So you’ve decided you need a break from your smartphone. You’re not looking to do anything drastic, like revert to one of those old school Nokia bricks, because, let’s face it, having a supercomputer in your pocket comes in handy. But you’ve grown wary of how you use the thing—the way it keeps you up at night, distracts you from your work, interrupts family time. The impulsive way you check it, it feels … off. A bit like codependence. You’ve begun to wonder what it would feel like if you and your phone gave each other a little space.
Two years ago, science journalist Catherine Price decided to try. In the course of her research for her new book How to Break Up With Your Phone (out February 13, she uncovered an abundance of strategies and resources for reclaiming time and focus. You don’t have to throw your phone in the trash, but you do have to learn to use it with intention—and that can be surprisingly difficult.
WIRED: This book is full of practical tips on how people can improve their relationships with their phones. If you had to recommend just one, what would it be?
Price: So, the first thing that comes to mind is kind of morbid, but the most effective way for me to change the way I use my phone is to just remember that I’m going to die.
I mean in the sense that, obviously, you’ve got a finite amount of time, so you need to be conscious about how you spend it.
That’s great life advice, in general. But I meant, like, disabling your phone’s push notifications, or something.
Ha! Right. Well, now that we have that out of the way. My one tip would probably be to attach a physical prompt to your phone, like a rubber band, or a hair tie. You can even use a special lock-screen image. Basically, you want to use something that will remind you, whenever you reach for your phone, to ask yourself whether you actually want to pick up your phone.
That actually ties back nicely to your first answer.
The number one thing is to remember that your time and attention are finite. A lot of people will tell you to turn your phone to gray scale, or delete your social media apps. Stuff like that. And those are great suggestions, but if you do them in isolation they’re probably not going to stick, and they’re not going to keep you from reaching for your phone in the first place.
Because that’s the impulse at the root of all our smartphone habits? Grabbing our phones?
Exactly. We reach for our phones to distract us, or avoid emotional discomfort, or just entertain ourselves. None of which is inherently bad. But I found, for me, when I spent less time on my phone I had more time for other things I might rather be doing. Thinking about why you reached for your phone every time you pick it up helps you be more thoughtful about what you’re grabbing it for, why you’re reaching for it now, and what else you could be doing instead.
And that’s because research on habit-formation shows that it’s important to interrupt yourself in the middle of the habit you’re trying to change, right? But we know from usage-monitoring apps like Moment that many of us check our phones dozens or even hundreds of times a day. And we do it reflexively, so it’s hard to remember to stop ourselves and ask what the hell we’re doing.
Yeah, I call those zombie-checks. It’s where you pick up your phone for some vague, flicker of a reason. Or just because you’re twitchy. And you look up twenty minutes later and you’re like, “What have I just done? I can’t even remember why I picked this up.” So that’s why it’s important to implement these little check-ins, or speed-bumps—these little cues that just force you to pause for a second and actually think about what you’re doing. Because the point isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be on your phone. If you want to be on your phone that’s totally fine. You just want it to be an intentional decision.
You include a great list of resources toward the back of your book that can help people with being more intentional, but the majority of How to Break Up With Your Phone is literally a step-by-step, 30-day plan for evaluating and improving your relationship with your phone. Why did you choose to structure it that way, and not as, say, a series of tips or suggested apps?
So the underlying, scientific reason is that we know from studies on behavior change that it takes a while for new habits to stick, and that self reflection takes time.
A lot of the steps in the plan you could totally do in a week or two, or even in a single day, like rearranging your apps or charging your phone in the other room. But some of the other stuff—like getting back in touch with what you liked to do before you had a phone, or thinking about what you want to pay attention to, or developing the habit of noticing when you pick up your phone—take practice. You need to do it for a while before you can say, ok, I’ve gotten pretty good at catching myself on my phone, now I’m gonna start examining what it is I’m actually seeking when I reach for it. So while you can do some of the steps in chunks, I think that having it spread out is useful in helping it last. You don’t want to read it, put it aside, and then forget about it.
You’re a science journalist. How do you reconcile the sense that we’re all reaching for our phones for impulsive and possibly unhealthy reasons with the lack of scientific evidence that our screens are bad for our emotions, attention, or wellbeing?
Number one, I totally agree with you: Smartphones are so new, we really don’t have the data yet, and we’re only just now beginning to have this societal concern where we’re like, something about this just doesn’t feel right. But over time, once more data begins to come in, I think it will bear out that what we’ve intuited to be the case—that phones are having an impact on our mental health, our attention, our ability to form memories—will turn out to be true.
A lot of the stuff in my book draws from the same research as The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s book on the effects of the internet, and The Distracted Mind, by Larry Rosen and Adam Gazzaley. They have some interesting insights on things like focus that are more evidenced-based. So a lot of the stuff in my book I’ve extrapolated from findings about internet usage. And I’d obviously like there to be more solid studies on smartphones, specifically, but I do feel it’s reasonable to assume that if you’ve got the internet in your pocket at all times, the effects are probably going to be more intense than what we’ve found about looking at the internet on a desktop computer.
It’s helpful to remember, also, that we’re actually dealing with two different questions: One is: What is your phone’s impact on your qualitative experience? And the other is: What are our phones doing to our brains, to society? And I think often we conflate the two, when we really should consider them separately.
Speaking of combining things that we shouldn’t, talk to me about the myth of multitasking.
So basically, a lot of us think we can multitask, even though almost none of us can. And just to define it: Multitasking is doing two cognitively demanding things at once. It’s not like folding the laundry and listening to the radio. It’s more like trying to talk to someone and carry on a text message conversation at the same time, or switching back and forth between checking Twitter and working on a project for your job. And we kind of assume we can do these things at the same time, when in reality our brains just can’t. What our brains actually do is rapidly switch between the two tasks, which winds up being a lot less efficient than doing the two tasks sequentially.
Something interesting I learned in my research is that trying to multitask all the time may actually improve your ability to scan stuff and give you a high level understanding of a lot of information, but it is not going to be effective at making you more efficient, or focused, or improving the quality of your work or interactions.
And the risk is that your phone lures you into making you feel like you’re multitasking, when in fact they’re just hurting your productivity.
Right! Browser tabs, text messages, any push notification, really, that encourages you to be pulled away from what you’re doing tends to make you think, oh, I should go take care of that really quick. I mean, the very fact that it’s possible to have so many apps open at one time definitely does contribute to task-switching and less efficiency.
One of my favorite things is this Chrome extension called Inbox When Ready. It hides your inbox from you when you’re in Gmail, so you have to consciously click this button that says “show inbox” when you want to see your messages. You can still search for emails and you can still compose emails, you just can’t see all the other stuff. And I could not have written this book without it. I knew I was addicted to email, but I just had no idea what a difference it would make to not have to experience the pull of, “Let’s just respond to that email,” or “Ooh, what’s that note?”