A Healthier Relationship with our Smart Phones

A Healthier Relationship with our Smart Phones

In the last decade, the day-to-day activities of our life have changed perhaps more than any other decade in all of human history. A mere ten or fifteen years ago, if we were waiting on line at the bank for example, we stood there without much distraction, idly observing our environment. Today, if we were to be stuck on that same line without our smartphones, even a 15-minute wait would seem arduous to many.

Look at the photo below. The top half of the image features a throng of people waiting for the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The single cell phone in the bottom right corner is a harbinger of things to come—by 2013, at the announcement of Pope Francis, nearly every individual has some sort of smartphone or tablet to record the historic event.

Our smartphones have absolutely revolutionized the way we live our daily lives. We have a constant supply of information, entertainment, and distraction. We never get lost due to Google Maps, we’re never out of touch due to Facebook, and we’re never bored due to Candy Crush. But this power has come at a tremendous cost—we’re less present, less aware of each moment, less connected to those around us, and our attention spans are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Perhaps most alarming is how addictive these devices have become. If you don’t believe me, next time your phone buzzes with an alert, try not to look at the device for even 5 minutes and notice the way you feel. If that feeling is not a feeling of pure “craving,” I don’t know what is. Indeed, the manufacturers of our devices and developers of their software have intentionally designed our smartphones to be as addictive as possible. That’s good for their profit margins, but there’s growing evidence that it’s quite bad for our brains and well-being.

So, what can we do? Cutting ourselves off from technology completely is neither desirable nor realistic. However, we can install habits that will encourage a healthier relationship with our smartphone. Here are a few ideas:

1. Clean up your icons: Just as a cluttered desk or bedroom will cause low-level anxiety, so too will a cluttered home screen. Many people have never even considered the arrangement of icons on their screen—as we download more and more apps, they simply get haphazardly added to a jumble of icons.

I especially recommend minimizing the number of visual stimuli on Page 1 of your home screen. This reduces the visuo-sensory assault that many of us receive immediately upon unlocking our phones. Save Page 1 for only apps that you need to access frequently and/or quickly. For the rest, group them into folders on Page 2 and beyond. See screenshots of my iphone below.


(Iphone Pro-Tip: Apple will not let you remove certain apps from your phone, including itunes store, iphone tips, etc. You can group all this crap into a folder of “Unused” apps)

2. Consider your notifications carefully, including badge notifications: Push notifications (when your phone rings or buzzes even when locked) tend to interrupt us. Once we feel that little buzz in our pocket, our focus becomes drawn. The curiosity, and craving for that quick dopamine hit, overwhelm our attention until we unlock our phone. Not every app on your phone should have that power. While you might make the choice to receive message alerts in real-time, do you really need your phone to buzz every time you get a Snapchat?

Carefully considering badge notifications as well. Look at the below photo—for most people, those red badges will cause at least the slightest bit of anxiety. Badge notifications like these create an “open loop” in our brain—there’s a sense of something unfinished or undone, and our inability to close that loop can be a source of persistent low-grade anxiety. If you have 13,678 unread emails, does it matter if that number increases to 13,679? Do you really need to see that bright red circle badge because Netflix released a new show, or Pandora wants to tell you about a concert in your area?  You may have noticed that in the screenshots of my home screen above, there was not a single badge notification visible.

(Iphone tip: Go to “settings->notifications” and disable push and badge notifications as desired).

3. Keep your phone on “Do Not Disturb” or at least Silence it—continuing the theme from #2, we have a choice on how much power we want to give our devices as far as their ability to interrupt us. By default, I keep my phone on silent—it will still vibrate in response to push notifications, but I’ve at least disconnected the quick dopamine rush of the “ding” sound. When I’m working at the computer, with a client, hanging out with friends, or even just spending time with my family at home, I will often turn my phone to “Do Not Disturb,” such that the device makes no noise or vibration, unless it receives multiple phone calls in a row from the same person (in case of emergency).

4. Wear a Watch—This is simple, but it can drastically cut down the degree to which you are tethered to your phone. You shouldn’t have to interact with your device every time you want to know what time or day it is.

5. No Social Media in the first hour of the day—This was recommended by famed Shark Tank investor and entrepreneur Daymond John, who recommended this habit as a way of reinforcing the idea that “My day belongs to me.” Scrolling through social media provides a gambler’s rush akin to a slot machine. With each scroll, there’s a “variable reward”—you might “win” by seeing something positive that causes a quick rush of dopamine, or you might “lose” by seeing a post, picture, advertisement or news article that makes your envious, angry, or simply bored. Social media, especially when we’re just mindless scrolling through our feed, encourages us to compare ourselves to others, which diminishes our happiness, gratitude, and presence. This won’t come be news, but it’s a worthy reminder: no one is as rich, beautiful, or happy as they pretend to be on Facebook. So do yourself a favor, and ditch social media in the first hour of your day.

6. Choose alternative forms of entertainment on your commute—Commuting is a particularly thorny pitfall for smartphone addiction. It’s easy, and in some ways attractive, for a 45-minute train ride to disappear into a black hole of Candy Crush or Instagram scrolling. Next time you commute, try putting your smartphone into your backpack or somewhere out of reach, and instead read a book or newspaper, crochet, or even simply be bored for a change.

7. Consider an app like “Moment” to track smarthphone usage—As the old saying goes “what gets measured gets managed.” There are apps such as “Moment” that can track how much time you spend on your device, and how many times per day you check your phone. According to Moment’s developers, most people underestimate their phone usage by a factor of about 100%--so if you estimate two hours per day, the actual number is probably closer to four.

8. Meditate daily—This is the only tip that doesn’t directly involve your usage or interaction with your smartphone, but I still think it’s tremendously beneficial for encouraging a more productive relationship with technology in the modern world. Smartphone usage is geared towards quick stimulation, short attention span, and avoiding even the slightest hint of boredom by deluging us with stimuli. By contrast meditation teaches us to cultivate our attention, be at peace with inactivity, and surrender to the present. Additionally, by improving awareness, meditation will make you more aware of how your interactions with technology impact your wellbeing. For example, it took a significant amount of awareness for me to realize how much stress a cluttered home screen was causing me (Tip #1).

Conclusion: Technology, and specifically smartphone devices, have shaped and enhanced our lives in ways we never thought possible. However, this has come at a price—when left unchecked, our device usage can negatively impact our attention spans, connectedness to others, and overall wellbeing. The makers of these devices and their software are intentionally designing their products in ways that make them as addictive as possible. But each of us, as individuals, have the power to choose how we want to relate to our technology. It’s not easy (these things are truly addictive!), but we can re-shape our relationships with our devices. The tips presented above are a great start. 

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