I grew up in a house that had a single, rotary dial telephone positioned in the hallway. Many of my friends didn’t have one in their house at all. To call them you’d first have to remember the number of their nearest phone box, because you had either actually memorised it or written it down in a thing we, in the olden days referred to as a telephone/address book. Next, you had to hope that your friend remembered that you’d said you’d call and was hovering outside the phone box ready. Failing that, a passing stranger might answer and you could ask them to knock on your mates front door to tell him you were on the phone.
To reduce phone use in those days it simply involved your mum putting an actual padlock on the phone so you couldn’t physically dial. This didn’t stop us though, as with all things restricted, there was a hack for that.
If you’d have told my 10 year old self that sometime in the not too distant future we’d all be walking around with mini computers that could do video calls in our pockets, I would have assumed you had eaten too many Sherbet Dip Dabs and watched far too much Buck Rogers.
The rise of the smartphone has been meteoric to anyone old enough to remember car phones being actual wired phones in your car and mobiles being a handset the size of a house brick connected to a heavy suitcase battery via a curly wire.
Yet here we are, the total sum of all human knowledge at our finger tips, wherever and whenever we need it. That’s a mighty power to be carrying around in your pocket.
So how do we use it to better ourselves and the planet?
Now I love a funny cat video as much as the next man, and don’t even get me started on gibbons reactions to hedgehogs, but we have reached a point in our digital timeline where many of us are desperate for our mum to put that padlock back on the phone. But she can’t, because she’s too busy on Wordle.
With a large number of books like Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalist and documentaries like Netflix’s Social Dilemma commenting on the ever increasing concerns about our digital usage, addictions, and attention manipulation by the tech giants, people are now seeking measures to help reduce their usage and dependence on that little rectangle in your pocket.
And while the producers of this technology do offer at least some measures to help us regain our attention, we cannot rely on them as their ultimate product is, well, us.
If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.
What follows are some ridiculously simple things you can do to help reduce both your smartphone usage and the habitual impulses to whip it out and start tapping. So to speak.
1. Get a Dumbphone
I think the term ‘dumb’ is unfair. In our hi-tech environment anything simple is often seen as base and stupid, but the dumbphone does everything that a phone was designed to do. You know, like phone people up. You can even text, admittedly in now what seems to be some arcane procedure unless you have a qwerty keypad. Some even have a handy torch.
One feature they don’t have though is the addictive compulsion to constantly look at it. It’s not exciting regardless of how bright that torch is. And you’re not precious about either. They are dead cheap and even if you did drop it, it’ll probably bounce.
Failing that you can have both a smart and a dumb phone. Keep the smartphone for wireless connection at home (even remove the sim in some cases) and the dumbphone for being out and about.
2. Understand Your Usage
As the old adage goes “If it isn’t measured, it isn’t managed”. For us to truly get a grip of where our problem lies with our phone use we need to identify the problem areas.
Thankfully, all smartphone platforms offer us a breakdown of how we use our phones and even if they don’t, there are third party apps that will.
For android, just click on settings, then Digital Wellbeing and parental controls. For iphone it’s settings, then screen time.
This can be quite a shock for some. With mindless scrolling we have very little appreciation for how much time is actually taken up, but it’s all there for you to see in handy graph format.
From here we can identify some of the sticking points. What times are we most prone to scrolling? What are our go-to apps or sites that suck us down the vortex of mindlessness?
When we identify what our trigger times and apps/sites are we can start putting measures in place, such as…
3. Removing Problem Apps
If you find that Instagram, for example, is your gateway app to productivity oblivion, a simple answer is to just remove the app from your phone.
Don’t worry, that little shiver you felt running down your spine at the mention of this is just the feeling of your dormant potential resurfacing. Embrace it.
‘But I need it for work!’ This may be true, but if your employer knew you were on it for 3 of the 8 hours you’re at work, they might have something to say.
Platforms like Instagram and Facebook are hugely valuable tools for businesses, and great ways to keep in contact with loved ones. However, that incessant, habitual clicking of the icons every few minutes is not aiding either your business or your relationships.
By removing them from your phone, you remove the unconscious act of checking them all the time. You can now check AND post from both Facebook and Instagram without ever needing a phone. And you are far more likely to do this in a premeditated, more mindful manner than you do on your phone.
Nobody wants you posting from the toilet. There are specialist sites for that. Apparently.
But if you can’t bear to remove those little icons from your phone all is not lost.
4. Use Site and App blockers and Set Time Limits
On most phone systems now there is an in-built function to allow you to limit the time spent on various apps. They are usually found in the screen time locations mentioned above. When you know your average time spent on each app you can then start to reduce it by using the timers. Make small incremental reductions at first to make sticking to it easier.
The biggest down side of these seems to be the ease at which you can over-ride them. This is where third party apps come into to play. Many of these have a number of different settings that can turn the over-ride possibilities from difficult to totally impossible.
The two apps I have used most are Freedom, a paid app that can block apps, websites and even shut down your entire internet for a set period of time, which can be set to a level that means there is absolutely nothing you can do about it until the allotted blackout time expires, and Stay Focused, a free app that does the same but to a slightly less ‘DEFCON 1’ level.
I personally set myself a window of time where I can use these sites and apps. This keeps me focused on the work I need to do and reduces procrastination and doom scrolling.
5. Pattern Disruption
When we have existing habits that we want to break, bringing in some pattern disruption can be a great help. You see we will often do the habit unconsciously. How many times have you gone to check a message or view your banking and before you know it you’ve already clicked on twitter?
This is partly the fault of muscle memory. You’ve opened your phone up and hit that icon so often that your hand does it automatically even if it’s not what you intended. A great way to disrupt this pattern of behaviour is to regularly rearrange your phone layout.
Simple just hold your finger on the icon then move it to a different position. Do this with all your most used apps. It creates a pause for your consciousness to become aware of the action. This little gap can be just enough for you to mindfully will yourself to stop. It’s surprisingly effective.
This little hack makes your phone just a little less appealing or exciting. We are colour seeing creatures, we spot the stuff that stands out. If it’s bright and spangly the eye will be drawn to it. Tech companies spend a lot of money on researching what will make you click more. Bondage fiction aside, shades of grey just don’t cut it.
You can opt to put your phone display into greyscale, like a black and white television of old. It’s surprising how much less appealing the apps become when they all look kind of the same.
Most phone operating systems have a greyscale option. It’s usually in the screen-time/digital well being area. Android for example gives you the option of greyscale as a bedtime setting to reduce late night phone use. You can set the start and finish times for it to automatically come on, or you can set it on permanently and just switch it off when you need to.
And speaking of late night phone use…
7. Keep Your Phone Out Of The Bedroom
Social media surfing is never a great idea before bed. The blue light exposure from screens disrupting sleep, getting riled by internet arseholes, spiralling down a black hole of existential mayhem on YouTube, or quietly stalking your ex on Facebook. None of these things in the cold light of day are a good idea, so don’t do them at night.
If your phone is the first thing you look at in the morning, your scope for not using it for unpredictive scrolling is virtually zero. And how we start our day is how we do the rest of the day.
If you can, leave the phone outside the bedroom, or at the very least away from the bed. Buy a normal alarm clock rather than use your phone.
Need that fancy alarm app that wakes you gently for a healthier start to the day? Fine, use an old phone, download the app then disconnect from the wi-fi. Most people have an old phone kicking around in the drawer full of random stuff. If you don’t, ask a friend, I guarantee they will.
The longer you can go without looking at your phone, the easier it will be to avoid it later.
And the same goes for the toilet. I’m a firm believer that the tech companies also have shares in haemorrhoid treatments. There is a whole host of reasons why this practice is not a great idea. If you must have some kind of toilet based entertainment then keep a book by the throne instead.
So there you have it, 7 super simple ways to reduce your smartphone usage to free up your time, your attention and your mind. As always, simple does mean easy, so seek small, marginal gains at first and before long you’ll be free of the digital shackles and reaching new levels of productivity.
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