with Hannah Garland

  • Hannah Garland

E15: Don't let your phone rule your life

This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.

Today's podcast, "Don't let your phone rule your life," is inspired by one of my New Year's resolutions (er..."habit") that I've actually been successful at keeping! I've been reducing my screen time and, with trial and error, have found tactics that have really helped. It feels so freeing to not be tied to my phone all the time! I can focus better on tasks and feel more present when I'm my son.

Do you carry your phone with you everywhere? Phones can be helpful and necessary but many of us are addicted to them, treating them more like security blankets than the tools that they are. We let them interrupt us constantly and take us away from our priorities. Today we will discuss how to break the screen addiction so we can bring focus back to what matters most to us.

In today’s episode:

Why phones are so disruptive

Set boundaries with your phone

Behavioral shifts to break the phone addiction

How to balance necessary screen time

Hello, everyone!

If you’re like most people, your smartphone is the first thing you check in the morning and the last thing you look at before you go to sleep. Maybe it’s a TV, but it’s likely your phone. Most adults spend 3.5 hours a day on the internet on their phones and check them 58 times a day. Can you even account for what you do during those 3.5 hours on your phone or what caused you to check your phone 58 times today? Phones are things we mindlessly use and allow to fill our time and minds. We take them everywhere with us, keep our hands on them when we aren’t using them, and use them on the toilet because we can’t make it 3 minutes without them. Productivity drops as we let our phones interrupt us all day long with random notifications. We lose focus on what matters - like our family - every time we let a notification interrupt time that we are supposed to be spending with other people or doing something important. It takes an immense amount of willpower to delay responding when you see that notification icon staring at you. That’s because most of us are addicted to our phones.

Today’s podcast is intended to help you reduce your screen time, if you want to. You don’t have to change, but I’ll attempt to convince you that you should if you’re anything like the average adult in America.

Now, I know that screens aren’t all bad. We use phones for work, to stay connected with loved ones, and to use GPS when we’re lost. Computers are necessary and helpful, especially now with so many adults working from home and kids schooling online. But the cumulative screen time between necessary and unnecessary tasks is growing and has consequences. Phones can be a huge distraction from more important things and can even gain a foothold in our lives when we let them consume our brains and provide us with constant stimulation. We also suffer both physically and mentally from everything from posture problems and eye strain to trouble sleeping and weight gain from being more sedentary looking at screens all day.

However, there are ways to use your phone without letting it control you, your mind, and your time. I don't like how dependent I have become on my phone in the past few years. I know I can get to a place where I use my phone briefly but then put it away when I don't need it. I’ve actively been working on this and will share some techniques that have worked for me today.

Ever since I started working to break this habit, I've become so aware of how often I pick up my phone. It's embarrassing because it happens almost without my consent, you know? It’s like the phone calls to me and I'll just pick it up and open Facebook or check email before I even realize what I've done.

How often do you pick up your phone to check random things or notifications that pop up? Start to take notice and ask yourself if that’s how you want to live your life - if that’s the example you want to set for your children. You alone have the power to take charge of your time and your days and make sure your phone doesn't control you. It's about choosing to be different and setting boundaries with yourself and with others. Don’t mindlessly use your phone. Live intentionally and control when you use it. Don’t allow other people or your phone to take time away from your family or to steal your focus. Just because someone texted you doesn't mean you owe them a response right away or at all. It’s ok to respond later. Just because strangers commented on Instagram doesn't mean you have to read the comments right away. They’ll still be there later. Don’t let them distract you from what matters. Every second you spend on your phone takes away time from what matters - like your family or maybe an important task you’re trying to focus on. Every time you let a notification interrupt you, even for a brief moment, you give it priority. Even if you don't check it...just hearing it or seeing it will make your mind drift away from being present and focusing. How many tasks go interrupted every day because of your phone and how much more productive could you be if you set your phone aside? So set a boundary with your phone and with how you interact with others through it. Only you can draw a line and keep it there in order to protect your time, your mind, and your family.

As I said earlier, I’ve actively been trying to reduce my screen time this year. It’s kind of a resolution, though I’m choosing to call it a habit. Why am I working to break this phone habit? I have several reasons or “Whys” and I’ll go through a few.

First of all, I am scared by the notion that I could be addicted to anything. I am not comfortable with the idea that something has power over me and I know that, when I let my phone interrupt me all day and take focus away from my child or my work, then I’m letting it control me. As a Christian, I believe that, though many things are good, they can become bad if we let them have power over us. That’s why drinking isn’t forbidden in the bible, but drunkenness is. Paul said twice in slightly different ways in 1 Corinthians that “All things are permitted for me, but not all things are of benefit. All things are permitted for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” I don’t want my phone to be the master of me. It’s not wrong for me to use it, but I have to be in control over my use of it. So when I find myself mindlessly grabbing my phone and wasting time without even realizing it, or when I see a notification and can’t resist checking it, I am scared of the notion that I could be letting my phone be my master.

The second reason I want to reduce my phone time is because I want to set an example for my child. I don’t want my child to be addicted to screens. I don’t want him to find a tablet more exciting than the outdoors or a TV more interesting than interacting with other people. People are often scared that their kids will become addicted to screens. Well, look at what the adults are doing. Is the average child’s primary example an adult who is always on their phone? I want to set a different example.

Moreover, I don’t want him to ever think that I value my phone more than I value him. If he sees me on the phone all the time, even when I should be interacting with him, then he might get the idea that I either care more about the phone or that it’s ok to be distracted by screens when you’re with other people. I personally don’t think it’s ok. I think it’s impolite and rude and I don’t want to raise my kids that way. Now I know I’ll have to find a balance because there are educational things on tablets and much of education these days exists on screens. I understand that. I imagine I’ll have to employ the same techniques with kids as I’ll prescribe later for adults who have to work on screens. There are ways to bring balance to your screen use so you aren’t constantly glued to one and we’ll get to that later.

Finally, I want to reduce my screen time for health reasons. Usually, when I’m on my phone or my laptop, I’m hunched over or looking down and my eyes are straining (everyone’s are, even if they don’t realize it). When I’m watching TV, I’m often slouching or laying down because I want to be comfortable. I’m not good about being vigilant about my posture while using these devices. I never have been.

Additionally, I find that screen time begets screen time. Here’s what I mean. When I used to spend all day on my computer for work, I felt drained and tired despite doing very little all day. There is something fatiguing and demotivating about screen time. I was even more likely to zone out and watch TV or scroll on social media when work was over because I felt like I didn’t have energy to exercise or get outside. It’s like screen time leaves a fog on my mind and I have no willpower left to do non-digital things. On the flip side, I find that productive non-screen activities and time spent in nature reduced my desire to be on my phone. When I reduce my screen time, I’m more likely to be active and therefore, to do things that are beneficial for my health.

All this to say that...I don’t have this all figured out yet but I feel like I have my “whys” figured out, which is key to making long-term habit changes. If you attempt to correct a behavior, like phone use, without a solid understanding of why and what your vision is, you are likely to fail. Since I have a clear vision, I can create a plan to achieve it. Since I started 6 weeks ago, I have made baby steps and have seen progress. I know I’ll succeed in the end because I know how to build habits. But for now, you all are along for the ride with me. For a deeper discussion on habits, listen to my New Year’s Eve podcast called “How to build habits that last.”

I encourage you to figure out your “whys” and then we will dive into tactics and techniques you could use to limit your screen time. It’s not as easy as just putting your phone away or installing the right app. If it were, you would have done it by now.

There are many reasons why you might want to limit screen time. You could avoid the stress of news and social media in a time where many headlines and posts are divisive and comments are argumentative. You could declutter your life - reduce the busyness and loss of productivity that comes from constant phone interruptions. You could end screen dependency or addiction or stop it before it starts. Maybe you want to set an example for your children and avoid the childhood obesity that is tied with screen time and a sedentary lifestyle. Finally, and arguably most importantly, you could focus more on your family by not letting a device interrupt you all day long.

I originally thought that succeeding in breaking the phone addiction could be possible if I had the right app installed. There are apps that help reduce screen time for you and for your family. They’ll lock your screen after a certain period of time, or encourage you to take meditation breaks. I think they could work for a lot of people. But I have personally found that, unless I have an internal drive and reason to change (and understand my “whys”), then apps telling me to change will not make me change. Here is an example of why that isn’t useful motivation for change. If I needed to lose weight but I was addicted to food so it was really hard and a doctor told me “You should lose weight. Try putting a lock on your fridge.” How quickly do you think it would take me to remove the lock from the fridge or just order delivery? If I’m addicted, I’ll do it pretty freaking quickly. External motivation is not a strong driver for change. So, if I’m addicted to my phone and am using it when it locks up because an app tells me I’m done with my phone...I’ll just disable the app! So the behavior shifts I’m sharing today go beyond relying on external motivation. I will be sharing what is working for me to get to the root of the issue and to break that addiction to the phone.

Because phones are such an addiction, seeing them and carrying them around with you can make the temptation to interact with them much stronger. Recently I realized that it was weird how my phone always went with me everywhere. And how, even when I wasn’t using it, I was fidgeting with it. It’s not a security blanket and having it constantly near me will only increase my phone addiction! This is why I’ve chosen to give my phone a designated place in my house. Simply not having it on me or within eyesight makes it so much easier to ignore it and focus on what matters to me. I recommend you give your phone a resting place and make sure that resting place isn’t in the kitchen or wherever you spend most of your time. I like to leave mine in my charger. Another great place might be your purse. Wherever you put it, remember that the philosophy “out of sight, out of mind” works wonders. Even having it in your pocket is too much temptation. I was just feeding my child for 15 minutes and my phone was in my pocket. So I wasn’t looking at it, but I knew it was there. And I probably had the urge to check it 3 or 4 times while feeding Calvin. There was nothing important happening on my phone. I was mid-text convo with a few friends, and that’s it. The conversations could wait. But simply knowing it was there increased my temptation. However, when it’s in the other room, I find that I start to forget about it and can truly focus on other things. So consider where you can put it where, you’ll hear it if it rings, but you won’t see it or be near enough to be distracted by it all day. Of course, sometimes your phone comes with you - that’s just life - but most of the time, try to leave it in its designated location.

Another thing I’ve done is to shut off notifications - ALL notifications. This includes work apps! When I used to work, I did not have email or chat clients installed on my phone because there were no real emergencies after work hours and, during work, I was on my laptop. Everyone knew that, if they really needed me after hours, they could call. Though they rarely did. In your personal life, the same philosophy can apply. So here are my phone settings specifically. Here’s what’s worked for me. I have shut off all notifications, period. That includes text, social media, and email. I did this slowly. First I uninstalled my social apps and shut off chat notifications. That helped a TON but I still found myself getting distracted. So, just this week, I shut off text and email, too. If there was a real emergency, someone could call and my phone would still ring. You can set your phone to ring or vibrate but shut off all other apps’ notifications. The reason to shut off notifications instead of just putting them on silent is simple. If you are near your phone when you get a notification, even if it doesn’t make a sound, you’ll see it. And seeing it will distract you. You’ll have to invest mental energy in resisting the temptation to check it. So right now, if I look at the locked screen of my phone, all I see is the time and the photo of my cat in the background. It’s awesome. And only if I opened my phone would I see what notifications I’ve missed.

Which brings me to the next point. You can set times that you check apps and messages. This is what I talked about earlier - you don’t owe anyone an immediate response. Just because someone messaged you doesn’t mean they have a right to demand that you respond right away and you have the right to set a boundary and focus on your family or your business or whatever until you have free time to check your phone. If you set times that you check, then you give yourself freedom to do what you need to do and focus until then, knowing that at 2pm or during naptime or whatever, you’ll get to being social on your phone. It’s a boundary for you and for others to give priority to what you need to focus on and to let your phone stay on the backburner - where it belongs - in the meantime. You can set your phone to “do not disturb” or even airplane mode if you really need to be head down and focusing.

Or I will give myself little productivity goals like, “I can check my phone after I finish this week’s podcast or after I fold the laundry.” That way I give myself the freedom to complete some task totally uninterrupted. I do the same thing with TV - I tell myself I can watch it after I’m done with X activity. The exception is exercise. I watch TV when I exercise because it motivates me to stay on the bike longer.

Another game changer for me was phone-free time. I highly recommend that you give yourself regularly scheduled phone-free time each day for at least an hour. This could be a daily walk outside, dinner time, right before bed, or first thing in the morning. We already don’t use our phones during dinner in our family and I have also chosen to not look at my phone when I wake up because I feel like it’s symbolic of my priorities. The phone isn’t bad but if I give it the first fruits of my day, then I am demonstrating that it is my master, and not the other way around. My goal each day is to not check it for one hour after I wake, other than to check the time because I don’t have any clocks in my house. I feel like, when I pick it up first thing, I’m demonstrating that it’s more important to me than anything else. More important than my kid, than eating, than reading the bible, than having coffee with my husband, and more important than just laying there and taking a second to think about my day and to set priorities. If I fill my brain with other junk the second I wake up and prioritize the people who messaged me or the news or the strangers who liked a photo, then I’m not giving myself a chance to set my intentions for the day. If you typically use your phone to write down your tasks for the day, try using a pen and paper instead. I always keep a notepad next to my bed for ideas. Worst case scenario, you write them down long hand and then transfer them to your phone later.

Now, when you do have your phone open and are seeing your notifications, headlines, and social media, it can be easy to let a lot of time slip by. You can mediate this with a timer. Set a timer or alarm for yourself of, say, 15 minutes. I don’t know if my friends have noticed but, lately I’ve disappeared from text conversations mid-stream. That’s because my time is up and I put my phone down to come back to it later. Your real friends will still love you if you don’t text them constantly and you don’t owe anyone immediate responses to anything. It’s my choice to prioritize things other than my phone.

Ok, now for those of you who have to work on a computer all day or have kids who homeschool at a computer all day. These things are facts of life, they’re unavoidable, and I totally understand the dilemma of needing technology but also needing to set boundaries with it. Though you might have to be on a computer much of the day, there are ways to manage your interactions so that you don’t get screen fatigue. If I stare at a screen 100% of my day, especially if I stay in the same position, in the same room, and remain sedentary, I become very unmotivated to do anything else and I’ll just look at my phone when I have breaks in work. Screen time begets screen time. So, here are some ways to mix it up and keep screen fatigue at bay for both you and your kids.

Take calls standing, walking, or pacing instead of sitting in front of your laptop when you can. Unless you are presenting something specific, you are allowed to walk. I just read about a woman who gets 23,000 steps in a day just pacing her living room during work meetings. I used to shut off my video and go walk around my house. Most companies allow you to turn your video off sometimes. You’re in the privacy of your home, you don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you might not want to video it for your colleagues 24/7. Take the call on your phone and do what works for you - pace your living room, take a lap around your yard, or go on a real walk around the neighborhood if you can. The most important thing is that you move. If you have to use video, use it walking. Seriously. You can put on a headset, set your laptop on your coffee table, and pace. Studies show that people are actually more alert and creative when they are walking so, if you think about it, you’re helping your career!

For you or your kids, take regular activity breaks. Every hour, or after every class, you have to move for 5 minutes. Kids can run around the house outside 3 times or do jumping jacks or take time to turn on 1 song and do a dance party in the living room. Just move for 5 minutes every hour. I used to do this when I was in the office. I could easily go all day not seeing the sun or not going outside so I would intentionally get out of my chair, take one lap around the building, and then come back and sit down. The movement, the fresh air, and the light were so stimulating and actually made me more productive.

On a similar note. Nature is the antidote to screen fatigue and therefore, screen addiction. When I was working, I went on a run daily during my lunch hour, no matter the weather. The time outdoors and the activity was a huge midday reset that my brain needed to stay alert and productive the rest of the day. Make intentional “outdoors time” every day for you and for your kids. Yes, EVERY day. If your kids are stuck at home, then they aren’t getting a recess or PE. So it’s up to you to create this structure. Not only are you taking them away from screens, but you are decreasing the chance of obesity, and teaching them to have fun without digital stimulation. I recommend going outside even if you live where I do. We have wet, dark winters. Even when it’s not that cold, it’s often not very nice outside. But a little rain never hurt anyone and it’s not healthy to stay inside for months. As the Norwegians often say, “There is no such thing as bad weather. There are only bad clothes.” I was reading about how Norwegians suffer less from SAD (or seasonal affective disorder), which is a depressive disorder that can come on during the darker seasons, despite the fact that they live in a dark country with long winters. They combat it with daily outdoor time, and ascribe to the idea that you should go outside no matter the weather simply because it is good for you and your health matters more than your comfort. So put on your rain jacket, grab an umbrella, and go outside. If it’s dark - and it’s often dark here - put headlamps on. Here’s the kicker - either don’t bring your phone at all or, if you must, put it on silent and put it in a backpack or someplace where you can’t easily grab it. Don’t cradle it or hold it in your pocket - remember, it’s not a security blanket, it’s a tool. Then, just walk. Without media, without distractions. Just be in nature every day. Even a few minutes of this will be so good and centering for your mind.

What is one thing you can start to put into practice today to ensure that you don’t let your phone control you or take priority over what matters? Can you have an hour of phone-free time each day or disable your notifications? The biggest game changer for me was the physical location of my phone. Just leaving it somewhere out of sight all day made it so much easier to ignore it and focus on other things. Take back control of your mind and your time and keep your phone where it belongs - on the backburner.

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