You spend too much time on your phone. It’s true. And most people have the same problem, too. Everywhere you go, there are faces craned over glowing screens, in bars and restaurants, on sidewalks and subways, sucked in by the blue light. Doesn’t anyone enjoy a face-to-face conversation anymore?
Colin Beavan knows better than most how to break digital habits. He’s the author of No Impact Man, a chronicle of his family’s year-long attempt at a zero-impact-on-the-environment lifestyle in Manhattan (which later became a documentary) and, most recently, the author of How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World. Like many of us, Beavan has a love/hate relationship with technology. He has no problem with the occasional Netflix binge, but he believes it’s important to unplug every now and then, to focus on the things that truly matter. “Let’s say that we’re taking about four hours on our screens every day,” Beavan said. “Think about the number of things we tell ourselves we don’t have time for that we really want to do, like exercising, eating food that’s good for us, learning a musical instrument, hanging with our friends.”
The incentives for reducing our daily eyeballs-to-screen time are obvious. Less time on our phones means more time to pursue goals. It encourages us to build deeper, more fulfilling human relationships. But keeping our obsession with technology in check, according to Beavan, is a lot more complicated than simply eliminating it altogether. Follow his tips below to break the habit, once and for all.
Out with the bad, in with the good. “Substitution is key. When you’re quitting smoking, when you’re trying to eat better, you ask yourself: ‘What do I want from giving up the thing that I’m compulsive about?’ And then replace it,” Beavan said. Part of why you’re doing this in the first place is to focus on the things you truly care about. What are those things? Do you want to learn how to play the guitar? Write a book? Build a motorcycle? Spend more time with loved ones? It doesn’t matter what it is — just make it work. If you plan correctly, you’ll have plenty of time for it every day. Speaking of which…
Make a plan. Beavan says this is the most important thing to consider before trying to reduce daily screen use, yet the most commonly forgotten. Without a realistic plan and an achievable goal, nothing will change. Beavan compares it to going on a diet: “If you want to lose weight, you can’t decide to just not eat. You actually have to decide how you’re going to approach eating. It’s the same thing with technology.” Figure out exactly when, where and for what purpose you absolutely must interact with a screen, and write it down on paper (remember paper?). Then, allocate a time slot for the other, less important stuff — 20 minutes on Facebook, for example — and write that down, too. Keep the paper handy. It’ll help you hold yourself accountable.
Wear a watch. The urge to pull out your phone, even if it’s just to check the time, is a gateway to mindlessly flicking through Instagram and aimless web surfing. Resisting that urge is half the battle. To win the battle, Beavan recommends wearing a watch, as it will give you a practical reason to keep your phone in your pocket. (And since you’ll be looking at the watch frequently, you might as well make it one that’s easy on the eyes.)
Turn off notifications. Beavan calls this a “grand idea.” There are three ways to disable notifications. One, go into your device’s settings and individually select which apps send alerts; two, activate “Do Not Disturb” mode; three, turn off all notifications — no exceptions. Beavan recommends the third method. Go big or go home.
Do it with friends. Sharing the experience with friends will ease your separation anxiety and/or phone withdrawal. With friends, we forget about our addiction to tech. Beavan says to find a friend or two who are willing to follow along and abide by the same rules as you, to create a level playing field. It will likely become competitive — things like this usually do.