Breaking smartphone addiction
Things that “The Social Dilemma” missed in the documentary.
The Social Dilemma is a great documentary that should have been published a few years ago. It’s a one of a kind film that focuses on the down sides and business model of the big social media corporations. It touches on quite a few questions around the why and the what of the social media addiction, but does a poor job on helping us with countermeasures to fight back the addiction. The countermeasures coming from the designers themselves would have done wonders in convincing people to take some actions. This is my humble attempt to cover a few tips that helped me take control of my social media addiction and in turn helped me less reliant on my smartphone. I am not the inventor of these ideas. I have merely collected these facts from a few books, articles, podcasts and documentaries I have watched over the years. At the end I will try to list all the resources that helped me in this journey. This is going to be a long post, but worth your time. Please stick to it for your own benefIt’s.
There are 4 steps to break your smartphone addiction
- Step 1 : Acceptance
- Step 2 : Take charge of your phone
- Step 3 : Resist the algorithm : Take control of your social media feeds
- Step 4 : Fill in the voids
Step 1 : Acceptance
As cliched as it may sound, you cannot fix a problem unless you are mentally prepared to accept that you have one. In the case of social media addiction, it’s very tricky to know we have an addiction. The products have modified our behaviour so much that they have become mainstream and we don’t realise that they have become of part of us. There are a few things that have helped me get to the realisation that I had one too. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things you can check for in your own consumption pattern -
A. You are spending more than 4 hours on social media apps in a day
This is the biggest point that will help you gauge the extent of penetration of these products in our lives. If you are using Android phone, install an app similar to digital wellbeing which measures the time your mobile screen is turned on. Apple has built in functionality for this. You can use that. These apps will give you the list of apps and time you have spent on them. If you are spending 3-4+ hours a day on social media, It’s the biggest sign of your addiction. It’s difficult to comprehend that we spend so much time on these apps. The first time I saw my own consumption, I was genuinely shocked.
B. You tend to reach out to your phone to “check” what’s going on.
The time tracking apps will also tell you the number of unlocks you did on the phone and the average time between the unlocks. Don’t be surprised if it comes out to be a few minutes.
C. Every notification sound makes you reach out to your phone the very instant.
D. Your day starts by staring at your mobile phone.
E. You take your phone to bed and can’t sleep before scrolling through your feeds.
If you confirm to 3 / 5 above behaviour patterns, it’s highly likely you are addicted. If not, well, you are amongst a few who have managed to stay immune. You can skip the rest of the article. Acceptance is first step towards resolution.
Step 2 : Take charge of your phone
It’s time to make smartphone what it is supposed to be, a tool, rather than a behaviour changing weapon in the hands of advertisers. It should be looked at as a tool that you reach for when you really have a use. It is like reaching for a hammer when you want to hit a nail. The hammer doesn’t send you a push notification to pick it up and start hitting everything that comes your way. You should treat your phone the same way. But It’s easier said than done. Here are a few tricks that worked for me -
Disable all notifications
Yes, you heard that right. By default, all apps are allowed to pick our attention. The apps control and get our attention whenever they want. In the long term, they have the power to modify your behaviour. It should be otherway around. Whenever you install a new app, disable the all the push notifications. Allow notifications from only critical apps like your Credit Card/ Banking apps, Instant messages from your close group of people (Spouse, Family, Friends etc). For all other apps, batch the notifications. Check the notifications in a batch at time which is convinient for you. You can use applications like Daywise on Android. It will capture all notifications and deliver to you at fixed times. This is you taking control of your phone and in turn your attention. Remember your attention is a limited commodity.
Evaluate all your apps. Make your phone lean.
It’s time you carefully skim through all the apps that have been installed on your phones. Ask yourself a few of the below question on each of the apps and note your answers
Does this app help me achieve my personal / professional goals or aspirations?
Does this app make my life simpler on daily basis?
Does this app add any value to my life or gives me joy?
If the answer to even one question above is a no, remove the app from your mobile. You can always access the websites of the apps from your computer. This additional step will help resist the urge and you will only take it to computer if it’s truly important. If you ask these questions against each app, you will find that all your social media apps, news apps and sometimes even your email apps needs to go from your phone. I am using a lean mobile for more than a year, I have never been this productive and happier before. It’s very important that you stick to this lean phone for at least 30 days to feel it’s true effects.
Put a timer on your apps.
There could be a few cases where your job / business depends on the social media apps. In that case, the above doesn’t apply to you. The apps bring value to your life. For others, if you are still not convinced to remove the apps, the least you can do it put a limit on the time you spend on the apps. The sweet spot I have found is 20 minutes per app per day. 20 minutes is enough to catch up with the updates, felling not missed out and yet have a fair share of attention available for other value adding tasks.
Step 3 : Take control of your feeds
Social media feeds are controlled by algorithms that are designed to keep you hooked. They compel you to spend more and more time on it. What if you find a way to be not controlled by these feeds? There is a small tweak to achieve it. Don’t click on any recommendations given by the algorithm. It’s very difficult but it’s the way going forward. The other more doable way is to declutter your social media feeds. This applies to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and almost all other platforms. How to declutter the feed?
Here are a few tips that worked for me -
Unfollow all media outlets, newspapers, influencers (including celebrities).
Get your new dose weekly via magazines or radio news. You are much better if you block out these news anyways. They are no less than toxic these days.
Unfollow / Unfriend / Block from feed people that aren’t part of you inner circle.
Believe me, it’s does no good for you to know that a guy/gal you met once in college has been to Bali for honeymoon or has purchased a new car or has had 10 kids. That's too much information and our brain is not designed to process that amount of data on a daily basis. It will only bring a sense of anxiety in your life. The people you consider close to you or the people that helps you achieve your goals should get a place on your feed and in turn your attention. Its your feed, you should choose who gets a place on it.
Follow accounts / People that inspire you
Anything that can bring purpose in your social media feeds is okay to have. You can follow your favourite author, technologist, sportsperson. But take all the posts with a pinch of salt. Many post have subtle advertisements hidden in them.
Step 4 : Fill in the void
If you follow above steps closely, you will reclaim quite some time for yourself. You would be left puzzled and won’t know what to do with it. If this happens, there is a fair chance you will go back to the apps. To make sure it doesn’t happen, you need to find something that you can do easily that bring you joy. It could be reading, learning to play an instrument, writing, exercise etc. The activity replacing your social media time should feel fulfilling and enjoyable. If not, there is high chance to fall back into the same loop. Don’t start the activity unless you have identified what you are gonna do. It’s really important.
This is an attempt to share what worked for me. Please take it with a pinch of salt and some bias intertwined into the suggestions. See what works for you and tweak it as you need. For example, if you are a business owner who is always on phone to call, your usage will be a lot, but that usage bring value to you. It’s all about your principles and values. Hope this helps. Suggestions are welcome.