By Francis O'Shea
I have a problem with my phone. When the phone doctors looked at my screen time stats, they had to change the addiction scale so it went to eleven. So, over these holidays I strove to live a more phone smart lifestyle. I used all the suggestions from HeadsUp Rivertowns' awesome January Initiative. These ran the gamut from loading apps on my phone that track my activity and reward phone down time, to simply taking the time to reach out to my friends and loved ones by actually calling them. And after a week of mindful phone use I’m proud to say they made a big difference, and a few strategies really stood out. But before getting into which techniques worked best, let me tell you why I decided to take this challenge on in the first place.
When I want to distract myself I look at the news. And I’m not sure if you follow the news these days, but this is just a horrible idea unless you actually like to be anxious and depressed. And while I've always had a hard time sleeping, recently the constant background flow of distressing information has taken its toll when I try to unwind. On top of that I use (or used) my phone as an alarm clock, and because I have Kindle loaded on my home screen it comes to bed with me at night. In the morning my first move when I wake up is to pick up my phone, and all too often to flick through my apps to see who emailed me overnight and what other notifications I’ve received.
And even when I’m not trying to sleep, more and more I’ve found my phone creeping into my quality time at home. Over the dinner table, when my daughters want to play or tell me about their days, or when I would usually be practicing guitar or reading, I’ve found myself mindlessly scrolling through social media or the news. So, the first step for me was mindfulness: I simply noted whenever I was picking up my phone in the days leading up to my big week, and once the challenge started I consciously avoided those behaviors.
As it turned out, staying away from the news over the holidays came pretty easily. I suppose I was full of holiday spirit. Mostly I found myself over checking my email because I couldn’t believe my last days at of work before the break could be so low stress! Going forward, scheduling email check ins 3-4 times per day would help with this, I’ve even thought about making an autoreply on my work account setting the expectation that I won’t reply immediately to emails. But I haven’t bitten the bullet yet. There are a slew of features on the iPhone that help with scheduling phone time: geo-fencing your reminders, pre-scheduled Do Not Disturb, and aftermarket apps. There is a circularity to this, using an app on your phone to use your phone less. But I will learn more about these going forward.
After a week, there was one technique that popped out above the rest: giving my phone a bed and a bedtime. For me this came to combine several of the challenges: no screens before bed, charging phones outside the bedroom, use a traditional alarm clock, and don't look at your phone for 30 mins after wake up. Separating from my phone when I walked in the door became a great way to decompress and focus on quality time with my kids after work. Some folks I’ve spoken to actually build a bed for their phones. My phone can sleep on the shelf with no cover, thank you very much it gets enough out of me during the day. But the phone goes in the same spot each night when I walk in the door and stays there until the AM. I will usually go and unplug the phone before bed and make sure no one has actually called me or texted about an emergency. But even picking it up after 8pm is a no no. And as it turns out, I missed almost nothing that matters in my life! This practice was really a game changer.
In retrospect, the hardest thing for me was not looking at my phone in the car. I didn’t even notice how often this was a problem. It’s embarrassing to say that even during my week of phone mindfulness, I actually posted/emailed while driving with my kids in the back of the car! As for texts I’m not sure if I can honestly count. Usually it was in response to a text or notification, so I tried turning on Do Not Disturb before I took the wheel. But that was hard to do consistently. Going forward I am going to experiment. I’ve heard there are ways to make it so my phone won’t let me use it when moving at a certain speed. But then how will people in 10533 know what I think about the new drive up mail drop?? The horror. This was the hardest part for me, realizing that I did this very dangerous thing out of habit. I'm sharing with you if you’re like me you will know you’re not alone. Oh and now I just keep my phone out of reach when behind the wheel.
But for all that I hate about my phone, I have to say she came through over the holidays. Whether it was recording my daughters first Christmas in our new house with ease, FaceTiming with faraway family members or changing that annoying Christmas song before it bore a hole in my head, during my mindfully phoneLESS (read not phone free)week, my phone was blessedly not much of a source of distraction. Well, ok I may have spent a little too much time posing for that perfect iG post, but I can put that up to my own vanity. As some of us have said, it's an easy way out to blame phones and apps for all our problems. It really begins with our own behaviors.
Sadly, after my phone smart week I have found myself backsliding. And in retrospect the holidays may not have been the best time to be more mindful. There were lots of great reasons to have my phone with me that brought joy to our family time. These phones really are amazing tools. I plan to do this again during a normal work week to get a sense of what works during "real life" and report back to the group. Stay tuned!