital Minimalism

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We’re Mark & Michele, modern-day nomads perfecting the art of slow, full-time travel.  Our tiny home on wheels and slow-paced travel style allows us to minimize our expenses while maximizing our freedom.  May our unconventional way of life inspire you to design a life that you love.


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