3 Simple Things You Can Do to Curb Your Phone Addiction Right Now

For when you notice your phone is using you.

8 min. read

A lot of us are addicted to our phones. If you’ve started to see why this might not be the best thing ever, and want to ween yourself off of that tantalizingly non-nourishing blue glow, you’re in good company. This is something I’ve been thinking about, and experimenting with, for a few years now. Following are three things you knock out in about 15 minutes, that will benefit you for weeks.

Before I get into those, I want to be clear: I’m talking about the colloquial, not clinical, usage of the term “addiction.” In this post, I’m not staking my flag in the hill that “phone addiction” is (or isn’t) real.

What I’m talking about here, as addiction, is the compulsive use of our phones. That we’re spending more time poking around our phones than we want to, picking them up and checking the screen before we realize we’re doing it, and that our phones aren’t adding quality to our lives, and might be distracting us from the things we’d actually care about enjoying.

I’m talking about how we’re already dating our phones, and how little red numbers are trying to rule our lives.

First, Acknowledge the Problem

Maybe you’re not actually dependent upon your phone. Maybe, for you, it’s not something that’s getting in the way of your life, or impinging on your quality time with others. Maybe it is.

Let’s find out.

On iOS, built into the operating system, there’s a feature called Screen Time (Settings –> Screen Time). Before, you had to install an app for this (Moment was a popular one). This shows you how you’re using your phone.

Before you open Screen Time or install moment, answer two questions for yourself:

  1. How much time do you want to be looking at your phone every day? (In minutes. A range is totally okay.)
  2. What apps or functions of your phone do you want to be spending time using? (e.g., Spotify, Text Messaging, or GPS)

Now, write those two answers down.

I’m not going to push for any specific numbers here, nor do I really think that’s a thing that should be applied universally. I just want you to know, for yourself, what you want.

What I’ve heard from lots of people is they had no idea how much time they were spending on their phone (generally, they were thinking it was much less than reality), and they also didn’t have a good sense of where the time went. Both of these were true for me.

Answering these questions before you see the numbers will help you prevent rationalizing away anything you see that you’re not happy about, and also from moving the goal posts when you decide what you’ll do about the numbers.

For example, if you didn’t answer those questions first, and then see a number, you might just say “that’s not that bad,” or “everyone uses their phone that much.” Or, you might think, “Okay, I’ll just try to use 10 minutes per day less, and that will be a win.” Neither of those are honest appraisals of the situation. Working against the time or apps you wrote down as your wants, however, is a great starting place.

Second, Make it Less Magical

Steve Jobs called the iPhone a “revolutionary and magical product.” He couldn’t have been more right. It magically absorbs attention and time without you realizing it, while revolutionizing your life into one of empty multi-tasking, where you can’t focus on and enjoy any one thing at a time.

Still see the benefits of having a smartphone, but want to release yourself from its spell? Make it less magical.

Delete apps, use the browser.

Most of your most time-sucking apps probably have a mobile-friendly website alternative. It won’t be nearly as easy to use as the app, and might not have as many features, and that’s great!

For example, if you’ve found that you’re spending an hour scrolling through your Facebook app every day, and you’re not happy about that, delete the app and start checking your Facebook by opening up your browser and manually typing in www.facebook.com.

This small hurdle will give you enough pause to think “Do I really want to be checking Facebook right now?” And the lack of bells and whistles, and inconvenience of not having Facebook one touch and one second away on your home screen, will make it less appealing overall.

You can do this for most social networking apps, news apps, and other things that are consumption-focused. It won’t work that well for the apps that are interactive or feature-focused like Google Maps, but I’m guessing you’re not feeling like you’re wasting a lot of time pinching and zooming around Google Maps.

Notifications be gone!

Notifications (from the banners to the beeps) are one of the ways app designers conspire to rob you of your time and attention. And it works. Unless you don’t let it.

Start by disabling all of of your notifications, for every app (even messaging). To do this, go to: Settings -> Notifications, then set each app to “Off.”

(The fewer apps you have, or the more you’ve deleted, the easier this process will be)

Answer this question: “If I’m in the middle of enjoying something deeply, what app or feature on my phone do I want to give permission to ruin that?”

Now, re-enable notifications only for those few things you are giving permission to interrupt your life.

Add more steps.

Everything in your smartphone is just a few mindless taps and swipes away. Then, before you know it, 45 minutes have passed and you haven’t been doing that thing you wanted to be doing. Adding more steps, more taps, more swipes — and making as many of these mindful, instead of mindless — can make a huge difference.

If you wanted to keep an app, because you want to use it a couple times a day, or once a week, or whatever, but you don’t want to be tempted by it, put it three screens deep within a subfolder. (e.g., I have Instagram on my last page of apps within a folder called “Time Wasting” — I still use it, but not often, and almost never mindlessly)

If you know that you’ll still check Facebook a ton, even if it’s via your browser, don’t allow Facebook to stay logged in or remember your password, or use incognito mode (e.g., in Chrome) so you have to type in your email and password every time you check it.

If your problem is that you open your phone too much to check on what’s new, remove the badges (the little red numbers) from your apps, and make it more difficult to open your phone (a 6 digit code instead of 4, a code instead of fingerprint, etc.).

Generally, just take a good look at your habitual patterns that you’re not happy with (notice the ways they are finely oiled machines, where one thing smoothly leads into the next), then throw a few wrenches into the works.

Third, Take Away the Candy

Now that you’ve uninstalled your time-suck apps and disabled attention-sucking features, there’s a more general, all-purpose move that I’ve found really helpful: change your screen from color to grayscale.

In iOS, here is the path that will allow you to change this setting: Settings –> General –> Accessibility –> Display Accommodations –> Color Filters –> Grayscale.

What does this do? It takes the eye candy away, and makes using your phone feel more like eating your vegetables.

Does it work? It helps! It’s not a panacea, but used in conjunction with the above step, it can really help turn down the temptation of picking up your phone every few seconds.

Like adding additional steps, changing your screen settings doubles as a mindfulness trigger, at least for the first few weeks until you get used to it. When you look at your phone, you’ll notice the grayscale screen, which can prompt you to take a step back and decide “Do I want to be using my phone right now? Or was I just on autopilot?”

If you absolutely need color for some uses (e.g., for airline tickets), you can turn on an accessibility shortcut for color filters (for iOS: Settings –> General –> Accessibility –> Accessibility Shortcut –> Color Filters), which will allow you to toggle the setting with three quick home button presses.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Maybe you’re like me. You’ve decided that you need a smartphone in your life (at least right now), but you don’t want it to take over your life. If so, then all of this is going to be an ongoing process.

The phones keep getting better, and the apps keep getting better at making you want to use your phone.

There are entire schools of thought and fields of research that are working against you on this front. Ultimately, you’re overpowered, outnumbered, out-funded, and if you keep using your phone you’re going to lose sometimes (if not most times).

I still use my phone more than I want to. And I notice that feeling, while it’s happening, more than I used to. That’s my small victory.

That prompts me to take a step back, and rethink about ways I might add some positive habits to obstruct my current negative ones, new apps I should delete, and other ways I can tweak my relationship to my phone.

The end goal being for me to be in control of my phone, not the other way around.