Among the many life lessons my partner and I learned as we purchased and moved into our first home, is that 12 days without internet is a long time. Especially since we live and work at home together.
In the absence of Wi-Fi, I discovered that I use my phone a lot more than I thought I did. I use the (OFFTIME) app to track how I interact with my phone and to monitor the time I spend on email and Instagram. My usage over two days, while working full-time and hotspotting my laptop between emptying boxes, was shocking. I thought my use (particularly of Instagram) was moderate, but the gigabytes went flashing by.
I began tracking my phone usage three or four months earlier, with this article in mind. I’ve also been testing different techniques for moderating my phone use. Some weeks I did well, but it’s easy to fall back into old habits. I’ve been trying to reduce my reliance on my phone ever since I discovered a 2017 study, proposing that “the mere presence” of our smartphones reduces our cognitive capacity. In other words, our smartphones make us a little bit stupid.
We live in a state of cognitive dissonance
In the study, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” researchers had participants perform simple cognitive tests while their phones were placed on the table, in their pocket or bag, or in another room. The result? Participants whose phones were visible on the desk performed the worst. Participants whose phones were nearby, but not visible, performed marginally better—a finding that the study notes isn’t statistically relevant. Those whose phones were safely stowed in another room performed the best.
The really interesting part of the study is that participants reported not feeling affected by their phone—yet the data proves otherwise. So, the presence of our phone reduces our cognitive capacity and we’re not even aware of it.
Our digital “time and attention vampires”
The study argues that smartphones “may reduce the availability of attentional resources”—which is important because our attention is a finite resource. Interruption, in general, affects our capacity to focus and perform tasks. And besides bringing us the latest news about what our friends ate for breakfast, our smartphones specialize in the art of interruption.
Interruption, in general, affects our capacity to focus and perform tasks. And besides bringing us the latest news about what our friends ate for breakfast, our smartphones specialize in the art of interruption.
We all know that multitasking is a myth. Each task takes up a certain portion of brain power which spreads your attention and thins your focus. According to research from the University of California, Irvine, office workers are interrupted, on average, every 11 minutes and it takes up to 25 minutes (on average) to refocus.
My time suck is email—I love to check my inbox—but this makes it clear that my habit is affecting my work. I’m trying to reel in my email use by setting certain times throughout the day to check it, and by breaking the compulsive habit of opening my inbox app on my phone. An added benefit? A 2014 research report claims that checking email less frequently reduces stress.
Pavlov’s phone. AKA classical conditioning.
Research suggests that when it comes to receiving notifications, our phones have us very well trained. Notifications act as a reward loop—in other words, it feels good. We check a notification and feel satisfied, and so we do it again the next time one pops up. And we even check our phones with purely the hope that a notification has come in to feed the reward loop.
By paying this much attention to my own phone usage, I learned that when I unlock my phone, my thumb seems to know where an app is based on muscle memory. And sometimes I caught myself scrolling Instagram without even realizing I had opened the app.
The idea that we’re unconsciously paying attention to our phones, even when we think we aren’t, is unsettling. It’s why, though I was mindfully tracking my phone usage, I resisted looking at the results for some time.
But now it’s time for some brutal honesty. I learned that, in December, I spent a total of 649 minutes on Instagram. That’s 10.8 hours in 30 days. Put another way: I lost more than one entire work day to scrolling through photos of kittens and yoga poses.
I learned that, in December, I spent a total of 649 minutes on Instagram. That’s 10.8 hours in 30 days. Put another way: I lost more than one entire work day to scrolling through photos of kittens and yoga poses.
In January, I accessed my email 942 times. That’s an average of 31.4 times per day.
To face and come to terms with those numbers was harder than I anticipated, and as much as its shocked me into making changes, I feel a sense of anxiety around changing my habits.
Reclaim your power—and your mental prowess
If our phone use is largely compulsive and affecting our ability to perform simple cognitive tasks, focus, and pay attention—not to mention sucking away hours that might have been more productive or creative—then we have to be more intentional about our smartphone use. That is, unless you don’t mind its drain on your mental battery.
Unconscious or compulsive behavior is the most difficult kind of behavior to change, but here are a few small steps you can take to be less dependent on, and distracted by, your smartphone.
Let it go, for a little while
- Consider when you truly need to be available and decide when to put your phone on silent or in Do Not Disturb mode.
- Turn off any non-essential notifications. Do you really need Yelp to tell you when a new brunch spot opens? Do you need a ping for every email that comes in, or just from certain people?
- Find a place in your home where your phone can live–a shelf or table—and leave it there. Then, you can decide when to walk over and check in, rather than keeping it nearby and letting your eyes flit between the screen and whatever you’re really supposed to be doing.
Go analogue for some tasks
- When your phone is also your alarm clock, it makes it hard to silence your phone or leave it in another room. So, get a real alarm clock and decide when and where you’ll first check your phone in the morning. An added benefit? You’ll sleep better, which is the best route to improved… everything. The blue light and noise from your phone disrupts and reduces sleep quality.
- Stop checking your phone in the car, whether you’re parked, at a red light, and most especially while you’re driving. If that’s too hard, there are apps to help.
- Stop checking just to fill the time. Consider when you last sat quietly with your thoughts. I remember so many times as a child just sitting, staring at the ceiling, and pondering the world and everything in it, giving way to some new creative idea. Maybe let’s get back to that?
- This is dramatic, but… try turning your phone to display in grayscale. The theory is that we’re attracted to bright colors, so if you view everything on your phone in grayscale (Not Instagram! Not the kitten videos!!!) it won’t be as enticing.
- Set time limits. Y’all already know my weakness is Instagram, so I’ve got nothing against social media. I also read a lot of news, which I pretend is “work.” But instead of gravitating towards your favorite apps and getting lost in them, try allowing yourself dedicated time to satisfy that urge, and then move on. One very simple step toward setting limits is to restrict social media use to times when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Track your smartphone use. (OFFTIME) will flash a bar at the bottom of the screen that lets me know how long I’ve been using my phone. It’s really helped me be more conscious of my (over)usage.
- Go the extra mile and turn off all notifications.
- Take a tech-free trip. My partner and I have done this, just for a short while. We bring our phones, but we keep them off. If there’s an emergency, we can communicate. And, like back in the day, we let our family know where we are and how they can reach us, if they really need to.
By using (OFFTIME), I learned a bit about myself and my habits. And I was really surprised by some of the analytics. With an average of roughly two hours per day, I use my phone for fewer minutes than 70 percent of other (OFFTIME) users. According to research, this isn’t far from the wider populace. Most of us spend around five hours per day on our phones. The majority of that time is spent using apps, with 51 percent spent on social media. For me, when it comes to sessions, I unlock my phone more than 70 percent of users. I may not spend a long time there, but I distract myself a lot throughout the day.
Why? Because I compulsively check my email, in an app. These days, I’m leaving an email tab open on my laptop instead—using my computer for work, and my phone for… well, calling my mom and watching kitten videos.