Culture

How to Break Up With Your Phone

Staring at your phone doesn't make your more informed, but it will drive you crazy.

Photo Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock

Last night I promised myself I would go to bed early. While my body was under the covers at 11pm, my mind was not. Instead of reading a book, as I had planned, I was scrolling through Twitter, getting increasingly nervous about assault rifles, the 2018 midterm elections and neo-Nazis in our midst. An hour later I was anxious, I had a headache, and worse, I was no closer to sleep than when I started. I needed an intervention. I needed, as Catherine Price's new book suggests, to break up with my phone. 

In How to Break Up With Your Phone, Price isn't suggesting we all throw our phones into a river and move to an alpaca farm. She's not even advocating, as HuffPost founder-turned-sleep mogul Arianna Huffington does, that we all tuck our phones into their own miniature beds at night. Instead, she recommends a reset. The book is both an explanation of the addictive psychology of smartphones and a practical guide to reduce dependence, to ensure that your phone is merely a communication device, not a third arm.

Price knows that in the age of Trump, the politically engaged and news obsessed among us often use our phones to keep up with the latest and communicate with fellow activists. Would the digital sabbath she recommends mean missing an important protest or action? According to Price, with some advance planning (warnings to friends, family and colleagues about when and how you interact with your phone) you might find yourself, in addition to being more alert, less stressed and better rested, in a better frame of mind to deal with both the news of the day and the demands of activism.

Earlier this week, Price gave AlterNet some tips on how to start a phone breakup, how to talk to your boss about it, and the first step to conquering any addiction: admitting to yourself that you have a problem. 

Ilana Novick: Why do Americans need to break up with their phones?

Catherine Price: According to Moment, which is an app that tracks screen time (with more than 4.8 million users), the average person is spending four hours a day on their phone—that's a quarter of our waking hours/a sixth of our time alive. We're prioritizing our phones over our children, our partners and our friends. They're the first thing we look at in the morning, and the last thing we touch before bed. We check our phones while we're driving, despite the fact that we know that it's dangerous, both to ourselves and to others. We've allowed these inanimate objects to control us, and I believe we need to start paying attention to our relationships with them and take back control. 

IN: In the age of Trump and the 24-hour news cycle, it can be hard to stay away from the news, especially the push alerts on our phones. How do you stay informed, without going insane?

CP: First, recognize that, regardless of your political affiliation, you have an unhealthy relationship with Donald Trump. No one who's not a family member or dear friend should be monopolizing that much of your attention. My personal solution was to delete news apps from my phone. (You can't get sucked into a news spiral if you don't have access to the news.) That's not to say I don't stay on top of things; I just make a point of checking from my desktop computer. And in order to prevent that from getting out of control, I use Freedom, which is an app/website blocker that lets you block yourself from problematic sites and apps when you're trying to focus. 

IN: Have you broken up with your phone?

CP: Heck, yeah. My relationship isn't perfect (email is my personal biggest issue), but that's okay: No relationship will ever be perfect.  I'm constantly working on making sure it's as healthy as it can be, and feel that, for the most part, I'm succeeding.

IN: Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

CP: A couple places. First, just the observation that everywhere I looked, people were staring at their phones. Second, my experience as a new mother—I had had a baby, and had several moments in which I noticed that she was looking up at me, as I looked down at my phone. That was not the first impression I wanted to give her of what a human relationship should be.

Also, I wanted to spend less time on my phone and more on my life—and this book was a way to make sure that I made that happen! (Actually, ironically, I had to write it on such a tight deadline that I gave myself eyestrain from staring at my computer screen/mild carpal tunnel, but that's a different story. I'm back on track now!)

IN: What's the first step in a phone breakup?

CP: If I had to suggest a place to start, it would be to track the time you're actually spending on your phone using an app such as Moment (iOS) and Quality Time (Android). (Also, ask a loved one what they think of your relationship with your phone—you may think you're fine, but your kid/spouse/best friend may see it very differently.)

Next, begin to try to catch yourself while you're using your phone, and pay attention to how it's actually making you feel. Are you calm? Focused? Present? Or are you anxious and distracted? Do you actually feel good while you use it/after you're done? Just paying attention to the way you feel when you use your phone can be a powerful tool for behavior change. You can also put a rubber band around it as a physical prompt to jolt yourself out of autopilot, or change your lock screen image to one of the ones I've got on my site that say things like, "What do you want to pay attention to?" and "Do you really want to pick me up right now?"

I'd also recommend signing up for the online Phone Breakup Challenge, which is a timed series of emails designed to accompany you as you go through the book (there are 20 emails in total). That's a great way to keep yourself on track.

It's also useful to keep in mind that one of the biggest issues surrounding phones is that we've never stopped to think about what we want our relationships with them to be. So just by reading this article—in other words, just by beginning to pay attention—you're already making a change.

IN: How do you set boundaries with supervisors who expect you to be looking at email constantly?

CP: First of all, I think we need to have a lot more conversations about the impact that constant connectivity has on people's productivity. If I were a boss, I would make a point of clearly establishing guidelines for how often I expected people to check their phones, email, etc., and create some sort of reward for NOT doing so constantly. It's a huge waste of time.

I also think that we tend to overestimate our own importance. If you check your email once every few hours, what's the worst that can happen—especially if you have an autoresponder that says how often you're checking and provides an alternative means of contact for people who really need to get in touch? 

Also, take advantage of some of the options that are already provided—for example, set a VIP list of contacts and adjust your notifications so that only their emails/phone calls/texts come through to interrupt you. Set up a text autoresponder (you can do this through "do not disturb while driving" mode in iOS and with the lilspace app on Android). Establish boundaries for yourself, explain the reason for those boundaries (focus and productivity) and then provide people with alternate emergency ways to reach you. 

Also, stop kidding yourself: how much of this is actually about pissing off your boss, and how much of it is about your own anxiety when you don't have access to your phone? And how much of the time you spend on your phone is REALLY for work-related purposes, versus checking your work email and then drifting off to Instagram? We're all guilty of this!

 

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.