This Is How to Stop Checking Your Phone: Five Secrets From Research

Instead of improving our lives, technology is increasingly getting in the way of enjoying our lives.

Put the phone away. Pexels

How long do you think the average work email goes unread? 10 minutes? 5 minutes? 1 minute?

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Try 6 seconds.

From Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked:

In reality, 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving.

Yes, Houston, we have a problem. Instead of improving our lives, technology is increasingly getting in the way of enjoying our lives. And the biggest source of trouble is that device that’s with you wherever you go. I figured it was time to call an expert for some advice…

Adam Alter is a professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Some might say that they’re not addicted to technology — they just enjoy it. But those same people probably say things like, “I wish I had more time to do the things I love.” As Thoreau once said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Well, people average 3 hours a day on their phones. In the pre-smartphone era that number was just 18 minutes. And what happens when you ask young adults if they’d rather have a broken bone or a broken phone? Here’s Adam:

There’s a study that was done asking people, mainly young adults, to make a decision: if you had to break a bone or break your phone what would you prefer? Forty-six percent of people would prefer to have a broken bone than a broken phone. But even for the fifty-four percent of people who say they’d prefer to have a broken phone, it wasn’t a snap decision. They agonized over it.

And if you have kids, this issue is even more serious. Children don’t learn empathy and emotional intelligence from screens. And Adam says kids now spend 20% less time playing face-to-face. Guess where that time went? Exactly.

No doubt, Steve Jobs changed the world with the iPad. But what most people don’t know is he wouldn’t let his children use one. As he told the New York Times in 2010, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.”

Alright, “scared straight” time is over. The question of the hour is, “What the heck is going on here and what can we do about it?” Adam has some great ideas, backed by research. Let’s get to it…

Are We Really Phone Junkies?

Phones aren’t drugs. So why do we get addicted? Because addiction is not about pleasure.

If it was, you would literally be addicted to chocolate. Think about it: thousands of people have surgery every day and are given very strong painkillers. But exceedingly few become addicted. Why?

Because addiction is about soothing psychological distress. It’s using something to cope with a problem in life. Here’s Adam:

You only develop an addiction when there is some psychological motive that hasn’t been fulfilled for you: loneliness, that you’ve been bullied, or you can’t make good things happen in your life. It doesn’t actually matter what you use to soothe that addiction, whether it’s playing a particular game that lulls you into a distracted state or whether it’s taking a drug. In terms of soothing those psychological ills, behavior and substance addictions are very, very similar.

We live in an age of anxiety. And phones can soothe that anxiety. But they can also add to that anxiety. Some researchers refer to smartphones as “adult pacifiers.” We get cranky, bored, or distressed and the pacifier soothes us.

(To learn the 8 steps to beating bad habits for good, click here.)

Okay, so what do we do about it? (Becoming Amish doesn’t seem all that appealing. Hipster beards are bad enough.) Well, Adam has a few tips from psychology we can use to get a handle on things…

1) “Don’t” Say “Can’t”

When you make the commitment to change, tell yourself, “I don’t check my phone more than once an hour” as opposed to, “I can’t check my phone more than once an hour.” Here’s Adam:

“Don’t” is a declarative statement about what kind of a person you are. When you say you “don’t” do something you give yourself the power to have made the decision not to do that thing. When you say “can’t” it feels as though some external force is telling you you shouldn’t be doing this thing. The way human motivation works and the way human decision making works is that we do much better when it’s something that feels like it arises within us. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t do.

Sound trivial? It’s not. Adam cites a study of women trying to meet an exercise goal. The ones who told themselves, “I can’t miss a workout” were only successful 10% of the time. Those who said, “I don’t miss workouts” were 80% likely to follow through.

(To learn how to build good habits that stick, click here.)

Say it with me, “I don’t stop reading blog posts until the end. It’s not the kind of person I am.” Perfect. So what’s a dead simple way to stop checking your phone that you’re probably not doing?

2) Proximity Is Destiny

When you don’t absolutely have to have your phone by your side, put it somewhere you can’t easily reach it. Across the room is a good option. (France may be a better option but let’s keep it simple for now.) Here’s Adam:

You can basically design the environment that you’re in to maximize your own well-being. There are two main ways to do this: one of them is to ensure that temptation is far away. So if there’s something that you keep doing obsessively, make sure that it’s not in your environment and you’re less likely to do it. That’s a much more effective way of preventing yourself from using it than say keeping it nearby but trying to just suppress the desire to use it.

And when you need it nearby, turn off all non-essential notifications. Here’s Adam:

Turn off the “ding” sound when you get a text message so that instead of your phone saying, “Hey, check me now,” you decide when it’s time to check. You’re removing the control from the phone and you’re bringing it back to yourself. You can also take the apps that are most addictive for you, and bury them in a folder on the fourth page.

(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)

But you’re gonna screw up. We all do. Once you lift your slave master, how can you make sure you don’t lose another hour of your life?

3) Use A “Stopping Rule”

Ever said you’re going to “just check your phone real quick” — and then an hour goes by? (No, you did not discover time travel.)

You check email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram… And by the time you’ve done all that, it’s time to check email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram again. You may call this your “happy place.” Researchers call it a “ludic loop.” It’s what slot machines are designed to produce. Here’s Adam:

The “ludic loop” is this idea that when you’re engaged in an addictive experience, like playing slot machines, you get into this lulled state of tranquility where you just keep doing the thing over and over again. It just becomes the comfortable state for you. You don’t stop until you’re shaken out of that state by something.

So something happens and you’re shaken out of your Kubla Khan dream state. That’s when you go, “It’s been an hour?!?!” So what you want to do is make sure you have that interruption planned ahead of time so you don’t go down the rabbit hole and spend 3 whole hours hanging with the rabbits.

That’s your “stopping rule.” Again, frame it with “I don’t.” Here’s Adam:

It’s a rule that says at this point it’s time for me to stop. It breaks the reverie and makes you think of something else; it gets you outside of the space you’ve been in. The best thing to do is to use a declarative statement like, “I don’t watch more than two episodes of a show in a row, that’s just not who I am.”

Your phone has email, texting, Facebook and Instagram. You know what else it has? A countdown timer. Maybe that should be the first step in your next ludic loop.

(To learn the schedule the most successful people follow every day, click here.)

So a “stopping rule” can prevent endless checking. But how do you break this habit for good? You don’t…

4) You Don’t Break Habits. You Replace Them.

Proximity is destiny, right? When you sit on the couch, make sure the phone is far away and a book is within reach. So now you’re not just gritting your teeth trying to not check your phone. You’re substituting a good habit for the bad one. When you want to check your phone, you grab a book instead. Here’s Adam:

What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing. You replace the bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should be doing.

I know, you’re not always at home with a book. Doesn’t matter. Every time I’m done checking Instagram I delete it. I have to download it to check it again.

But the Kindle app is always front and center on my screen. So when I lift my phone without thinking, checking Instagram is a pain while reading books is easy. Guess who reads a lot more books? Now checking my phone becomes a good thing.

(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

So maybe you incorporate a bunch of these tips and you’re feeling good. Awesome. But it’s easy to backslide. You probably know the times when you’re most likely to “relapse” and grab your phone. Here’s what you need to do…

5) Dr. Jekyll, Prepare For Mr. Hyde

You’ve seen some version of this movie: the main character knows he’s going to turn into a werewolf after nightfall so he barricades the door and chains himself in the basement. This way, when he transforms into the monster, it won’t be able to harm anyone. (Yes, you’re the hero and the monster in this story.)

By making smart decisions in anticipation of a problem, you make sure that future-you doesn’t do anything stupid like addictively checking your phone (or mauling some hitchhikers.) Here’s Adam:

It’s very, very hard to do the right thing today. What you want to do is to basically ensure that you push that person, that future self, to do the right thing.

Going over to a friend’s house for dinner and know you’re going to be tempted to rudely check your phone at the table? Leave your phone in your coat knowing future-you will be too lazy to go to the closet every five minutes.

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

Alright, Adam has given us the tools we need to ditch our compulsion. Let’s round it all up — and learn why your phone addiction might be a very good thing in the long run…

Sum Up

Here’s how to stop checking your phone:

  • “Don’t” say “Can’t”: You can always check your phone. But decide to be the kind of person who doesn’t.
  • Proximity is destiny: Put your phone across the room and laziness becomes a superpower.
  • Use a “stopping rule”: Leaving the house with your phone at 5% battery is extreme… but it’ll work.
  • You don’t break habits. You replace them: Good apps up front. Evil apps must be downloaded.
  • Dr. Jekyll, prepare for Mr. Hyde: Give your phone to a friend before you drink so the werewolf can’t drunk-text exes.

Addictions start when there’s a problem in your life you’re struggling to cope with, right? So checking your phone way too much can be the canary in your coal mine.

When you have a full life, when you have good ways to soothe your worries like good relationships with people you love, you’re less likely to develop behavioral addictions. Here’s Adam:

Addiction is really about soothing a psychological ill and that’s true no matter what the addiction is. People who have a strong social support network, who have a very full life, tend not to develop addiction.

So the long term solution is not about the phone. It’s about getting closer to that special someone and spending more time with them. And letting that bond soothe the worries you’re running to your phone for.

So if you’re reading this on your phone, text or email that person. Let them know you care. Set a time to see them.

And then put the phone away.

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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 285,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

This Is How to Stop Checking Your Phone: Five Secrets From Research