It’s incredible how often we reach for our phones during the day. 15 years ago, the smartphone was an item reserved for the mavericks and explorers of technology. Today, it’s an indispensable part of everyone’s lives. Well, almost everyone, if you don’t count the people I’ve mentioned at the end of this article.
Specifically, the time we spend on our phones is what gives me pause. The more I think about this the more I am made aware of just how much time is squandered in pursuit of the absolutely trivial and banal. Think about it. Your daily lives revolve around updates from people online. This includes who read which book, what someone made for breakfast, and what that influencer said about the trending topic in today’s news.
In contrast, we’ve sacrificed the joy of deep work, deliberate practice, and sticking with any job for longer than 5 minutes. What an absolute travesty. Why are we doing this to ourselves? What earthly purpose is going to be served by how quickly you ‘like’ someone’s post or how swiftly you respond to an email?
Almost exactly 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post titled How to Declutter your Smartphone. It has the standard template of teaching people how to remove apps, use inbuilt or downloaded timers, and various other tips to be more in control of their phones. But there was something missing, something deeper, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Until I had a couple of epiphanies last week. The first epiphany was to do with the number of hours of sleep I was getting each night. The second epiphany was as follows:
“The more I use my smartphone, the dumber I feel.”
Think about that for one second. Nobody has changed the world by staring at their phones. People change the world (or themselves) by going out there and living life in all its glory.
So, now that we know how much our smartphones impinge on our lives, what can we do to slowly extricate ourselves from the lure of these always-within-reach, addictive, hand-held super devices?
Use the phone the way it was meant to be used
Your phone has to serve two basic purposes – to allow people to speak to one another or communicate via a text message. It’s rather strange that we use it for everything else these days. In fact, very rarely do people actually call anymore, have you noticed? You usually text someone in advance to find out if they are free to talk. I admit I do this myself because I don’t want to ‘disturb’ the other person.
When did talk become such a thing to worry about? What’s the worst that could happen? The person on the other end could be busy and not answer your call. That’s fine. We’re in an age of missed calls. That means people will know that you tried calling them.
And even if they don’t respond, that’s fine. Think about an era (if you can) when there were no smartphones and no answering machines. The phone would ring a few times and then fall silent. With no Caller ID, you’d have no idea who was calling. If you’d stepped out of the house and missed a call on your landline, you’d be blissfully unaware of it too.
Guess what – Life went on and nothing earth-shattering happened.
Can you do this with a smartphone though? Turns out you can. And it’s simpler than you think. Start treating your smartphone as a phone instead of a supercomputer. Assign it a place in your home – like a charging station – and leave it there. Don’t carry it around with you all the time.
The second part of using your phone the way it was meant to be used – is communication. Obviously, this is apart from phone calls, but let’s not forget that the phone today is a very useful tool to send text messages, voice messages, and of course, video or audio files to your loved ones.
The only notifications you should keep turned on for your device are phone calls and text messages. Everything else can wait. Because, if it’s urgent, people will call you. Nobody expects you to be on your phone, scanning texts, in case of a fire in the building. Someone will bang on the door and let you know or you know, the fire alarm would go off.
Stop assuming that every single thing needs an instant response or a speedy acknowledgement. In 99 cases out of 100, it’s never that urgent. We’ve just been programmed to believe that because of our phones. Time to take back your attention and put it where it really matters – in your life.
When you need to check something right away, resist the impulse
Sounds rather basic, doesn’t it? But it’s actually the easiest way to stop relying on your phone for every itch and boredom trigger.
How often have you quickly looked up something on your phone, especially in the middle of a movie or a book? There’s that almost primal instinct or need to know something the second it strikes you. The question though, to ask yourself is this: Is it actually that primal? Turns out that it could be.
“In most psychological models, humans are believed to act upon the “pleasure principle.” The pleasure principle is basically the driving force that compels human beings to gratify their needs, wants, and urges. These needs, wants, and urges can be as basic as the need to breathe, eat, or drink. But they can be as complex as the “need” for an iPhone 6 or some other cool new product.”
The problem is that your smartphone satisfies this primal urge almost reflexively. It rarely leaves room for delayed gratification. But delayed gratification is useful in more ways than one. In the short term, pleasure will win, but in the long term, delaying pleasure will yield rich dividends. The idea is that you delay this pleasure in favor of a more satisfying and fulfilling goal.
For instance, watching TV or checking your social media feeds are examples of the pleasure-seeking principle. Reading a book or studying for a test are examples of long-term gains.
When you leave the phone in a fixed location (as described earlier), your urge to instantly check something is greatly minimized. You train your mind to wait for a while before seeking out easy answers. In many cases, you fall back on your long-term memory and wait for the idea to emerge naturally.
Using the smartphone as a music player or a camera? Sure; make one small change
I hear you. It’s convenient when one device performs the function of many. In that respect, it seems criminal to spend money on different devices just to ensure you don’t pick up your phone. That’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
So, no, I won’t recommend that you stop using your phone as a music player, podcast guide, or a handy, high-resolution camera. Instead, I’d like you to try just one thing specifically when it comes to using these features.
Turn off the internet. That’s it. Just turn off the Wi-Fi or mobile data.
- When using the audio features of your phone, download the music/podcast prior to listening and resist the urge to turn it back on the second you’re done. Savour the music or the episode you’ve just listened to and try to remember the key points from the podcast or the emotional energy that flowed through you while you heard the music.
- When using the camera on your phone, again, do it without being connected to the internet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures, especially when you’re out travelling or spending time with friends and family. Many of our best memories from before smartphones were caught on film.
But once you do it, resist the urge to instantly post it online. Stay with the moment and relish the joy that comes with capturing those joys on film – digital or otherwise.
Limit the number of websites you follow to consume content
I’ve realized, belatedly, that a lot of content on the internet is designed to reel you in with fancy headlines. Yet, the actual article leaves much to be desired. It’s either incomplete or doesn’t really offer a solution to what you’re facing.
Instead, find websites, blogs and opinion sites that deliver on their promise. You’d know this after sifting through a ton of content. Or, to save you time, here’s a list of websites that I’ve compiled to follow. These range across a breadth of topics, so obviously pick and choose what makes sense to you. You can either subscribe to their newsletter (if they have one) or set up an RSS feed via Feedly or a similar service.
Antimaximalist by Eric Owens
Farnam Street by Shane Parrish
Zen Habits by Leo Babauta ( My personal favourite in terms of site layout – clean, minimal, uncluttered)
After you’ve found the articles you enjoy, bookmark them to a distraction-free reading site such as Pocket. I can guarantee that if you just stuck to these writers and a few more of your own personal favourites, you’d have enough useful content to keep you occupied for a decade or more.
Fair warning: I barely read the news the minute it breaks. I find that news (especially in the digital, online format) can be highly triggering, rarely fact-checked, extremely knee-jerk in nature, and usually alarmist. I like to wait till the next morning and get my news from reliable sources, preferably in the form of news and not opinion. Stepping away from social media (I’m looking at you, Twitter) helped me tremendously in this regard.
However, that’s not all I want you to do when it comes to simplifying your life.
Cook or Bake, Sew, Paint, Crochet, Grow Vegetables, Build something – Be a Maker
I’ve learnt that the brain is highly adaptable especially when you give it the right tools. It’s a concept called Neuroplasticity. Once I started studying books and articles on the effects of smartphones on the brain and working memory, I consciously started moving away from using my phone on instinct. I now fill my days with books, long walks, cooking new recipes, and am actively exploring ways that I can be a conscious maker instead of just a passive consumer.
The sheer joy of making something – anything – is a way for our brains to feel active and alive. Smartphones take that away to an alarming degree. Think of the number of times you have your nose buried in an Instagram feed or a Twitter exchange and ask yourself what you actually gained from that experience.
Now picture making bread from scratch, watching paint take shape on a canvas or a clay pot that you moulded with your hands on a potter’s wheel. Tell me the feeling that these activities evoke in your mind and brain. You get the picture.
*Related Reading: Make Things With Your Hands
Read More Books
Since 2020, one of the joys I’ve re-discovered from my childhood has been that of undiluted, uninterrupted reading. The sheer happiness of losing myself in a book for hours together is something I believed I’d lost forever thanks to the pincer grip of technology on my brain.
In just the past week alone, thanks to following one simple tip of using my phone for less than an hour a day, I’ve managed to read 5 books cover to cover. This whole week, I also watched only about 2 hours of TV in total. Reading has become such an indispensable part of my day that I don’t feel drawn to the TV anymore. Bye-bye, binge-watching a series!
Books are better than articles and blog posts (including this one) because they are distraction-free, by default. A book requires that you bring all your senses into play and focus on the words on the page. If you find your mind wandering or find that you’re unable to focus on more than a page at a time, identify if your phone is close by. It probably is. Move to another room and try again.
This will take time though because you need to retrain your brain to focus; the good news is that you still have the capacity to do it, so don’t give up.
For more tips, this is a good article: How to Focus on Reading – 5 Ways to Retrain Your Brain
I don’t think technology is a bad thing, to be very clear. I love that digital globalization has helped bring so many people together, allowed us to run our businesses online, to book cabs or make payments without anxiety and of course, made education a fairly seamless experience in just the last 2 years alone.
However, there’s a fine line between making life simpler and making our lives lazier. It’s up to us to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of convenience way too often. Because our brains are the supercomputers that we always carry with us. Let’s give it a chance over the ones we carry in our pockets.
*If the idea of going completely off the grid intrigues you, you would be fascinated to read these two pieces from people who’ve taken their lives offline.