How I stopped my smartphone from ruining my life


by Katy Tynan

The big news at the recent Apple product announcement was the unveiling of the long awaited Apple Watch. We all knew it was coming, and as usual millions of people will head out to plunk their money down on the latest piece of technology to issue forth from the inspired minds in Cupertino.

I can’t help but cringe as each new productivity tool is launched. One more blinking, vibrating screen begging for my attention. One more $500 device I am told will make my life better, help me manage my time, help me get more done.

The problem is not getting more done, or saving us time. The problem is getting the right things done and giving us time for the things that matter. As sleek and beautiful as this new device is, I do not believe it will solve this problem any more than the other devices that have promised to help us better manage time.

Perhaps the most surprising message that came out of the launch was that a goal of the Apple Watch is to reduce the amount of time you spend looking at your iPhone. At first read that seems like a nice idea. Perhaps this new tool can help me avoid being sucked into the vortex of the tiny electronic dictator in my pocket. But after so many disappointments, I can’t find it in my heart to drop a pile of cash on yet another promise of more productivity or better use of time.

I decided to take a more radical approach. I decided to just stop looking at my iPhone so much.

Of course it’s not nearly that easy. Smartphones and apps are designed to hold our attention. And they do so with a shocking level of effectiveness. Consider the data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 study on smartphone usage:

More than half of Americans had smartphones as of January 2014 (58%). And of those:

  • 67% check their phone for new messages and notifications even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating
  • 44% sleep with their phone next to their bed because they want to make sure they don’t miss any calls, text messages or other updates during the night
  • 29% describe their cell phone as “something they can’t imagine living without”

In just seven years—the first iPhone was launched in 2007—we have become so attached to these tiny screens that we give up our sleep, get into more car accidents, behave badly in meetings and restaurants, and take an inordinate number of pictures of ourselves.

Breaking away from my addiction to my smartphone meant taking a hard look at how, and when, I used it. As a both a mother and a business owner I can’t just throw my phone in my desk drawer and walk away. There are important reasons for me to have a phone and I could even make a case for why I need to have some of its other features. But I’ll be the first to admit I have bad habits that lead me to spend far too much time gazing into the Eye of Sauron. Examining my habits is where I decided to start.

Sleeping With The Enemy – My iPhone is my alarm clock. It sits on a charging stand next to my bed, so it’s the first thing I reach for in the morning when I wake up and the last thing I look at when I go to bed. Sure, in the morning I say it’s to check the weather when I wake up, but the truth is I spend a solid 30-45 minutes lying in bed in the morning reading the news, updating social media accounts, responding to email and generally wasting time.

Driving Miss Siri – Again my phone sits right next to me in the car. It’s in a handy holder so I can glance down at it anytime. The reason? So I can see it when I’m getting directions from Google Maps. The reality? Because I get bored in traffic. Because I don’t want to miss an email. Because I’ve become so attached to my phone that I need to be able to have it in my line of sight at all times.

Meeting Madness – I used to turn my phone off before meetings. Not just silent, off. Then my son started school and I had this great excuse to leave it on. What if his school calls? Now I leave my phone on the table, turned upright so I can see the screen. Sure, it’s set to silent, but I would be able to see if the school number popped up on my screen. Guess what I can also see? Notifications, texts, updates and a variety of other bits of distracting eye candy. I confess: I’ve become one of those people who reads email and checks Facebook in meetings and it needs to stop.

These are the worst of my bad habits but there are many more, like pulling out my phone at dinner to answer a question or check a fact. Why wonder when you can know, I confidently announce, but do I stop when I find what I’m looking for? Not without a quick peek at Twitter and Instagram and a quick check of my email just to see what I’m missing.

Once I started cataloging my bad behavior, I started to see how much time and energy I spent focused on My Precious. I noticed the way I went from glancing at it to check one thing to being drawn into cycling through apps. By the time I checked all my email, something new had come up on Facebook. After writing a witty response or sharing a cute cat video, I’d have a new notification on Twitter or Instagram. Each response and notification gave me a momentary sense of accomplishment.

There’s science behind this phenomenon. The experts who design application interfaces know perfectly well that our brains are wired to release dopamine with each alert. Individually, there’s nothing wrong with that. But collectively what it has done is create a society of adults who stare at 2×4 inch screens all day feeling very satisfied about getting so many tiny things done but have trouble focusing on what really matters.

I set out on a quest to free up my eyeballs and reduce my focus on the little red numbers. To do that I had to identify the things I needed to do on my phone, and separate them from the things that led me down that path to perdition. Here’s a short list.

Need: If certain people call (including my son’s school) the phone should ring.

Solution: Set my default ringtone to silent. Create a ringtone for the “emergency” numbers and allow them to ring at any time, even in meetings. The phone is in my bag, but if it rings, I know it’s an emergency and a justifiable reason to be disrupted.

Need: To wake up on time in the morning.

Solution: Use a traditional alarm clock and remove the phone from the bedroom. It now charges in the living room.

Need: To have GPS in the car.

Solution: My car has Bluetooth and my phone connects to it. If I need to use GPS, I set it up before I leave the driveway and keep the phone in my bag where I can’t see it.

These three changes removed the biggest excuses I had for bad smartphone behavior. No more looking at the phone during meetings or in the car, and no more using the phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I could have stopped there, but after a week of being more present in meetings, more alert on the road, and sleeping better at night, I wanted to keep going. I decided to take on the notification issue.

Try this. Start your stopwatch. Now pick up your smartphone and check your email. See how long it takes you to come back around to remembering that you had started a timer. Did you just check your new messages or did you feel like you needed to respond to one or two? And while you were there, did you notice that one of your other apps was clamoring for a moment of your time? The average smartphone app session lasts nearly 19 minutes for iOS users. That means each time you pick up your phone, you’re likely to lose at least 20 minutes of your day, or more if you proceed to another app straight from the first.

To throttle the time I spent engrossed in my notifications, I first tried turning them all off. This was a total failure. I immediately spent more time flipping into each application to see what I might have missed. I needed a Plan B. I turned off all the pop up notifications so nothing appeared on the screen, but left on the little red indicators that told me where and when my attention might be needed. Then I created three different “zones of attention” by creating different screens or pages on my iPhone. The bottom of my home screen now has my phone app, Google Maps, iTunes and Podcasts because they’re utilities I use frequently and they don’t have tons of notifications. I also have my calendar on the main screen.

On the next page I have my productivity apps: to do lists, grocery lists, etc. This is where I flip to get the information I need to do what’s on my schedule for the day. Still no social media, still no email. That’s all on the third page. And the final page is where I keep the total time wasters like Flappy Bird (yes I still have it), Crossy Road, and a few other games to entertain me if I’m stuck waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

What does this organization of apps and minimization of notifications do? It keeps the little red indicators out of sight unless I want them. It lets me keep on task without being distracted. It lets me focus on what I need to do.

I also made a conscious decision to stop responding to emails on the phone. Read? Yes. Write? No. Writing emails on a smartphone is often an exercise in brevity and lack of courtesy. When I write emails on a desktop or laptop, I never fail to start with the recipient’s name. I take a moment to type a quick greeting, and I have the time and keyboard real estate to explain things in a thorough way. Yet when I type from my phone, all that etiquette gets lost in a sea of typos and abbreviations.

I’ve now set aside three windows of time each day (it varies from day to day) to read, respond and file my email. Not only has it reduced my focus on my phone, but it has greatly improved the efficiency of conversations I have in email.

In the last few years I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of articles, blogs and posts about minimalism and mindfulness. As our ability to always be connected has increased, so has our existential angst around how much time we spend on work, on technology, on social media, and on things other than being present in the world. Yet it seems sometimes that we are battling against the tide of marketing dollars spent to convince us in truly compelling ways that we need these things, that our lives are incomplete without the latest piece of silicon ephemera.

My week-long experiment in breaking my smartphone addiction showed me that I could feel less busy, get more of the right things done, and worry less about minutiae. So I won’t be buying an Apple Watch to help me spend less time looking at my phone. Instead I’ll be spending more time appreciating the time I already have.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Lee 02/13/2016 at 3:41 pm #

    Great article. I’ve struggled with this since my first phone (a huge Oki brick back in 1992) to blackberry to iPhone and now to Android.

    I found that by ditching iphone altogether, and switching over to an android device, I was able to install special OS apps (allowed because the phone is not so locked down) that actually access my google calendar, look for keywords in my appointments that I’ve previously told it to watch for like “dinner with kids’, or ‘meeting’ etc. and completely silence the phone/switch off during that time.

    I also eliminated social media altogether, as well as all news apps. The sun rose the next day and all was just fine. Two weeks later, and I finally got my head back to live before 2007.

    We put a human being on the moon w/o the need for a smartphone.

    “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” Stephen Covey


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