Health

An Actually Useful Guide to Not Being On Your Phone All the Time

If you’re struggling to detach yourself from your various devices during this pandemic—or, if you can't do that out of necessity, but would like strategies for constantly looking at a screen without wanting to crack it into pieces—here are some tips.
August 5, 2020, 3:45pm
adult woman using smartphone while sitting at her laptop
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right now, the internet is the primary form of communication for a lot of people. Many of us need to be online far more than we'd otherwise be in order to socialize, stay informed, and work (or to look for work—in which case, please consult this guide to job-hunting online with minimal pain).

This means that anyone who was feeling Too Online before this pandemic started may be currently reaching their personal “I need to shoot my phone” threshold. But knowing you’d probably feel better if you, say, ate a real meal and moved your body for a few minutes instead of logging on for the dozenth time today isn’t the same as actually doing it.

If you’re struggling to detach yourself from your various devices during this pandemic—or, if you can't do that out of necessity, but would like strategies for constantly looking at a screen without wanting to crack it into pieces—here are some tips that might help you.

Get specific about the reasons you’re on your phone or computer so you can find less soul-sucking ways to use them to your benefit.

It's pretty inarguable that our phones (and, specifically, social media apps) often drain us of valuable time and energy. I’ve certainly been guilty of planning to do something that would make me feel good, and then… not doing that because I simply couldn’t stop scrolling.

Scrolling often starts with good intentions—you’re responding to a text, reading an article, or trying to see pics of a friend’s new baby, and then you hop over to clear a notification or open Twitter out of habit. Suddenly, four hours have passed, and you feel vaguely nauseated and ready to fight the next person you encounter who has any sort of opinion about “cancel culture.”

To help avoid this, put some thought into specifically how and why you’re using your phone, so you can then decide if there are less exhausting ways to reap the benefits you're actually after. Go through the apps you use the most (iMessage, Instagram, News, YouTube, etc.) and think about the core reason you want to check each app, the problems the app is causing within that goal, and some alternatives you could try in order to stick more closely to your initial plan.

For example: You might intend to use Instagram to see what your friends have been up to. The problem might be that the updates from your friends are getting lost in all the noise and inane influencer Stories—and/or the fact that social media isn’t a full picture of anyone’s actual life or feelings. The alternatives might be talking with those same friends one-on-one more regularly, unfollowing or muting half the people you currently follow (or more, if you still feel overwhelmed), or limiting yourself to 20 minutes a day—during which you make a point to look at the profiles of the friends you actually care about instead of whatever the algorithm puts in front of you.

Consider posting less on your own accounts.

It’s worthwhile to think about not just what you’re consuming, but also what you’re putting out into the world. Posting stories, tweeting, and messaging can lead to a cycle where people respond to you, so then you respond—or just open the app to read their responses—and then you’re unwittingly glued to your feeds again.

There’s no exact amount of posting that is Good and Right for everyone, but there is likely an amount (or type of post) that generally brings you happiness and connection, and an amount that is just-because filler. If you find yourself posting a lot, check in with yourself to ask what, exactly, you’re seeking, and whether there are other ways to do that that would leave you feeling better. Will the thought you’re about to hit send on (or any of the possible replies) actually make you feel better in an hour, or tomorrow? How might it do that? If you're not finding convincing answers, pick a way to be good to yourself that doesn't involve refreshing, and refreshing, and refreshing.

Treat your phone less like a pocket computer and more like an actual telephone.

As much as I love a good text conversation, I can admit that messaging means I’m online more than I might otherwise be, and that I’m often on other apps while I’m texting with friends. One solution: Bring back the humble phone call, a tried-and-true way for staying in touch with people across a distance (and less of a Whole Thing than Zoom conversations).

If you haven’t talked to anyone on the phone in a while and shudder at the thought, I can tell you: I was once in the same boat, but was pleased to discover that it’s uplifting, fun, and comes back much like riding a bicycle famously does. If you need further convincing, Madeleine Aggeler made a good case for phone calls in The Cut last year. (One caveat: If you go this route, consider giving your friends a heads-up that you’re going to start calling more often, so they don’t see you calling them and assume someone died.)

Find creative ways to keep in touch with people that don’t rely on social media.

Updating your nearest and dearest individually can be exhausting, but apps aren’t necessarily the best way to communicate personal or semi-private info to a big group of people that often includes professional connections, acquaintances, and a few strangers. It’s also not a terribly effective way to learn about what’s going on with friends.

A weekly family FaceTime or a Sunday email to the people you care about most might be a better way of staying in touch, while also being far less draining to make happen than a bunch of IG stories where you’re only being 50 percent honest.

Turn off notifications and/or rearrange your home screen to hide certain apps.

This has been the most effective trick for logging off that I’ve tried, and I highly, highly recommend it. Taking inspiration from Courtney Carver, author of Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More, I rearranged my home screen to look a little more like hers: I buried Instagram and Twitter so they were a few swipes away, essentially hiding them from myself.

I quickly discovered that I was mainly opening these apps more out of muscle memory and not a desire to see what was happening. I also learned that I _don’t really miss them_—the extent to which “out of sight, out of mind” was true was, frankly, embarrassing.

Consider not allowing any notifications beyond phone calls and, maybe, text sounds strictly for the most important people in your life. If you need to get work email notifications, use a different mail app for your personal email so you aren’t subjected to persistent alerts from whatever company really wants you to know that you left something in your cart a week ago. Mute everything you can, and move on with your life.

Figure out a way to catch up on the news that doesn’t lead to hours of doomscrolling.

It’s reasonable—and responsible—to want to be informed on the state of the world, especially now, when it’s effectively on fire. But catching up via Twitter is exhausting and, often, it produces the opposite effect you're hoping for in terms of processing what's important/factual/relevant, news-wise.

If you know, in your heart, that getting your news on social media is taking years off your life, consider limiting your news consumption to once or twice a day, and doing it in a more concentrated way (like listening to a briefing podcast as you get ready for work, signing up for an EOD newsletter with the most important stories, or going directly to the New York Times or Washington Post homepage in the morning and evening). You may be pleasantly surprised by how possible it is to be informed without subjecting yourself to minute-by-minute updates on the latest bad tweet.

Get a hobby and an “I’m bored and I need to shut my brain off for a little while” activity.

It’s hard to be on your phone less when you don’t have anything better to do. If you keep picking up your phone out of habit or boredom, find some alternative ways to spend your time.

If you don’t have a hobby, now is a great time to get one, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming (no offense to sourdough). Some recommendations: reading books, getting into a new-to-you docuseries, or making art or gifts for friends.

Not all downtime has to be productive. You should also feel OK about zoning out for a bit every day. If doing that via your phone is leaving you feeling gross, consider some other options that are just as mindlessly entertaining, but are a little more structured—think watching reality TV or old sitcoms. And video games! I’ve started picking up my Nintendo Switch and playing Animal Crossing when I’m on the brink of losing an hour of my life to my phone, and I feel much better as a result.

Let go of the idea that you have to be constantly on, available, and up to speed on every micro-drama, meme, and niche news story.

This is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of putting the above tips into practice. All of these pings and beeps and bloops are exhausting, sure, but they can also feel kind of good—they make us feel needed, seen, important, and less alone. It’s especially hard to disconnect, even just by stepping away for an hour, if you enjoy being a responsive friend and/or aware of what’s going on in the world. Being on your phone less can leave you feeling worried about letting folks down for not responding to their DMs quickly enough, out of the loop, or otherwise just... guilty.

But wanting a little space during a pandemic doesn’t make you a bad person, and being constantly available isn’t a requirement of being a good friend. (And you may discover that the people who give you a hard time about it are actually not so interested in talking to you, specifically, but simply enjoy having a friend-shaped receptacle where they can dump every thought that pops into their head.)

It’s extremely reasonable and a good idea to reset the cadence of conversations with friends—to let a little more time pass between responses, or to say something like, “I’ve realized that I need to be more focused during the day, which means I probably won’t be as responsive while I’m at work.” Or, to just throw your phone under a pillow until you can bear the sight of it again—and that becomes easier if you actually take the time to decide when, and why, that is.

Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.