Are you feeling unproductive? Do you feel anxious all the time while your real-life relationships degrade? The culprit may be buzzing in your pocket.
Most of us know that we’re spending more time scrolling, swiping, and browsing on our phones.
But when we start thinking about how to minimize it, things get murky. We tell ourselves that extra visit to Facebook or game of Fortnite isn’t that harmful. It’s hard to consider detaching from devices that have become such integral parts of our lives.
You can do better, though. It comes down to building new habits and applying practical tips that reclaim lost time.
Why should you care?
It’s so tempting to write off excessive phone time as harmless. Because these lost moments tend to happen in short bursts throughout the day, you might not realize the total amount of time you’re frittering away.
All these moments can add up to a ton of wasted time. A 2017 analysis of multiple scientific studies found that people spent over four hours a day on their smartphones.
That’s a part-time job—and a sizable chunk of the staggering 10.8 hours we spend daily in front of screens. Take a look at our calculator below to see how these hours add up over a lifetime.
Imagine if you cut down your usage by just 25 percent. That gives you an extra hour on average per day—an hour you could spend exercising, socializing, reading, or doing something creative. The negative effects span beyond just wasted time. It also disrupts our real-life social interactions and literally alters our brain chemistry, contributing to symptoms like depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
5 warning signs you can’t afford to ignore
When does phone use go from frequent to excessive?
It can be tricky to diagnose—especially when everyone around you is doing it. If you’re unsure how severe your issues are, watch out for these warning signs:
1 You catch yourself “phubbing” your family, friends, and partner
Say you walk into a busy restaurant. You’re seated next to a party of four friends. Noticing them throughout your meal, you see that they’ve spent the whole night hunched over their smartphones. They’re together but apart.
This phenomenon is so common now that it even has its own buzzword: “phubbing.” It’s probably happened to you. Maybe you’ve been the culprit without even realizing it. Whipping your phone out for a second during a friend’s story might not seem like a big deal, but the consequences are profound. You’re signaling that their real-life presence is less important than the shiny distractions on your device. Your friends feel neglected, and that you don’t value their company.
Phubbing affects friends, family, and relationships of all sorts. It’s especially tough on romantic partners. One study found that phubbing decreased marital satisfaction while increasing the likelihood of depression.
Left unchecked, phubbing also creates vicious cycles. If you neglect your friends, they might pull out their phones in response to soothe the social rejection.
2 You constantly compare yourself to others
Are you constantly jealous of your Instagram friends’ extravagant trips, salary, or love lives? Are the things that used to make you happy just not doing it anymore?
A little envy is natural, but when your life gets overwhelmed by comparisons, it could be a warning that you’re spending too much time on your phone.
This is especially true if you’re a frequent social media user. Those platforms encourage users to post the most exciting, jealousy-inducing content because that’s what gets all the retweets and likes. It’s easy to forget that the rest of your virtual friends’ lives—the stuff they don’t post—is probably just as mundane as the stuff you’re complaining about.
Constantly comparing yourself to friends (or even worse, celebrities) creates a standard to which you can’t possibly meet. You weigh real life against their filtered versions of reality—and end up dissatisfied.
3 Your phone is the first and last thing you see every day
How many people fall asleep after scrolling mindlessly through their phones, only to wake up and start again before even getting out of bed?
This happens all the time. Instead of unwinding the old fashioned way (warm baths, books, etc.) you bring your phone to bed, often at the expense of vital sleep. Then, when your phone’s alarm clock wakes you up, it’s in your hands again before you’re even fully alert.
It doesn’t take long for these before-bed and first-thing-in-the-morning behaviors to become deeply ingrained rituals. Because you’re most tired at those times, your ability to use willpower is limited.
It might not seem like a big deal. But imagine the consequences of a nightly half-hour sleep deficit compounding through the week. Reaching for the phone first thing also puts you into a reactive, instead of a proactive, state. You’re responding to emails or scrolling feeds instead of attacking priority tasks.
4 You can’t remember the last time you spent alone and unstimulated
Our phones give us effortless escape routes. Unpleasant sensation—boredom, anxiety, regret—vanish with only a click.
You probably make these escapes in social settings and when you’re alone. At a cocktail party where you don’t know anyone? Swipe. Waiting alone while you’re stuck at a red light? Text. Our brains get the quick burst of the hormone dopamine that they need to feel good at the moment. Yet that comes with procrastination, or avoiding the very real obstacles we need to address.
These constant drips of dopamine make use crave even more stimulation to achieve the same effect. Like a caffeine addict on their sixth cup of coffee, what used to be enough won’t even get us to baseline anymore.
Does this sound like you? Do you find yourself pulling out your phone and plunging into cyberspace . . . just because? Consider the last moment you spent alone with your thoughts, unstimulated by media or screens on a screen. Many of us can’t even remember the last time we felt bored.
5 You’re “nomophobic”
It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to gauge excessive phone use is to assess how you feel when you aren’t using one.
What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you realize you left your charger at home? Do you feel a rush of anxiety when you think about all the hours separating you and your next text? You might have “nomophobia.” This term, coined by Iowa State University researchers, is short for “no mobile phone phobia.” They developed it after a study of undergraduate students. The researchers identified four different dimensions of nomophobia when gauging students’ phone dependence.
They measured fear/anxiety about:
- Not being able to communicate
- Losing connectedness
- Not being able to access information
- Giving up convenience
If you want an objective assessment of your attachment to your smartphone, you can take the 20-question survey here.
The Iowa State research builds on a study from the University of Missouri, which found that separation from our phones can have measurable psychological and physiological effects, like poor cognitive performance.
How to spend less time on your phone If any of those warning signs sound painfully familiar, here’s your chance to make a change. Reclaim your precious time by giving the following tips a try:
1 Reorganize your applications
Reminding yourself day after day (or minute by minute, in some cases) to stop wasting time on the phone requires constant willpower. It sounds exhausting even thinking about it. And it’s an unsustainable approach to address habits that have become engrained. You’ll see greater benefits by changing your environment. So much of compulsive phone use happens without our awareness; changing the environment creates precious padding between the impulse to check your phone . . . and doing it.
Something as simple as reorganizing the way your favorite applications are displayed can have enormous benefits. Use your willpower once to clean up your phone’s home screen. It might be time to delete some of the time-wasters that aren’t serving you anymore. Or tuck them away on a different screen. Author Catherine Price recommends putting your distracting apps in a folder titled “evil” or “time-wasters”!
This change won’t eliminate all your inefficient phone use, but it at least makes you aware when it’s happening. Sometimes having to navigate that extra screen is enough to overcome the impulse.
If you’re using an app and website blocker like Freedom, consider putting its icon on the home screen as a reminder of your commitment to reclaim your time.
2 Replace reclaimed time productively
Wanting to cut down on excessive phone time is admirable—as long as you come up with a plan how to spend those new free minutes.
You might be shocked by how much more time you find yourself with. Without productive outlets, it’s easy to turn to other quick dopamine fixes like marathons on Netflix. To increase your chances of making this new lifestyle stick, consciously replace your old bad habits with new good ones.
What should you use this reclaimed time for? That’s up to you of course, but a good place to start is by trying some of those things that caught your eye when you were on your phone. Take the vicarious and make it real. Instead of liking Instagram pictures with fancy desserts, for instance, spend more time learning how to make your own. Dust off that guitar or running shoes. Or pick up the phone and reconnect with real-life friends you’ve been neglecting.
3 Banish your phone from the bedroom
Keeping your phone in the bedroom feeds some of the worst aspects of compulsive use. It also robs you of the chance to unwind or wake up naturally without digital stimulation.
It might be time to banish your phone from the bedroom. Gasp! I know, I know. It sounds like a radical suggestion. How could be possibly separate ourselves from our alarm clocks?
By going old school. You can pick up a reliable plug-in alarm clock for 20 or 30 bucks on Amazon. Leave your phone in another room for a physical—and mental—barrier between the most important parts of your day and those constant buzzes and pings.
If you can’t bring yourself to do this, as least keep your phone out of arm’s reach and across the room. The distance eases the temptation to lie in bed and waste time with mindless scrolling.
4 Set up recurring Freedom blocks for phone-free times
So much of our mindless phone use happens when we’re tired or overwhelmed. Beaten down by the day’s demands, we turn to our phones for an easy escape.
Software can help you overcome cravings during your weakest moments. If you know that you’re susceptible to stay up past your bedtime tooling around on your phone, for instance, set up a recurring block with Freedom to prevent access before you can start.
The cool thing about these recurring blocks: you can set them up once, and then they start running and repeating at your chosen times automatically. You only have to exercise a little willpower, and the tweaks to your environment remove distractions from then on.
5 Put it down during face-to-face interactions
Believe it or not, simply having our phones in sight reduces cognitive capacity. Part of our minds are always distracted staving off the notifications and distractions we could be engaging. This also interferes with social connections. To increase feelings of closeness, empathy, and connection, all it takes is putting your phone away. If a blanket “no phones during social settings” rule sounds too intimidating, start small. Give yourself one manageable rule to follow (like no phones allowed during family dinner) and apply it until it becomes second nature. You’ll probably find yourself enjoying the peace of mind so much that you’re eager to continue. Your turn The temptation to waste time on our phones isn’t going away. With faster networks, a growing base of users, and savvy app developers, it’s only going to become even more enticing.
But there’s good news. Understanding the severity of excessive phone use and applying strategies to minimize it will help you build habits that last for life. You’ll balance all the awesome benefits from having a supercomputer in your pocket without damaging real-life relationships or wasting time you wish you’d spent doing something else.
This week’s post is brought to you by Corey Pemberton, a freelance writer at Freedom. Freedom lets you block distracting websites and apps across all of your devices so you can focus on what matters most.