Here are two things I know about myself: 1. I’m absolutely involved in a toxic, destructive, addictive relationship with my phone; and 2. I will never end it.
I won’t—and not only because I can’t risk missing a Kanye Twitter spree or filtered photo of a high school acquaintance’s new puppy. As an editor on a small alt-weekly staff (and self-identified workaholic), I actually can’t unplug for too long at a time, lest I miss a crucial email or a bit of breaking news.
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So no, I’m not going to be leaving my phone in another room for a self-care hour or some weirdo 18th-century shit like that. But are there ways for me to be smarter about my smartphone? It turns out there are—and you don’t have to resort to anything drastic, according to Baylor University professor James Roberts, whose research focuses on smartphone addiction and on how we relate to and orient ourselves with our phone. “I liken it to the Dutch reclaiming the land from the sea: We’ve just got to try to wrest some of the power away from our smartphones,” he says. “By small increments, we can become healthier in how we respond or relate to technology.”
These are some of his tips for doing just that.
Track your use.
“The first step in self-control is awareness,” Roberts notes. Which means his first suggestion for people who come to him with this question is to start paying attention to how and why you’re using the phone. You can download one of a number of apps—Moments, for example—that track your overall use as well as your time spent on various apps. (You will quickly become horrified to learn exactly how many minutes or, uh, hours, you’ve wasted on Instagram every day.) Roberts calls it “using technology against itself,” but if that seems counterintuitive to you, some good old-fashioned journaling about your habits can also do the trick. Are you using it because you’re bored? Because you feel awkward? Figure out the why, and you can start to alleviate your dependence. And from there, you can channel said boredom or awkwardness in a different, more useful direction—say, towards that novel that hasn't moved from your coffee table in weeks, or into a conversation with that tall drink of water standing by the keg.
Set limits and use external controls.
Another great thing about most of those tracking apps? Many of them let you set limits for yourself, meaning you can’t waste the entire afternoon double-tapping your way through your IG feed or scrolling through your ex’s last four months of tweets. “It’s not like you have to give up and go cold turkey—I just don’t think that will work,” Roberts says (and bless him for that). “It’s about striking a balance. You can set some boundaries.”
Use out-of-office responses for more than just trips.
Maybe you’re among the people who've experienced the sweet, sweet rush of relief that comes along with setting up an out-of-office vacation reply. Here’s something about those auto-responses: They work for more than just your long weekend at the beach. If you have the kind of job or boss where you’re expected to be on and available on a near-constant basis, Roberts recommends using the same systems when you’re commuting, or eating dinner, or going for a run. “They get a response from you right away, right?” he says. “‘I’m in the car,’ or, ‘I’m spending time with family,’ even. All those things let people know, ‘Hey, this guy’s still serious, he’s still available, just not in this moment.’”
Get other people involved in your use.
“One thing we use for behavior change quite a bit is something called ‘social contracts,’” Roberts says. Now, maybe this sounds a little on the intense side, but...let’s say your ceaseless Twitter scrolling has caused a bit of a rift between you and your pals or your significant other. (Look, sometimes reading Ted Cruz roasts is just more fun than that new Netflix documentary you really wanted to watch.)
Roberts notes that a little accountability goes a long way—and having someone working with you can be super helpful. “It’s not just us against the world; it’s us and other people who have our best interests in mind working with us.” The contract can be written, and it should be clear what you’re trying to accomplish and what behavior you’re trying to encourage. You can even have rewards and punishments laid out (e.g. "I won't check my phone when we're out to dinner otherwise dinner's on me.")
Have actual, tangible—and realistic—goals.
Don’t just tell yourself some vague crap about how you’re going to be better about mindlessly scrolling through Facebook feed or Depop shopping when you’re bored. “Another ingredient of self control is having clear goals,” Roberts adds. “Saying to yourself, ‘I’m only going to send so many texts a day,’ or ‘I’m only going to spend so much time on social media’…is kind of a nice reminder.”
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