Take control of your phone
We face immense pressure to be constantly connected, whether that’s conversations over whatsapp, work emails or instagram feeds, we can’t escape it. Worse than that, we feel more and more out of control, it’s as if the devices we are using are in charge of us, not the other way round. This causes a detrimental effect on our concentration and ultimately, our mental health.
I know many people who want a better relationship with their devices, so I’ve decided to write a guide to demonstrate how I’ve achieved that balance in my own life. It’s been a struggle at times, especially as I work in technology, but the results are massively impactful. I now have concentrated attention, feel peaceful, calm, less anxious and achieve more. I no longer feel cloudy and confused, where I struggle to get things done, because I get swayed by the shiny things trying to get my attention. It’s huge and really beneficial for the modern world. There’s no secret, other than practice, but be warned, the devices have built in tools that work to keep you hooked.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE STEPS YOU CAN TAKE:
Place your phone out of sight, all the time.
Put your phone somewhere not accessible to the naked eye. By doing this, you feel less compelled to check it. I do this all the time, not just during work hours. I decide when I want to check the phone, not the other way round. - I place it a drawer and leave it there so it can’t be seen - I leave it on loud so I can hear it - I check it when I’ve decided I’m ready and put it back after
Start the week with the list of aims and the day with a list of intentions.
At a weekly and daily level, if you are able to set out a list of aims, then you are more focused on those, rather than letting yourself get distracted by your phone and it's priorities.
- Get a paper notepad, not notes on your phone or iPad
- When you wake up, think about what you want to do
- Write it down
- Decide what you’re going to do first
- It’s ok to see if anyone has called, but otherwise leave your phone in the drawer
- Enjoy the moment when you realise how much more focused you are
Do the task, no context switching.
Context switching and distractions are the fuel for mental confusion and anxiety. - Do the thing you’ve set out to do in isolation
- Resist the urge to check other things at the same time
- Turn off all urgent notifications, and don’t use the internet unless you have to
- Know that checking things will dilute your willpower tank for the day, meaning you will achieve less and feel worse
Take regular breaks, not on your phone, get off your bum.
Breaks should be switching off, not going from your computer to your phone. That’s still engagement and your brain is still active. You have to be disciplined in doing this,otherwise, you’ll just check your phone and be lost into the world of context switching.
- Plan out your breaks in advance where possible
- Know when you have done too much work and break before then
- Get up from your desk, take a walk, look outside a window
Don't look at your phone first thing in the morning, or last thing at night.
Get an alarm clock off eBay and use that if you need to wake up. The winding down process for deep sleep begins before you place your head on the pillow.
- Place your phone out of the bedroom
- Don’t check your phone less than 2 hours before bedtime
- If you wake up to your phone, you are million times more likely to start checking messages and emails
Turn off notifications for everything except calls.
Notifications are very important way for companies to keep you hooked to your devices. By turning all non-urgent notifications off, you help to maintain your attention and reduce distraction. Don’t worry, the messages will still be there.
- Decide what is urgent and then turn off all other notifications. For Apple follow this link, for Android follow this one. You can find device specific instructions online.
- I keep calls on loud, as if something is critical, someone will call me
- Turn off app symbols too, often apps show a red dot or similar which is enticing for the mind
If you have work chat like Slack etc...then set boundaries.
Work chat has become the norm, you should not however be expected to be available all the time. How will you get the best work done if you are constantly responding to different threads.
- Turn all notifications off, except priority threads/groups/people
- Set times in your calendar when you are available to be interrupted
- Block out deep work slots in your calendar where you request no interruptions unless urgent
- Work for a company that respects something similar to this, it’s for their good, as it will allow you to get deep work done, rather than just noise
Get a house phone
Dig out the old brick from your parents loft and connect it to your router. Suprisingly, it still works. The reason I have this is so that people know if anything is really urgent and I don’t pick up my mobile, then they have this to contact me.
Tell your friends and family about your new way of working.
I told my most contacted friends and family that I am aiming to reduce screen time, so if they need me, then call me and that I will usually check messages a few times a day maximum.
Use the built in screen time tools to reduce distraction.
Fortunately, Apple and Google have built internal tools to help you manage some of these distractions.
- For Apple use the screen time function, and for Google use wellbeing.
- I hide my browser behind a passcode, I know the passcode, but it’s laborious to keep going through the process to unhide it
- Delete any apps that you don’t really need or never use, they keep you distracted
- Remove the shiny background from your phone to something monotone so it looks less enticing
Segment your time, and be strict with it.
A quick morning check of Instagram, the news or your messages might seem innocent, but you are diluting your concentration tank. As soon as you do those things, you will find it harder to resist doing those again during your deep working hours, because your mind has already had its fix.
- Plan out when you are going to check news/instagram/messages etc…and stick to it, it acts as a reward when you do it like this
- Trust if urgent, people will call you
- Try to understand your peak working times, when concentration is high, this is when you least want to check all of these sources
Use browser restriction tools.
These are the tools you can use to stop you getting hooked on your machine. Especially important if you are on your computer, day in, day out.
- Use inbox when ready to keep your inbox hidden when you land on Gmail, so you can focus on writing that email first
- Newsfeed eradicators, they are available for most main websites including Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.
- Freedom is another tool that works across devices to help block websites so you can get things done.
- Centre for humane tech have also made an in-depth article worth reading.
Use different devices for work and play
If you are lucky enough to have multiple devices, then don’t use your work laptop for ANYTHING except work. No checking your personal emails or connecting whatsApp desktop. Use your second device to do all personal related activities, and keep this hidden. X from Todoist app talks about this here. I personally use an old phone for spotify, its only connected to wifi and I’m not signed in to anything but spotify on it.
Always ask yourself, what is it I want to do next?
This may sound really simple, but rather than feeling compelled to check your phone after you've completed a task, make an intention and then execute whatever it is. Otherwise, you'll always get distracted.
Don’t use your phone to check other things during meetings
If you check your phone during meetings then you are context switching. It may feel good in the moment but after your concentration will be shot. Imagine having a conversation with a friend, and then at the same time, trying to read the news. It’s the same thing. Instead you can:
-Get a fidget spinner
-We should also use this as a way of motivating ourselves to have the right meetings, inviting only those who really need to be there
Know what you want to do before you pick up your phone
Phones are laced with addictive technology. It’s imperative for now, that we see our phones as functional devices to help us get things done. Therefore, know what you’re going to do before you pick the phone up, otherwise you will get lost in distractions.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BEING DISCIPLINED WITH YOUR DEVICES?
Constantly checking your device is like being distracted every few minutes. In addition, it often comes with context switching, which is changing the subject of focus, eg: checking personal emails, then checking work emails, then checking Facebook. This massively dilutes your ability to focus on one thing, and we believe counterintuitively that we can cope with this but we cannot. If you want to test this, then write a list of things you would like to do tomorrow, and don’t check your devices until 12pm. Then the next day write a list, and check your devices how you normally would, you will notice the difference. It has been shown that not being able to focus has been linked with poorer mental health, it makes sense, given that you almost find yourself incapable of getting things done that are normally easy.
Do deep work, engage with flow
If you have focus and no interruptions (except for urgent calls), then you can achieve what is known as ‘deep work’. This refers to a state of immersion in your work, complete focus, where you really enjoy the task for what it is. Doing deep work is often linked to greater satisfaction in your work, daily life and the work output is miles better than a context switched mind.
I found myself feeling anxious after prolonged context switching and use of my phone. I’m not alone in feeling like this. I believe it’s because we don’t allow ourselves to slow down, to inhabit moments of emptiness, where we do nothing. Instead, we fill it with screentime, because it feels good to start, but then once you’ve finished, you feel way worse than you did before. Phones are addictive devices, when you understand that, you realise how much we need to work on our personal discipline with them.
With gaps of time between tasks, waiting lines or any moments where there is space, I take the time to breathe and come into the present moment. This has infinite benefits for the mind and body. People for thousands of years have done meditation and we don’t need fancy technology to help us feel calmer. Instead, we need to put the effort in to practice meditation, once you do that, you will find it easy to take stock in the moment. When you are present, you feel less anxious, you feel more content and find it easier to deal with the tides of life.
Checking your phone often speeds you up. You read more emails, you check more news, you see other peoples priorities. Life is not just about getting things done, it’s about enjoying what you’re doing. By not using your phone, you can take stock of where you are, you move slower, you talk slower, you breathe calmer. Being slow often is the first step for entering other states of mind, including meditation and gratefulness.
When I’m slow and take stock of the empty moments I have throughout my day, I am able to use these to be grateful. You have two choices in life, one to see everything negatively, or the other is to be grateful for what you have and realise the abundance of gifts that most of us ignore in our lives. Our health, our families and friends, our warm houses, the ability to have the internet. This is completely transforming.
The more you read on social networks, news channels and other information, you often feel like the world is always on fire. That’s there nothing to be hopeful and joyous about. News works by increasing arousal, just as social networks do. They highlight the most provactive stories, giving you the impression that things are always bad. Find balance by not always being connected.
I use to find my breath got more and more shorter, the more I context switched. By focusing on single tasks and reducing interruptions, I feel calmer and more peaceful. It’s a simple change that really is life changing on a moment-by-moment basis.
I don’t think I’ve been bored since I was 13 or 14. When there were only simple phones and we didn’t have as much choice of TV. I use to dispise being bored, but now I relish when I find myself being in a position with space to do things. Its a warm and spacious feeling and it’s where we often get creative. Last week, I decided to play around in the garage, putting on some music and having a dance. Compared to just sitting there watching videos or reading texts.
Able to sit still
I think the true test to see how addicted you are to your phone is to try and sit still at the end of the day without turning on a TV, checking your phone or doing something. How long can you just sit and be present for? This is what putting my phone down has allowed me to achieve.
BIG TECH PROFITS FROM YOUR ATTENTION
Big companies will always optimise for growth and revenue first. If they can grow their product by putting more arousing images/news/messages on their sites then they will do. This captivates you and keeps you hooked, generating more engagement. I want you to get your life back, to be free again and to find peace. Not be addicted to the shiny things in your hand. I hope you found this article useful. It’s only a matter of time before society realises what is going on. The social dilemma and groups like Centre for humane tech are doing their best to highlight these issues which helps, but the power lies in our hands as consumers to decide to change the way we use these products.