Phones have without a doubt changed how we live our lives. Many of the tools and applications on them make our lives easier and more convenient, however contrary to all the good they have brought, they have started to affect people’s attention span and alter how we engage in our day to day experiences.
Our phones have become our watch, our shopping list, our map, our bank account, our fitness tracker, our diary, our recipe book, our newspaper, our dictionary, our camera and our escapism. Each time that we reach to use our phone for one of these functions, we often end up easily distracted by a flashing light or number notification on an app or forgetting why we picked up our phone in the first place.
The accessibility of endless tech on our phones means we are filling in any pause in our day with a phone based activity which results in us feeling increasingly busy. The readily accessible and dopamine-giving distractions from our ‘to do lists’ mean we feel more busy but in fact are achieving less.
If you are one of the millions of people who are feeling the pressure from the constant prompts to respond to something on your phone, you may well benefit from adopting some simple changes to the way you use it to help prevent it having any further impact on your wellbeing.
ONE ) Check in with how you are using your phone over an average day
Some phones now have the ability to track and log your phone use and detail how much screen time you are exposed to. This data gathering includes simple metrics around how many times you pick your phone up. Most people would be surprised by how much they are engaging with their phones each day. In the UK, 78% of the population now own a smartphone and check them on average every 12 minutes.
Next time you are about to tap once again on one of your phone apps, pause for a moment to consider why you are doing so. By questioning your motivation, you can start to identify the helpful phone functions vs the time-wasting distractions.
Are you avoiding work?
Are you taking your attention away from people who would benefit from it?
Are you avoiding an emotion or upsetting situation?
Are you looking for approval on your recent post, looking for the number of likes and comments it gets?
What would happen if you didn’t check for 10 minutes?
TWO) Unplug and connect.
With the prevalence of low mood, sleep problems and anxiety on the rise, the science of happiness has been given a lot more attention. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of our happiness is under our control and the rest is determined by genetics and external factors in our life. This means there is a lot we can do to control our own happiness and connecting with others plays a huge part in this.
So many of us get our phones out whenever there is a brief pause in our life. This can prevent us from connecting or noticing interesting things in the world around us. Who has sat beside a friend or loved one on a car journey, or on the sofa in the evening, tapping away at your phone. We are sat side by side, but are not talking to each other?
We are innately sociable creatures, but research shows that we are spending more time connecting with our phones than we are with partners and friends. We need to prioritise ‘unplugging' more regularly to allow us to be fully present and to be able to cultivate these important relationships.
THREE) Take charge of when you connect and when you disconnect
The instant accessibility of the tech on our phones, means temptation is always at mere arm’s length. This accessibility can lead to a gradual feeling of overload, to us not properly processing the information we are taking on in a day, or to us not fully reflecting on what is happening in our lives.
Turning your phone face down or putting it into your pocket is not enough of a barrier. This has been shown to still distract from our ability to be fully present with others. Our phones are designed to make us spend more time on our phones. It is a temptation which is only going to increase.
We could all benefit from periods of time in a day to disconnect, rest & digest the volume of information and stimuli we experience.
Turning off our technology entirely is not an option for most of us, but researchers have found that giving ourselves periods of time to disconnect, or even limiting phone use to specific times a day can lower your stress levels. We can help ourselves out by putting our phones away in a bag or a drawer during these times, to limit the temptation to have a quick check.
Just turning off at night time is not enough. There is a strong theory about the correlation between the steep increase in sleep problems and the constant distraction provided by our mobile phones. We need to create space within our days, otherwise it is likely that thoughts and emotions may surge at night time when we are quiet and still, not distracted by constant stimuli.
FOUR - Learn some mindfulness skills
Learning the skill of mindfulness can be hugely helpful in connecting with our daily life in a different way and has been found to be a key element in happiness.
It is the practice of purposely focusing our attention fully on the present moment, and to accept that moment without judgement.
You can practice mindfully engaging in activities or hobbies which enable you to get totally absorbed in it, which can protect time for quality non-phone focus in a day.
FIVE - Share your new phone boundaries with friends and family
Talking to the people you spend the most time with about the boundaries you are hoping to establish with your phone use can help give us a higher commitment to try and maintain them. Sharing your screen time goals with others may also inspire or encourage them to do the same. demonstrating a good example of a mindful and considered use of your phone in front of children or within social circles can help model and signal what an appropriate use of a phone can look like.
Examples of simple boundaries include:
No scrolling for the first hour of the day or until you are dressed and ready;
No phones during meals;
No phones after 10pm or in bed
(blue light from our phones suppresses the production of melatonin, our sleep-wake hormone);
Commit to having 2 or 3 ‘no phone’ lunch breaks (go for a walk around a local park, meet a friend for lunch or read a book).
SIX - Turn off phone notifications
The ping of dopamine-giving notifications makes them addictive and reduces the control we have on our time. Our phones have the most amazing ability to distract us from the simplest of tasks. We might go to check the time on our phone and end up reading emails or flicking through face-book, ten minutes have passed by and how have we moved forwards with our day?
Multitasking with phone distractions takes us away from engaging in activities and social interactions in a quality way. It causes us to take longer on the task in hand and lowers the quality of our work or the enjoyment of an activity.
Turning off the notifications on your most distracting apps (or at least making them silent) will reduce the distraction and pressure they bring. With less pressure to reply to emails or messages, you can then choose when to attend to them rather than have them constantly nudge you.
Our phones are powerful and clever tools. But they are just that, tools. We can decide how often we use them and how much of ourselves and our attention we give to them.
By establishing boundaries and being more mindful about how we use it, we are more likely to enjoy a healthy relationship with our phone and the personal and social pulls it provides.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapist
Co-Founder of My Therapist Online