I got my first smartphone in the summer of 2012, and ever since, I’ve found myself wishing I had stuck with my flip phone. It’s not that I hate my iPhone, exactly, but I frequently hate how I use it. I check it all the time, especially when I’m in the middle of hard work requiring concentration and effort. When I’m bored, I look at whatever the internet is serving up to me, often getting anxiety-provoking information I’d rather not ruminate about right then. I feel nervous about being “off the grid” if I don’t have my phone with me, even if I’m unreachable only for an hour or two. And yet, despite all these ill effects, I keep carrying and checking my phone.
I don’t want to be a slave to my mobile device, so I jumped at the chance to serve as a guinea pig for the program outlined in Catherine Price’s new book, “How to Break Up With Your Phone.” I also dug into the research and talked with experts who study digital media use. What I learned is that it’s possible to take back our lives and attention from our phones, but it takes some planning and commitment.
With the world of possibilities it presents, the phone has become something that rewards us for looking at it, no matter where we are or what we’re trying to do. That’s a powerful pull, said Adrian Ward, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “We are always carrying around this attentional, gravitational black hole,” he said. In a study published last year, Ward and his colleagues asked participants to place their devices close and in sight, nearby and out of sight, or in another room. Then the researchers tested participants’ cognitive capacity. The results suggested that just having your smartphone present affects cognitive capacity even if you aren’t checking it or even thinking about it. We have a limited supply of cognitive resources, and the effort required to not pay attention to your phone siphons off some of those resources, Ward said. The study also showed that the more you depend on your phone, the more likely you are to suffer from its presence. Putting the phone face down or even turning it off doesn’t solve the problem.
A more effective solution may be just keeping the thing around less often. “I hide it in the corner and get it out of my realm of possibility,” Ward said. I’ve found that the more my phone is out of sight or, even better, charging in the other room, the less I feel compelled to check it.
Price’s four-week plan to change your relationship with your phone builds up to a 24-hour trial separation. When I tried that as part of her focus group last year, I realized that my phone was often less necessary than I assumed. I had family activities scheduled during my 24-hour break, and in the absence of the phone, I was able to enjoy these activities without distraction. I can’t say I’ve repeated the exercise, but I’m trying to work more phone-free stretches into my day. Price instructed us to list the situations and contexts in which we had decided not to use our phones, and I found a handful, including anytime I’m engaging with another human being, when I’m waiting in line, when I’m in my bedroom (it now charges elsewhere at night), while I’m watching TV and when I’m on the subway (with an exception for podcasts). I’m batting about .800 in sticking to those intentions.
Smartphones often lure us into multitasking. Think of all the ways you can use them when you’re also doing something else. (I don’t know that I’ve ever had a text conversation without simultaneously doing something else.) This can be fatal in the case of distracted driving or walking. And it can hurt your performance on the primary task at hand. We cannot effectively focus on two things at once, and it takes time for your brain to switch between tasks. That means multitasking actually doesn’t improve productivity, said L. Mark Carrier, an experimental psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Research suggests that for college students, multitasking while studying and during lectures negatively affects overall learning and grades, he said. A study by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues shows that after only 20 minutes of interrupted work, “people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.”
One way to reduce the allure is to remove tempting distractions from the phone so it doesn’t contain quite as much of the universe. Price suggests deleting apps that grab your attention but don’t improve your life. Goodbye, social media! I’m much less likely to reach for the phone if there’s no Twitter or Facebook. (Instagram, which I’ve only recently started to use, is a potential threat, but it doesn’t call to me the way the others did. So for now, I’m keeping it.) She also suggests hiding apps that are compelling but only somewhat useful and deleting notifications altogether. Tristan Harris, who worked at Google before co-founding the Center for Humane Technology, advocates setting your phone display to black and white, which he says is far less appealing than brightly colored icons and has helped many people reduce their phones’ appeal.
My biggest struggle with my phone is that I check it more often than is necessary, and then I feel bad afterwards. “People mistakenly assume you have to like something to do it over and over again,” said Adam Alter, a professors of marketing at New York University and the author of “Irresistible,” a book about behavioral technology addiction. That’s a logical assumption because “there’s a strong correlation between how much we enjoy something and how much we do it,” he said.1 But it’s not a perfect correlation, he said. We overeat while hating the feeling of having overeaten. We fall in love with people who aren’t good for us and come back for more. I haven’t experienced disturbed sleep from my phone, but plenty of other people have. Regardless of whether we’re truly “addicted” to phones and other technology, many people don’t like their phone habits but find it very difficult to change them.
Email is my greatest anxiety-producer — I feel compelled to check it every seven minutes precisely in the late afternoon and evening hours. And I worry that I won’t be able to respond to a work-related message quickly enough (whatever “quickly enough” means these days). That drives a compulsion to check, which relieves the fear of missing out for a while … until it builds up again. And when I check my email, I end up checking everything else, too. It’s almost inevitable that I see a news story I wasn’t prepared to worry about just right then.
By far the biggest insight I got from Price’s plan was to think of my phone not as a monolith but as a collection of tools I dip into individually when I really need or want to use them. If I have a real use for the phone — coordinating dinner plans via text — I do that and nothing else. And for email, I put myself on a schedule: After work, I can check it hourly until 7 p.m., and then I’m done for the day. I backslide on this fairly frequently, but when I stick to it, I feel fantastic — like my phone is no longer the boss of me.