How to Take a Healthy Break From Technology

Late night messaging

Written by Catherine Price

Is your smartphone the first thing you reach for in the morning and the last thing you touch before bed? Do you often find it in your hand without knowing how it got there, or pick it up “just to check” only to look up 45 minutes later wondering what happened?

If so, you’re not alone. According to Moment, a time-tracking app with nearly five million users, the average person spends four hours a day on their smartphone. That’s a quarter of our waking lives—a full 60 days per year.

And as I learned while researching my book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, spending this much time on our phones is affecting us in ways many of us have not begun to realize, or even imagine, with possible effects on everything from our focus, memories, and moods to our sleep, satisfaction and physical health. As I write in my book, if you wanted to create a device that could rewire our minds, if you wanted to create a society of people who were perpetually distracted, isolated, and overtired, if you wanted to weaken our memories and damage our capacity for focus and deep thought, if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption, and redraw the lines of social etiquette, you’d likely end up with a smartphone.

It’s truly scary stuff. But what are we supposed to do about it? After all, smartphones are extremely useful, if not essential, tools—and can also be genuinely enjoyable and entertaining. That’s why the goal shouldn’t be to dump your phone entirely; for most people that would be both impossible and unrealistic. Instead, the point of “breaking up” with your phone is to give yourself space to ask yourself what you actually want your relationship with your phone to be—and then take steps to make that ideal relationship a reality.

Here are a few suggestions for how to start:

1. Don’t set limits on your screen time—at least not to start. Instead, measure it (I suggest using a time-tracking app such as Moment or Quality Time), and then evaluate how it contributes to (or takes away from) your experience of your life. Ask yourself, “Which aspects or features of your phone do you find useful, enjoyable, or essential, and which aspects feel like a waste of your time?” Your goal is to keep the first category and minimize or eliminate the second.

2. Once you’ve figured this out, try an experiment: delete all the apps in the second category (you can always reinstall them later). And redesign your home screen so that it only holds apps that are tools (think maps or music), not temptations (think shopping or social media).

3. Set a mission statement for yourself. The point of breaking up with your phone isn’t to spend less time on your phone; it’s to spend more time on your life. So ask yourself: what do you want to pay more attention to? Is it your kids? Your partner? Your career? Your hobbies? Next, ask yourself how your phone is getting in the way—and use your answers to these two questions to craft one or more mission statements for yourself.

For example, say you want to pay more attention to your family, but seem to always get distracted by social media. Your mission statement might be, “I want to spend less time checking social media so that I can be more present with my family.” Do you see the difference? You’ve gone from an arbitrary, meaningless restriction (“I want to spend less time on my phone”) to a positive goal (being more present with your family) and a clear next step (changing the way you interact with social media).

4. Swap in the big screen for the small one. Social media apps have been specifically designed to suck us in and get us to spend as much time and attention on them as possible. Their browser versions tend to be much clunkier—especially when accessed from your phone. So do an experiment: only check social media from your desktop computer (or, if you must, the browser version on your phone). The inconvenience of this extra step will make it less likely for you to get sucked into a spiral. (Even better: experiment with deleting the apps. You can always add them back later if you want.)

5. Get in the habit of paying attention. It sounds simple, but just paying attention to what you feel like before, during and after you use your phone can be a powerful technique for behavior change—because once you realize that what you’re doing on your phone is not making you feel good, you have given yourself the option to put down your phone and do something else. (It’s an approach that can be used in other areas of your life as well.)

To make it easier to remember to pay attention, create a “speed bump” for yourself—a small obstacle that forces you to slow down and make a conscious choice about how you want to proceed. For example, try downloading one of these free lock screen images from phonebreakup.com, which say things like, “What do you want to pay attention to?” “What for, Why Now? What Else?” and “Do you want to pick me up right now?” Then, when you find yourself reaching for the phone and encounter one of these lock screens, simply answer the questions. If you decide you do indeed want to check your phone, that’s completely fine. The point isn’t abstinence; it’s consciousness.

Let’s do this! Breaking up with your phone is more fun—and effective—when you do it with other people. So recruit friends, colleagues or family members to join you, and sign up for the Phone Breakup Challenge—a 30-day series of emails timed to accompany you as you go through the book and to make your breakup as long-lasting and effective as possible. Let’s take back our lives, one phone at a time!

Catherine Price is an award-winning science journalist and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life (Ten Speed Press). This post is an expansion of her conversation with Dr. Oz and Rhenotha Whitaker on March 7For additional resources for parents, community groups, and educators, please visit phonebreakup.com.