My name is Dan and I am a phoneaholic. Chances are, you also have an unhealthy dependency. Bet you’ll feel the urge to check social media or email even while reading this column. I’ll try not to take it personally.
The average person touches their phone 2617 times a day, according to a 2016 study. For the heaviest 10 per cent of users (guilty, y’honour), it’s 5427 touches a day.
Over a third of us check our phones within five minutes of waking up (for many people it is the very thing that rouses us in the first place). And 79 per cent scroll in the hour before sleep.
We panic if we mislay our phone, feel anxious if the battery drains, and some of us experience those phantom vibrations in our pockets when the phone is not even there.
The long-range studies of how always-on technology impacts health are still in their infancy but the early results don’t look good. Smartphones have been linked to rising insomnia, stress, burnout, depression, narcissism, loneliness and self-harm.
The mental health of ‘screenagers’ is particularly concerning: rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.
Only a few years ago, a smartphone was a signifier of affluence and success. Now unplugging is the new luxury. Before phones, people didn’t check work email around the clock, at weekends, on holiday. We used to daydream, to read books, we had time for hobbies. Many of us have our most creative ideas in the shower. Why? Because it’s just about the only time in the day when idle thoughts can come and go.
I rely on my iPhone for work as many of us do (and I use that as an excuse, as many of us do). But lately my phone use has got out of hand. My wife constantly calls it out. “You’re a zombie. I can’t talk to you. The kids miss you.”
I’ll catch myself mindlessly scrolling pictures of other people’s children instead of playing with my own. Like the in-denial smoker who tries to hide his habit, I’ll guiltily pocket my phone whenever my wife comes near, or sneak off to the bathroom.
It was last month, when I came perilously close to crashing the car, while checking Instagram, that I finally decided enough was enough. Time to take back control.
Following the advice in tech-spert Cal Newport’s recently released and widely recommended book, Digital Minimalism, I’m currently mid-way through a 30-day phone detox. The idea is to take a strict 30-day break from any technology you deem ‘optional’; use all the extra time and quiet you now have to figure out what really matters to you; then at the end, reintroduce only technology that directly supports something you value. It’s like the Whole30 diet meets Marie Kondo’s decluttering method.
It’s been very tough to stick to it – I have a twitchy ‘hit refresh’ reflex – but my wife is helping. We’ve imposed a rule of no phones at the meal table, even when eating alone. Our bedroom is a screen-free zone. The phones charge face-down in the kitchen from 9pm and I have bought an old-fashioned alarm clock for the bedside table.
I’ve dispensed with my Apple ‘Watch’ – a modern-day manacle – in favour of an analogue watch (vintage Omega, since you ask) so I don’t need my phone to check the time. I’ve switched off pretty much all alerts (go to Settings > Notifications) and keep the phone in airplane mode when I need to concentrate – because, according to research, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to one’s original task following an interruption.
To make the screen less distracting, I’ve made the display greyscale. At work, I keep my phone out of sight in my bag rather than in my pocket or on the desk.
I try to have one phone-free day each weekend. I have moved email, messaging and social media off the home screen and have deleted dozens of apps – though I have installed one called ‘Moment’ which monitors my phone use to keep me honest.
Two weeks in, I’ve gone from an average of 621 notifications per day – that’s a lot of interruptions – to 67 and my daily screen time has plummeted from 5 hours 31 minutes to 1 hour 55 minutes – saving a massive 25 hours per week. Mind blown.
I’m not sure yet if I can be this strict long term but I am weaning myself off the mindless scroll. It’s amazing to feel less distracted and anxious.
I’m more creative and productive at work. I’m running more often and have begun leaving the office in time to have dinner with the family. I’m reading more books – and I’ve even begun to come up with ideas for writing one of my own. And if you’ve made it this far without checking your phone, maybe there’s hope for you, too.