How to take charge of smartphone habits


It’s rare to go to a restaurant without seeing people using their smartphones these days. We seem to take them everywhere — to the beach, the movie theatre, and yes, to the bathroom.

But guess what? Recent research has found the mere presence of our phones can have a significantly negative impact on our experiences.

Smartphones ruin dinner

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found smartphones and restaurants don’t mix. No surprise, you might think — it’s annoying to dine with someone who is constantly playing with their phone. But where this research was different was it looked at the impact on the phone user rather than their dining companions.

Sending 300 people out to dinner with their friends and family, researchers asked half of the study participants to put their phones away, and the other half to leave them out. Following dinner, all were surveyed about how they felt during the meal. Those who left their phones out reported being more distracted and enjoying the experience less. Surprisingly, they also reported feeling more bored.

The researchers also studied another 100 people over the course of a week, surveying them five times a day to record how they were feeling at the time and what they had been doing for the last 15 minutes. Here again they found people enjoyed social interactions less when they were using their phones.

Smartphones ruin concentration

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Trent also got in on the smartphone act. In this case they were interested in how smartphones affected concentration. Setting 95 people a concentration task, some were asked to leave their phone in their pocket, others to place it on the desk, while some had their phone locked in a drawer and others had their phones removed from the room entirely.

The study found that the leaving the phone on the desk resulted in the lowest performance. Performance on the task was greatest when the phone was in another room. In the words of the researchers, “absence rather than presence improves concentration”.

Taking charge of smartphone habits

For all their advantages, clearly there is a pernicious side to smartphones as well. They take us away from the moment and distract us with the (false) promise of undiscovered delights.

If you are interested in interrupting a smartphone habit, here are some tips using the habit breaking process outlined in my book, The How of Habits. To help I thought I’d work through my own bad phone habit: reaching for it throughout my workday when I really shouldn’t (i.e. playing with my phone).

Part 1. Understand why you use your phone the way you do

The anatomy of a habit includes its trigger (what sparks you to do it), the routine (what you actually do), and its reward (the payoff that keeps you coming back for more). Let’s work through each element to get a handle on our behaviour.

  1. Triggers (the when)

Identify what reminds you to use your phone unnecessarily by completing this statement: “I find myself reaching for my phone when…”

For example: “I find myself reaching for my phone when I have hit a point in my work that requires deep thinking”.

  1. Routine (the what)

Next write down the routine you follow so you can identify points to make it more difficult. List down what you do, step by step.

For example, first I reach for my phone that is within arm’s reach and in my line of sight. 

Then I unlock my phone.

And then I click on emails.

And then I refresh the page and see if anything is interesting.

And then I click on LinkedIn.

And then check Twitter.

Finally I put the phone down, maybe 5-15 minutes later.

  1. Reward (the why)

Reward is the payoff you get from the behaviour, and is definitely the most difficult to change. Here we want to identify why you do what you do by answering: “When I use my smartphone I feel…”

For example, when I use my smartphone I feel alleviated from the pressure of having to think. I am receiving input rather than having to generate output so it feels relaxing.

Part 2. Break the habit by targeting its anatomy

When breaking a habit it is easiest to start with the trigger, then the routine, and if all else fails, the reward.

  • Remove the trigger

You can either stop the trigger from happening or remove yourself from the trigger. If my trigger is an email or social media alert, for example, I can stop it from happening by switching the alerts off.

In my case, the trigger is an emotional one when I hit a wall in my thinking. That’s going to be hard to stop, so I am better moving on to the next strategy.

  1. Interrupt the routine

Making the behaviour more difficult is a good way to reduce the likelihood of it occurring. That means adapting the physical or social environment so it is more difficult (e.g. not bringing your phone to a restaurant or having your phone emit a loud noise every time you unlock it to remind you of your actions) and/or swapping the routine for something else.

For me that means leaving my phone on a bookshelf that is out of arm’s reach. If I want to access my phone it means getting up and moving to it, by which time the impulse is likely to have subsided.

It also means creating a new routine when I hit the inevitable wall, such as reaching for a glass of water instead of my phone.

  • Rewire the reward

Rewiring the reward means making the behaviour as unpalatable as possible. Like bitter tasting nail polish for nail biters, rewiring the reward means changing the association from a positive to a negative. For example, if you pick up your phone you get a small electrical shock — not realistic but you get the idea! It also means looking for an alternative way to feel rewarded.

For example, I could instead feel the reward of alleviating thinking pressure by looking out the window or sipping a glass of water. I could remove the reward by having only difficult, task-based apps on my phone that will be very unappealing when I am looking for light relief.

Smartphone habits more generally

Modifying your own behaviour is one part of the puzzle, but you may also want to change the behaviour of those around you. Kids addicted to screens? Colleagues tapping away through staff meetings? The fastest way is to change the environment.

Have Wi-Fi-free rooms, collect all devices before dinners/meetings, or provide charging points that are away from desks or bedrooms and require devices to have passcodes (they are annoying and slow impulse usage down). If you have other suggestions, let me know.

NOW READ: The problem at the heart of changing habits


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