5 ways to keep your phone from taking over your life

Takeaway: Your smartphone may be difficult to get rid of, but it’s possible to keep it from seeping into your life and making you less productive. A few ways I found to do this: do a phone swap (I swap phones with my girlfriend when we’re out somewhere); use airplane mode strategically (when spending time with others, and at regular times throughout the day); disconnecting during the natural gaps in the day; creating a folder on my phone that houses the apps I tend to use mindlessly; and shutting off almost every notification.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 21s.

Smartphone

Now there’s a title that would have made zero sense a decade ago.

Smartphones are a mixed bag when it comes to productivity. It goes without saying that staying connected seems essential. But while staying connected may make you feel productive—because it makes your work that much more stimulating—multitasking has been shown to invariably make you less productive. It’s impossible to dive deep into your work when you spread your attention across many things at once. Smartphones can compromise your attention quite a bit.

For three months I conducted a productivity experiment to use my smartphone for just one hour a day. Since then, I’ve experimented with strategies that keep my smartphone from making its way too far back into my life—but while also keeping it around for when I need to connect.

Phone3
Photo: Kaleb Fulgham, CC

I was half-temped to write a preachy article on the more obvious things you can do—like using your phone less, leaving it at home, and so on. But I resisted the urge. Instead, I looked at the habits I’ve developed since the experiment that still let me keep my phone close by. Here are a few of the best ways I’ve found to keep my smartphone from seeping into my life since the experiment!

1. Do a phone swap. My girlfriend and I have a simple ritual we do when we spend time together: we swap phones. This way, when we need to look something up, make a call, or take a picture, we have a phone to do it with—but it doesn’t suck us into a black hole of distraction. It’s a simple ritual, and I don’t do it with anyone else. We haven’t found anything that works better for letting us spend time and attention with each other (save for leaving our phones behind, of course, which isn’t always possible).

2. Strategic airplane mode. Whenever I grab dinner, coffee, or a drink with someone, I immediately switch my phone into airplane mode, so no new messages or distractions can come in. And every day, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., I flip my phone into airplane mode, so I can recharge and disconnect before I fall asleep and after I wake up. Most nights I look forward to the ritual, because it always leaves me feeling refreshed. People can usually tell when you’re not only spending quality time with them, but quality attention as well.

phone23. Mind the gaps. It’s incredible how much value and meaning the small gaps in our day can give us. We can feel better when we disconnect while doing simple things like waiting in line at the grocery store, walking down the street to grab a coffee, and even using the bathroom. These small gaps help us reflect, recharge, think about what we should do next, and even let our mind wander so we can approach our work from a more creative angle. When we fill every gap in our day with our phone, we miss out on all of these benefits. There’s no doubt that mindlessly burning through some time on your phone is more stimulating and engaging than letting your mind rest, but the benefits of doing so, even if only for a couple minutes at a time, can be incredible.

4. Create a Mindless Folder. It’s almost impossible to use your smartphone intentionally, and not on mindless autopilot. This is why the Mindless Folder is so powerful. It’s simply a folder on your phone that houses of all of the apps you tend to use habitually, without much thought—apps like email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. I personally don’t have an email app installed on my phone, and have deleted all of the social media apps that I waste time on (like Twitter and Facebook). But I still keep Goodreads, Instagram, and my website analytics app in my Mindless Folder. I find the folder serves as a good, honest cue that I should reconsider launching timewasting apps in the first place.

5. Shut off every single notification. Notifications are stimulating, and help you feel more connected to your work—but they often only create the illusion of productivity. Productivity isn’t about how busy you are—it’s about how much you accomplish. Chances are you accomplish less when your attention is constantly hijacked by pointless interruptions. Gloria Mark, an attention researcher at the University of California Irvine, has found that when we’re completely interrupted from our work, it can take as long as 25 minutes to completely recover from the interruption.1 Since my smartphone experiment, unless I receive a phone call, my phone never makes a peep—I value dedicating as much focus as I can to what’s in front of me more than staying constantly connected. And perhaps more importantly, most of the interruptions that come in aren’t worth losing 25 minutes of productivity over. (I catch up on them when I go to check the time on my phone.)

focus2While your smartphone likely doesn’t eat up too much of your time, chances are it takes up a disproportionate amount of your attention. This can have huge productivity costs, because of how important attention is for your productivity.

Keeping your phone from seeping into your work and life is worth the effort a hundred times over.


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  • Dennis Nehrenheim

    Hey Chris, just read your book, and I really like how you put things!
    Resisting using my smartphone in zombie mode currently is my biggest challenge. I now use an iPhone application called “Moment” which shows me how many hours (!!!) I actually spend using my iPhone each day. Its terrifying! I definitely will try to decrease the time I currently waste with my smartphone in the days and weeks to come!

    • I’ve got to check that app out! Sounds fantastic.

  • Great article! Avoiding distraction is of major importance if one wants to accomplish more and reduce the stress of every day life. In the last 15 days, I’ve been experimenting with a concentration habit – I’ve “deleted” the facebook news feed with a chrome extension ‘news feed eradicator’, turned off all notifications from my iphone, and forced myself to use only once each day websites such as facebook, youtube, news apps and gmail. It’s the best thing i ever did. I’ve been doing a great deal more at work, enjoying more my free time, and avoiding the stupid habit of being on the phone when I am with friends.

  • Poom Pitichat

    Hi Chris! Thank you for this post!
    Super helpful!
    I have shut off every notification on my phone this morning. And I already feel better about it. Never notice how much little notifications throughout the day wear me off. And other tips are useful and will try them soon!

    I have recently bought your book, haven’t finished it yet, but I love it so far!

    Thanks!!

    • Thanks so much, Poom! So happy you’re liking the book so far :-)

  • “While your smartphone likely doesn’t eat up too much of your time, chances are it takes up a disproportionate amount of your attention”… Another vote for the ‘Moment’ App here. The biggest wake up for me was seeing just how many hours I spent on my phone a day. I could never have guessed and it’s truly shocking (and I don’t even have the Facebook app on there).

  • I have definitely shut off notifications strategically and I’m so so so glad I have!

  • Antonio D’Onofrio

    I just want to reccomend to every Android user the app I use to prevent myself to mindlessly use my smartphone.
    It is called OFFTIME and it does several things:
    It not only shows how much time you spend on your phone and how many times you unblock it during your days, but it can be used to prevent yourself to use distracting apps during preselected periods.

  • Mike Richardson

    I would be wary to put the phone into airplane mode for large swaths of time (like all night), if that smartphone is the only means for someone to contact you. I would want to have some kind of VoIP backup, so a family member could still contact me, or maybe a friend stranded on the road somewhere. Google Voice has free unlimited phone service with a US number, and an adapter costs about $30; you can give out the number on a need to know basis. I have never gotten a single (random) telemarketing call on my line.

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