A few weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night to go pee and subconsciously grabbed my leg looking for my cellphone.
And that’s when I knew.
It’s getting worse.
But it’s not just me.
Three University of Bologna professors published a report in the Sloan Management Review which showed that anxiety spikes when students don’t have their cellphones for even a single day. Another study found when cellphone users couldn’t answer their phones while those phones were ringing, they experienced increased heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. And adolescents who spend more time on phones are more likely to report mental health issues.
Can you relate to these feelings?
I absolutely can.
So what do we do about it?
Here are six ways we need to start fighting the fight:
1. Download the Forest app
Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” You know what we need to start measuring? Not time on our cell phones, but time off them. You click open Forest, enter 15 minutes (or the amount of time you want to stay off your phone for) and then hit the button. What happens? A tiny little seed starts to grow. Oh, look, it’s a sapling now! And here come cute little branches! What happens if you use your phone before the 15 minutes run out? Simple: You kill the tree. You’re an axe-wielding murderer. You feel bad! And that’s the point. In order to grow a forest you need to practice growing the muscle of staying off your phone. It hurts. It’s painful. But it’s important. Give it a shot. (Note: Yes, it costs $1.99. But I feel it’s worth it. And no, I get nothing for telling you about it. This page is, and always will be, no ads all the way.)
2. Add extra swipes before work
So many of us are merging our lives into one phone. Do you have your work email on the same phone you want to take out on Friday night? If so, my suggestion is to first separate the accounts (i.e., use the built-in Mail app for your personal email and download the Gmail app for work, etc.) and then move the work app a few screens away. Maybe with a few empty screens with just one dusty app in the middle. What do the extra three or four thumb swipes do? They give your brain an important one-second pause to ask yourself “Do I want to do this?” before checking work email on your ride home from the bars.
3. Go black and white
Have you ever walked into a casino and been dazzled into a jaw-dropping stupor from all the whizzing colours, flashing slots and ringing bells? Does that remind you of anything rectangular in your pocket, by chance? Casinos know bright colours and flashing lights attract your eyes. Same with phones. So, turn your phone to black and white. All functionality is still there! You just aren’t attracted to it anymore. If you have an iPhone, go to Settings – General – Accessibility — Display Accommodations — Colour Filters — Grayscale. Yes, conveniently buried under six menu options! But you can do it.
PS. Too hardcore? If you like the idea of going black and white, but want to keep color handy for occasional use, then here’s a setting to help. Go Settings — Accessibility — Accessibility Shortcut — Color Filters. What’s that do? It lets you triple-click the side button on your phone to swap between settings. Pa-zam!
4. Night Shift mode
Recent research from Australia shows that exposing our brains to bright screens before bed reduces melatonin production — the sleep hormone. Bummer! What helps? Well, if you can’t stay off your phone then at least enable Night Shift mode. Mine is on from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It dims the screen and reduces that blinding brightness which makes your evolutionarily slow brain think it’s morning time. If you’re on an iPhone, go to Settings – Display & Brightness – Night Shift.
5. Buy an alarm clock
Old school, I know. Why is this important? Because we are sleeping with our phones these days. And we need to stop. Get them out of the bed… and the bedroom. Of course, when I tell people this they usually say “Oh, but my phone’s my alarm clock! I will hibernate like a grizzly if nothing wakes me up.” So what’s the solution? Drive to Giga-Mart and fork over ten dollars for a cheapo clock. Then plug your phone in the basement.
6. Disable notifications
What’s the first thing every app asks you when you download it? “EatMoreDonuts would like to send you Notifications. OK?” And you click OK because, well, you would like to eat more donuts. And you just downloaded it. And the app never lets you forget it. So, get intentional. If you’re on an iPhone, go to Settings – Notifications and scroll down your list of apps. Start by turning them all off and then cruise the list again combing for anything that might be crucial.
Those six things will get you going.
And this cuss-filled page (NSFW) will give you buckets more.
The issue is that when everybody has an addiction it sort of looks like nobody has one. We get in line for coffee … so it looks kind of normal. We keep our heads locked on our cellphones … so it looks kind of normal.
But is it?
Adam Alter, New York University business professor and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, explained: “You only develop an addiction when there is some psychological motive that hasn’t been fulfilled for you: loneliness, that you’ve been bullied, or you can’t make good things happen in your life. It doesn’t actually matter what you use to soothe that addiction, whether it’s playing a particular game that lulls you into a distracted state or whether it’s taking a drug. In terms of soothing those psychological ills, behaviour and substance addictions are very, very similar.”
I’ve listed six tactical ideas above that are slowly helping me, but the longer-term solution may be latching our minds onto something else.
Buy some hiking boots and commit to a new uphill hobby. Check out my 3 Books podcast to get back into reading. Grab fresh trunks and sign up for swimming.
I don’t have all the answers, but I know it’s time for an intervention.
What helps you fight back?
Drop me a line and let me know.
Power to the people!
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star.