In 2007 I was standing on the street in Palo Alto in front of the Apple store with my friend JB.
We were deciding whether to go in… to trade our flip phones for the first iPhone. We both had this visceral feeling that we were about to lose something if we walked into that store. So we debated the pros and cons on the sidewalk for 10 minutes, and then we walked in. We had no idea how much our lives were about to change.
According to the latest reports, you and I will lose an average of 5 years and 4 months of our lives to time spent on social media. And that’s just social media, not all of our other phone activities!
Imagine what you could do – what you could become – with 5 years of extra time. Perhaps you could learn several new sports, languages, instruments. Read hundreds of books. Become a yoga master. Spend tons of quality time with your aging mother, father, or siblings. Volunteer and really make a huge difference. Hike the PCT 10 times. Go on a 5-year trip around the world. It’s hard to even come up with things that take 5 years, because it’s SO much time.
My fiancé tells me people don’t care. They won’t… rather they can’t… put their phones down. Am I naive to disagree? Are we so addicted that we’ve just accepted this is what modern life looks like? I think every human should be appalled that several companies – that barely existed 10 years ago – just stole 5+ years of your life away. That statistic deeply disturbs me, and I’ve decided once and for all to do something about it.
What did I do?
If you’re like me, it’s extremely hard for you NOT to pick up your phone and start scrolling. Normally, I wouldn’t fight tech with tech, but I knew my willpower alone wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to track everything I did on my phone, so that I could hold myself accountable with real information. I needed to know there was a clock counting every second I spent on my phone.
So I started using this app called Moment and it’s been life-changing (this is not an ad for them, they don’t even know I exist). Moment tracks your phone and app usage, allows you to set daily limits for phone-time, and makes it very hard to use your phone during certain times (like during dinner or when you want to concentrate). By providing data on your (and others’) usage, Moment allows you to get a little competitive, to see how few hours you can spend on your phone.
Before using Moment, I was spending about 2 hours per day staring at my phone. Moment told me their average user spends over 4 hours per day on their phone (which is consistent with national data). Yikes!
I was already way below the average, but even two hours a day seemed shocking. Mainly because it didn’t feel like I was spending two hours a day on my phone. It felt more like 30 minutes. Our lack of phone-time awareness comes from a concept called “unconscious behavior.” We may look down at our phones to check the time, but we end up checking Facebook, Instagram, weather, texts, surf reports, and news too. You probably know the “down the rabbit hole” feeling all too well. Those unconscious stops become an accidental time suck, which is why the time spent on our phones genuinely feels stolen.
So I set a daily limit of 1 hour per day of total phone screen time. Not just social media… everything. Anything past one hour, and a super annoying push notification and auditory alarm appears on my screen (and won’t go away). I’ve stuck to my 60-minute goal for the past 4 months, which has allowed me to reduce my phone time to an average of 55 minutes per day. In short, over the last four months, Moment has helped me develop the willpower to focus only on what I truly need to do on my phone each day.
Things I learned reducing my phone time to 55 minutes per day
1. Total screen time is important, but number of phone pickups may be even more important
The average Millennial checks their phone 157 times per day. Since it takes 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction, Millennials, in essence, are preventing themselves from doing any meaningful thinking, conversing, or working. I can only imagine how awful I would feel if I checked my phone that many times a day. I learned through Moment that I average 43 pickups (checks) of my phone per day.
Here’s the really interesting thing I noticed – my brain functions so much better if I’m able to check my phone 20 times per day and spend 3 minutes on it each time, rather than checking my phone 60 times and spending 1 minute each time. Both methods lead to a total screen time of 60 minutes; however, the 60 pickup method leaves me feeling anxious, scattered, and distracted. The 20 pickup method (which I struggle to hit) leaves me feeling calm and engaged in my present reality. Whenever I am able to put more time in between my phone pickups, I start making all those small mental connections again… the ones that are impossible when we’re distracted. I get a meaningful amount of high-quality work done.
Your pickups to usage ratio (P:U) is quite possibly the most important distinction in tracking phone usage. You can still have a super deceiving addiction (i.e. trick the system) by limiting your phone time to 60 minutes, but checking your phone 60 to 100 times or more in a day.
2. Mornings are the hardest
It’s really easy for me to resist my phone in the evening when I’m winding down. It’s the morning where my phone temptation is the strongest. My brain wakes up and tells me you’ve missed something! I used to immediately open social media and start scrolling, which 1) isn’t something important I’ve missed, and 2) totally ramps my brain up to an unnatural level of awakening. Technology already moves faster than my brain, and in the morning it’s way too fast. I want my brain to wake up at its natural pace, not Instagram’s.
My best mornings are when I ignore (or mostly ignore – who’s perfect?) my phone for the first couple hours. I check if there are any important business calls or emails, but I don’t start scrolling. When I’m able to do this, I notice the important things around me – my fiancé’s beautiful morning face, the weather outside, what kind of mood I’m in, and what I want to do with my day… really important things like that. My brain feels clear and pristine, untainted by the frantic pulse of the internet.
3. Instagram is by far the most addicting app for me
Instagram is the only app that can get me close to my hour daily limit (I average 22 minutes per day on IG). Because I’m a photographer, I genuinely enjoy seeing others’ beautiful photos. The app is deceivingly simple, as well as a marketing platform for my business. And I’ll admit, it does feel good to open the app and see how many likes a photo of mine has received.
Instagram’s psychological reward system is modeled off the casino reward of pulling a slot machine (did I win?). The app is perfectly designed to keep you coming back for more, to keep pulling the slot handle to see if you’ve won. Once you’re on the Instagram platform, it’s hard to leave, because of the unconscious “rabbit hole” behavior mentioned earlier. The only solutions I’ve found for reducing my Instagram usage are 1) trying to re-train my brain that likes of my photo are irrelevant to life (i.e. I’ll forget them tomorrow) AND 2) setting up a rule, like: I’m only going to check Instagram 3 times per day. Way easier said than done.
4. My days seem longer. The week seems longer.
One of my least favorite feelings is when time is flying by. I love life, I want to stretch it out as long as I can. Spending less time on my phone slows down time for me. Why? 1) I quantitatively have more free time. 2) I tend to spend that free time doing mostly new things… things that are out of my routine, like reading a new book, practicing a hobby, meditating, calling up an old friend, cooking a new meal, or exploring a new place. All the things that are on my goals list that I struggle to find time for… they’re starting to get done. When we spend time doing unfamiliar things, our brains actually collect more information about those experiences, leading to more memories and a feeling of time being more expansive. This is a truly magical benefit of using your phone less.
5. Boredom is back. My imagination is back!
Before I started using social media (and my phone) as my boredom killer, I would daydream. With less time on my phone these days, I’m bored more often, and my daydreams have returned. Daydreaming is the imagination state, the time of greatest subconscious discovery. You know the feeling… your day’s best thoughts often come in the shower – a place you are bored and without distractions. These “shower-moments” flood back in everywhere when you put your phone down. Over the last month, I’ve had so many new creative and story ideas, it’s been overwhelming. For awhile there, I thought my creative well was drying up… but it turns out I was merely dousing all my boredom-inspiration with social media consumption.
6. It took me about two weeks to break the modern reflex of reaching for my phone
When you only allow yourself 60 minutes of phone use per day, you have to focus on what you truly need it for. Quickly, I realized I needed to do very little on my phone. My primary need had been the dopamine hits I was receiving, not the actual utility my phone offered.
In setting up a 60-minute screen time limit, inherently, I began viewing screen time as the anti, the enemy, the thing to be minimized. We don’t tend to set limits on good things (like education or exercise), only on bad things (like ice cream and television). After about two weeks, my phone morphed from being my friendly time killer into my unfriendly time waster. I stopped reaching for it as much. After all, I had books to read, people to call, dinners to cook, brainstorms to storm. My phone became just another tool in my day… not THE tool in my day.
[Tip: I highly recommend having your boredom activities/tools on-hand, or you’ll go right back to scrolling. For me, I have to be super diligent to always have an interesting book, magazine, or my journal nearby.]
7. I call people on the phone again
Phone calls seemed like a huge commitment before Moment. I rarely made them and often avoided them, communicating mostly via text instead. But texts are so non-personal and can often be misleading. What happened to the days we called people to ask a quick question? Well, I brought them back.
I’m more open to phone calls and less rushed when I’m on them, mainly because they're not something I have to do on top of all the other stuff, they're something I do instead of texting or social media.
[Note: It’s genius that Moment doesn’t count phone calls against my overall screen time, since phone calls were originally an analog activity.]
8. Being tired is red alert
My phone usage surges when I’m tired. If I’ve had a long day or am in the middle of a hard day, that’s when my brain goes searching for those electronic dopamine hits. When you are tired, be especially aware of your phone behavior. I feel even worse about my day if I binge on my phone during those moments. Much more healthy (and fun) activities include: take a freakin’ nap, breathe deeply or meditate, go for a walk, eat a healthy meal, read, people watch, stare at the sky, etc.
9. If you’ve been using your phone more than you’d like, simply take a detox day
Inevitably, you’re going to have a week where you blast past your limits… it’s still happening to me 4+ months in. Some weeks my willpower wains, and certain times just require more phone time than others. No need to worry. When this happens to me, I’ve found it’s really effective to take a detox day, which I will define as 30 minutes or less on your phone. A detox day will remind you that you’re still in control, while resetting your intention of reducing your screen time.
10. Go easy on yourself… I definitely relapsed and so will you
If you’ve made it this far into my post, I say, hell yeah! You must really be serious about confronting your phone addiction. Over the months I’ve taken to write this post, I’ve had my “figured it all out” phases and my relapse phases – where I reverted to robotically scrolling on my feeds (albeit, still less time than in the past). Go easy on yourself as you attempt to change your phone habits. This is incredibly hard stuff to re-program in our noggins. I suggest taking your own notes about the benefits you notice as you limit your phone time. Then revisit that list (or this article) when you hit a phone relapse phase (also see #9). That’s what helps me. Every time I relapse, I come back to this article and reset my intentions by reading it again.
We know we have a problem. What will you do?
Moment sends out occasional reports and surveys compiled from aggregate user data and questionnaires. One of the surveys was incredibly enlightening. People express tons of displeasure with how much time they spend on all social media apps, yet that’s what they use the most of. People express happiness with time they spend on enrichment apps, like Audible or Headspace or Gratitude, yet that’s what they use the least.
If this tells us anything, it’s that we know and admit our problem, if only to ourselves. Now it’s up to us to do something about it. My learnings here might feel extreme and unattainable to some of you, but I know they’re possible for anyone. Just remember, if you do nothing, you’ll spend at least 5 years and 4 months of your life scrolling! As Rage Against the Machine says, Know Your Enemy.