Today I’m psyched to address an issue that plagues us all. It excites me so much, it even rivals karaoke on my personal passion scale.
But first, a question for you: Would you like to be mentally sharper and more empathic in the moment? The majority of you would probably say yes. What if I told you you could improve these things for free, with just one small act? Now you’re perhaps both intrigued and suspicious.
I promise, it’s not a trick. You need only do one thing: disconnect from your smartphone (not just set it down, but REALLY disconnect). Less excited about that prospect? Here’s are some findings to entice you:
New research suggests that our memory capacity and ability to process data may improve when our smartphone is completely out of sight — in a bag or another room altogether. Think that turning it on silent, face down, will remedy the problem? Nope. The mere sight of the phone might diminish your cognitive resources.
Additionally, a visible phone in a social setting can measurably decrease the depth of the interaction, creating more superficial social exchanges.
This is huge: scrolling obsessively through social media isn’t the only smartphone battle you need to wage. Just seeing the overpriced device plays games with your brain (and your brain is losing, for the record).
Here’s another disturbing stat: This tally seems to increase daily, but by one study’s count, the typical smartphone user interacts with their phone around 85 times per day. And this often includes middle-of-the-night checks for work emails and new “likes.”
We’re so obsessed that there’s now a word to describe a fear of being without your phone: “Nomophobia.”
So what should we do about this smartphone tsunami?
There are two paths to improving this situation. The first involves a transformation of the technology and the platforms that suck us into its incessant use. Fortunately, some companies are recognizing the habit-forming nature of their platforms and at least starting to pay lip service to designing for “good.” (If you think the nature of these designs is “random,” you are greatly underestimating the monetary value of your obsessive attention — and the desire of companies to capitalize on knowing how to attract and maintain that attention.)
And while the knowledge that too much technology can have negative effects on our lives is not new, we are just now seeing the very technology companies that created these irresistible devices and platforms start to address the problem.
Recently, investors asked Apple to figure out how to help parents limit their children’s use of iPhones and iPads, citing concerns over “long-term health.” Former Facebook employees are speaking out about the power of their platform and their concerns about how it’s affecting their lives and the lives of their children. And just this month, Mark Zuckerberg announced his intention to turn the social network into a force for good, in part by revamping its news feed algorithm to prioritize interactions with friends and family over articles and videos (stuff that induces more passive scrolling).
This change was sparked by new data indicating that using Facebook often — shocker! — makes people feel crappy, but that meaningful interactions and shared memories on the platform foster well-being. I’m sure the data deserve more nuanced analysis, and while making Facebook more like Instagram by minimizing links and amping up the visual quotient may diminish fake news links, it definitely isn’t a panacea for measured use and general well-being. (i.e. Find yourself “reminiscing” about and virtually stalking that ex you’re still obsessing over? Where does that fall on the social media well-being scale?)
How this new Silicon Valley call-to-action plays out remains to be seen. And debating just what sort of “responsibility” these companies have when it comes to designing and programming for optimal health and happiness is worthy of a whole book. The best we can hope for is they figure out how to monetize our healthy behaviors as profitably as our unhealthy ones.article continues after advertisement
And in the meantime, I suggest you pursue the other solution:
Create boundaries. Implement rules.
First, let me be clear: Taking back control need NOT include tossing your smartphone in the ocean or having a smartphone destruction party (though secretly, I really want to throw one of those). Rather, it starts with acknowledging the reality of the incriminating data against your current use patterns and changing your habits and practices through actionable steps and enforced rules.
Feels impossible? No one’s telling you to stop using technology altogether, or to get off all social media or stop using the millions of useful tools for increased functionality, efficiency, and knowledge now available at your fingertips. A healthier, happier relationship with technology is about a peaceful, rule-bound co-existence, not a complete rebuff. And if you can truly say that you are not addicted to your phone, that probably means you are my mother and have yet to respond to my text from last week. (Hi Mom, you can stop reading now.)
For those of you who did not give birth to me, here are the ways I have personally designed a healthier relationship with my smartphone. I’m not bragging about my practices and I’m no technology saint. This is a work in progress, I definitely slip up and spiral into scrolling hell, and these rules and strategies are constantly evolving. But I DO notice a difference as a result of my implementation of each of them, and so I think they’re worth sharing:
I did, however, keep Twitter on my phone. I appreciate the articles and humor of the accounts I follow, am never tempted to stalk anyone on there, and don’t feel dirty after using it. Twitter is a “safe” app for me. I know that’s not the case for everyone, so I’ll let you decided which social media apps work for you and which should be deleted (if only to redownload regularly), and then develop your own boundaries and rules about engagement with them. But chances are, you need some social media app rules.
For the record, I don’t officially require people I’m with to do the same, BUT I greatly appreciate it when they do, am more likely to make time to hang out again, and definitely notice the difference in the depth of our connection and communication when their phone is put away vs. sitting in front of us, ready to demand their attention at any moment. If you have kids and feel you must always be on call, enable the “Repeat Calls” feature when your phone is on “Do not disturb” and get the best of both worlds (and at least keep it out of sight). article continues after advertisement
I promise, no one is so important that they must always be available to any and all phone notifications while with other people. I’ve said this before and will say it again: Your full presence is the greatest gift you can give someone in the age of technology and distraction. Time for some generosity. (And while it might seem like a sacrifice on your part, you will reap the rewards as well. Win/win.)
I recommend getting an old school alarm clock — mine cost less than $10 on Amazon, folds up super tiny and travels everywhere with me, and lasts for years. If you MUST use your smartphone as an alarm clock (I’m trying to imagine why that would be, but I’m sure some people will tell me it’s a necessity) or if you are once again in the “I have kids, I have to be available” category, then again enlist the “repeat calls” feature from above or only allow certain numbers to come through. And if possible, put it on airplane mode (‘do not disturb’ will still deliver messages and notifications and you’ll be tempted to steal a glance if you wake up at night).
Regardless of which option you choose, place the phone across the room from your bed — out of sight, out of mind, and safely out of reach. article continues after advertisement
Digital happiness is a topic I’ve been researching, teaching, speaking, writing, and coaching on for the better part of the last decade. It hasn’t gotten simpler or easier with time. Quite the opposite. But as more data pours in, it’s my hope that people will take back control and design the lives they want for themselves by consciously pushing back on the destructive habits and mindsets that erode our quality of life and ability to connect.
Your phone should be a conscious choice. A positive tool — something useful in your life, not something that detracts from it. There is life beyond the phone, but experiencing its richness requires mindfulness and discipline. So whether your goal is to be more meaningfully connected, to emit more empathy, or to be smarter, the data is in: Silence and put away your phone.
What are your smartphone rules? What boundaries do you have and which do you struggle with? What stories do you have of times you’ve said no to the phone? Please share them in the comments and pass this along to others in your life — who will likely read it on their smartphones.
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