It’s hard to envision life without the smartphone in your pocket. What would you do at a red light? What about while standing in line at the grocery story? God forbid trying to find somewhere new without turning to Google Maps.
Technology addiction has become so prevalent that there’s even a condition for it called Nomophobia (short for no-mobile-phone phobia).
Nomophobia hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) just yet, but if stats are any indicator, it’s only a matter of time.
We’ve seen a dramatic increase in mobile ‘addicts’ — those that launch an app more than 60 times a day. One study found that female college students spent on average 10 hours a day on their cell phones—more than half their waking hours.
The most common way to deal with this ‘addiction’ is to give it up cold turkey for a weekend or longer. But invariably we end up right back where we started with our head down into a piece of glass.
We won’t be able to run forever and it’s time we faced the music and found out how to live alongside our devices without going overboard.
The psychology of your tech addiction
Every time your phone rings or vibrates, your brain receive a little hit of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the motivation center of the brain. We naturally become overwhelmed with curiosity. Is it a text message from a good friend? An email from our boss? A Facebook notification?
As Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine explains:
“The thing is, you don’t know what it’s going to be or when you’re going to get it, and that’s what compels the brain to keep checking. It’s like the world’s smallest slot machine.”
This uncertainty is what’s called a ‘variable reward’. We constantly feel motivated to check because we’re never quite sure what we’ll see on the screen.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, explains how variable rewards work on mice by citing a study conducted in the 1950s by B.F. Skinner:
“Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously to random rewards. The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.”
He goes on to explain how variable rewards affect our brains:
“Humans…crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. Variability is the brain’s cognitive nemesis and our minds make deduction of cause and effect a priority over other functions like self-control and moderation.”
Every time we check our phones, we’re unsure of exactly what we’ll find. This uncertainty drives our brains crazy and makes it impossible to ignore the buzz in our pocket for any length of time. We check our phone, dopamine hits the brain, and we experience pleasure. The perfect recipe for addiction.
Now, 67% of cellphone owners find themselves checking their phone without it even ringing or vibrating.
Ease of access and constant availability don’t help either, as Dr. Greenfield goes on to explain:
“Convenience is the mother of addiction — the quicker you can get a hit back on the technology, the faster the intoxication.”
There are several downsides to so much screen time. First, we’re never bored anymore. Whether it’s standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for a doctor’s appointment, we never have a chance to get lost in our own thoughts, a big driver for creativity.
How to live harmoniously with your tech
A digital detox is one answer to the problem. But, at some point, you’ll have to return to your normal, plugged-in life. Rather than learn to live without technology, we should learn to live with technology. Here are some tips to do just that:
Tip 1: Disable notifications now, or better yet, work offline
Notifications are incredibly distracting. A new study from three researchers at Florida State University suggests that receiving a push notification is as distracting as responding to a text message or a phone call.
These notifications force us to be reactive rather than proactive. Dr. Amit Sood, physician and a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, elaborates:
“…most of us spend more than half of our mental energy flitting from thought to thought, from app to app; we would ultimately be more productive and resilient, less depressed, and physically healthier, if we were only more deliberate with our cognitive energy.”
One quick way to turn this game around in your favor is to disable notifications entirely. In fact, when I download a new app to my phone or computer, that’s the first thing I do.
Another way to put the world on hold while you get actual work done is to turn off the wireless signal on your phone or laptop. Ryan Holiday uses this tactic to clear through his email:
“Take yourself off the grid for a second — stop the bleeding — and then go through your inbox offline. You’ll be amazing at how quickly you start banging them out, how many emails you’d saved for later you are now fine with deleting, how easy it is to get back to Inbox zero.”
Similarly, I’ve been turning off the wifi on my laptop in the morning for 30 minutes while I write. It allows me to work on a new post without getting distracted. When I’m on a walk, my phone goes on airplane mode. This allows me to listen to podcasts (already downloaded) without risk of interruption.
Tip 2: Don’t rely on willpower
When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, I vowed not to look at my email. I held myself accountable for the first five days, but slowly I began reverting back to bad habits. I began ‘checking in’ even though everyone expected me to be offline.
My approach was flawed from the start. I neglected to remember that future ‘me’ is susceptible to relapse in the right situations.
One of the simplest methods for removing temptation? Just delete the app or apps you find most addicting. In a recent episode of the podcast Note to Self, host Manoush Zomorodi found out just how difficult this can be when she tried to delete the game Two Dots.
If you can’t bring yourself to delete a particular app but still find yourself wasting too much time on it, consider moving it off your home screen. That way, they’re not staring you down every time you open your phone. For me, I’ve noticed that the more swiping and tapping necessary to access an app, the less I use it.
Tip 3: Separate yourself…literally
Whether I’m in the store, at the gym, getting coffee, or even driving, my trusty iPhone is always within arm’s reach. Thinking back to Dr. Greenfield’s comment above, ‘ease of access’ is one of my biggest weaknesses.
We carry our phones in our pockets, right up next to our bodies, or leave it on the table within sight. Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, explains how a small change can make a world of difference:
“Not carrying your phone right against your body but carrying it in your bag can help ease some of that sense that you always need… to have a little of your attention turned toward your phone.”
I’ve been trying some other tactics to create physical distance between myself and my beloved iPhone:
- Put your phone charger outside your bedroom. You’ll feel less compelled to keep it by your bed at night.
- Leave it in the back seat. I have a nasty habit of checking my phone at red lights. When I leave my phone in the netting behind my seat, it’s out of sight and out of mind.
- Leave it in the car. When I’m going to grab coffee with someone or eat dinner, I try to leave my phone in the car. (Pro tip: Send everyone a message beforehand letting them know you’re there and leaving your phone behind.)
Tip 4: Substitute your addiction with something positive
When I’m bored my phone is my first go-to for a distraction. Unfortunately, I’m almost never doing something important.
Writer Shawn Blanc experiences the same temptation, but has tried to replace his bad habits with better ones:
“When I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to scroll through my Day One timeline or send an encouraging text message to a friend.”
I’ve made an effort to do the same. Instead of mindlessly surfing the web, I concentrate on brainstorming ideas for future blog posts. Using the magazine racks for inspiration, I create a game to think of as many ideas before I hit the register.
If I’m not feeling creative, I send text messages to friends I have spoken with in awhile.
Tip 5: Don’t put yourself in a position of increased worry
Like many people, I scan my email far more often than I should. Although I don’t have it on my phone, I do have it on my iPad, which is just as portable. As a result, I’ll find myself sneaking off to check my email on Friday evenings before bed.
Tim Ferriss explains just how silly that is:
“…Don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday.”
Even if I uncovered an important email, I likely wouldn’t want to do anything about it right that second. After all, I’m headed to bed.
Now, I follow this rule when checking on work-related items from my phone:
“If I find something important that needs my attention, am I prepared to deal with it right now?”
More often than not, the answer is no.
In an effort to reduce unnecessary screen time, I’ve found one other question to be particularly helpful:
“Why am I checking my phone right now?”
For me, just bringing the awareness back to the most basic question of ‘Why?’ helps to refocus my attention. If I don’t have a good answer, I put the phone away.
Technology isn’t going away.
While retreats and digital detoxes work for a week or weekend, at some point you’ll have to venture back into the world of laptops and phablets. Running away isn’t a sustainable solution. Instead, we need to build habits that allow us to interact with technology on our terms, not every time random vibration or ring ropes us in.