It was mid-afternoon and I was exhausted. I sat on my couch mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. I wasn’t even really paying attention to any of the photos or captions, or who posted them. I just scrolled.
I’m sure you’ve had that same feeling.
Once I was bored enough, I closed the app and saw the next app with a red dot in the corner — Facebook. And off I went. As I was scrolling, a banner came down letting me know I had new emails. So I jumped into that app to scroll through and see what I had.
App to app I jumped, not really paying attention to what I was doing, but just moving into whatever wanted to grab my attention.
I looked up for a bit and saw my 1-year old son playing with toys on the floor by himself. He looked bored, just stacking the same blocks over and over again.
A wave of guilt flooded over me.
I work from home so I can have more flexibility and spend time with my son. Yet here I was on my phone, missing out on that time. I didn’t even remember why I started looking at my phone in the first place.
We Have a Phone Problem
As a millennial, I grew up as phones were also growing up. I knew a time before mobile phones existed. I got my first small and simple Nokia cell phone in high school, and relied on my T-86 graphing calculator for mindless handheld games. In college phones like the Razor got bigger screens and more functions, and became a go-to for things to do while waiting in line. Then right after college, the iPhone came out and changed everything.
Now we live in a time where our phones are everything. I love technology and think it has the potential to improve our quality of life. But it can also take away from it as well.
How many times have you been in a conversation with someone who just kept looking at their phone, but insisting they were paying attention to you? How many times have you been that person? How often have you wasted hours in a day on your phone out of sheer boredom or exhaustion? How many days has your phone been the first and last thing you see?
Our phones have helped us become more productive, more knowledgeable, healthier, more social and connected, and improved our lives overall. But in exchange, our phones have taken away our time, attention, and energy.
But it’s not a necessary trade. I’ve been able to reclaim the time I would normally spend looking at my phone and spend that doing the things I really want to do, like playing with my son. By setting up healthy boundaries, my phone is a tool that helps me accomplish what I want and free up time.
If you’re like me and know that you have a problem with spending too much time on your phone, there are practical ways to reduce your screen time. It goes beyond just trying to use you phone less. Here are some of the simple steps I took to use my phone less.
Track Your Usage and Make Some Goals
The amount of time and attention that goes into your phone is relative unless you track your usage. You might think that you don’t spend that much time on your phone. But actual tracking will give you a real picture.
iPhones and Androids both have usage tracking features that can tell how much time you spend on your phone, as well as time spent in apps, the apps you open the most, or how many times you pick up and open your phone.
Look at your stats and decide how much you want to reduce your screen time, or the apps that you want to be using less, *ahem* social media.
For me, I made goals to reduce screen time, the number of times I picked up my phone in a a day, and social media apps. Based on those goals, I made efforts towards reducing the primary catalyst of phone usage: notifications.
Disable Notifications and Schedule Check Ins
The reason we look at our phones isn’t necessarily because we think of it and have the intention to do it. It’s more often that our phones call for our attention.
Throughout the day, your phone is probably buzzing and dinging with notifications. Some are important, like text messages and reminders. Most are not, like news stories, social media updates, or games telling you to go play more.
When you open your phone, you’re met with all those little red circles in the corners of the apps, all just begging you to open them to clear the notification. Your phone’s apps steal attention that you never intended to give them.
First, decide what you need to be notified of the instant it comes in. This is probably text messages and other chat apps, and possibly email.
Then turn off notifications of all kinds for every other app.
I’ve disabled notifications for most of my apps, and especially my social media apps. I don’t need to be notified (nor want to be notified) when someone engages on my post or messages me, because it’s not urgent. I can find out when I decide to look.
I’ve also disabled notifications for my email. Depending on your work, this may or may not be beneficial. But I receive emails every few minutes all day long. It becomes very distracting. Only a small percentage of those emails are work related, and they are rarely time-sensitive. So I schedule 3 times a day that I go in and check my email, which is plenty to respond to any requests in a timely manner. Then I ignore email the rest of the day.
The only apps that come through on notifications is text messages and Slack, which is a messaging app for work. But even with Slack, I set timeframes to “snooze” the app, so that I only get notifications of messages during work hours.
As for social media, I schedule in times when I’m allowed to go in and check. I do have to fight the urge to open my social media apps whenever I’m bored or have small pockets of time, but it does get easier when there aren’t any notifications calling out to me.
One way to fight that urge is to organize my apps according to which ones I want to use more and which ones I want to use less.
Organize Your Apps and Delete Unused Ones
The apps on your phone should not be taking away from your life, but they can unnecessarily steal your attention. This happens when the apps you want to use are hard to find, or the apps you don’t want to use end up pulling you in.
The first thing to do is delete all the apps you haven’t used in a while. This is often hard to do, because you have that “what if” urge — what if I need it later? Unlike physical things, you can always delete the app and download it again if you need it.
Next simplify your home page to the apps that you either use on a daily basis, or want to use on a daily basis. For example, I have the basics like calendar, email, and maps. I also have the apps that I should use everyday, such as my budgeting app, my fitness app, and my meditation app. What I do not have on my homepage are the apps I may use daily, but I don’t want to see, such as social media.
Finally, I’ll organize my apps into groups or folders, and by page, for quick and easy access so I’m not scrolling back and forth through pages looking for them. The second page on my phone is dedicated to work and business apps. On that page, my apps are grouped into folders like Communication, Documents, and Marketing. The third page is dedicated to my personal apps, which I group into categories like Finance, Entertainment, and Social Media.
For apps that I need to use regularly and want quick access to, I leave them as standalone on the page so I can find them quickly. The apps I don’t use as much or don’t want to use as much, I put into folders so I can reduce my scrolling, and add an extra step to get to them. (I also keep my Medium app on the third page in a folder to prevent me from obsessively checking my stats)
Is this a perfect system? No. There are a lot of times I still find my way into the social media apps and lounge there. But having the practical boundaries, steps, and systems does help adjust my behavior over time. And I can see it my phone stats, as my screen time goes down each week.
Some people take the extreme approach of not using their phone, or completely deleting apps like social media for a month. I’ve tried those. But the problem is that when the time is up and you’re back on, you often end up binging and using it more. The “tech fasting” approach doesn’t help create long-term, sustainable behavior change.
But small self-imposed boundaries and friction does curb your behavior, and will continue to do so until you look back and see that you’ve made significant progress. It works with screen time, and it works with all other aspects of self improvement.
This article was original published on Medium.