A mindful approach to using your smartphone

I am not anti smartphone at all. I have an iPhone which I find a super useful tool for both work and home. I did go through a stage however, a few years ago where I let my smartphone use get out of control. It would be the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last thing I looked at before I went to bed.

I found that any spare minute I had I would jump on my phone and read something, scroll through something, search for something. It had really become a very bad habit, but it wasn’t until I started tracking my time, did I realise just how much time a day I was losing from being on my phone. Yes, some of what I was doing on my phone was important – looking at directions on how to get to a kids’ party, adding dates to my calendar, responding to texts from kids, but when I was honest with myself, these activities actually made up a very small percentage of the total time I was spending on my phone.

Now I aim for what I call mindful smartphone use:

Mindful smartphone use is using your phone in a conscious and deliberate way with a key purpose in mind. You spend only the time you need to on your phone to complete the task and do not allow it to interrupt your daily activities or prevent you from being present.

I will openly admit that I do not always achieve this 100%, but in a usual week, I would guess that I achieve it 90% of the time and I cannot emphasise enough how much better I feel for this. I don’t talk about mindful smartphone use for pure productivity reasons. Yes if you spend less time on your phone you will be more productive, but more importantly you will feel better.

In that 10% of time when I am not mindful of my phone use, it has a huge impact on how I feel. My head starts to feel fuzzy and full from information overload. I feel edgy and distracted and find it harder to focus. Sometimes if I have been scrolling on Instagram I will even feel worse about myself – even though I logically know I am seeing everyone’s “highlight reels”, I still somehow find myself thinking about what I haven’t done or what I don’t have. Luckily I can shake this off and it reminds me exactly why I don’t spend endless amounts of time just scrolling and scrolling.

Last week on the blog, I published a post Taking control of your smartphone which contained a short three question survey asking readers about their smartphone use. From the survey data I have to date, it appears that my experience is quite common for parents. Only 29% of respondents felt that they were being intentional with their phone use:

There were three key things I did to help me get back in control of my smartphone, you can read more details about how here, but they were:

  1. Set boundaries for phone use
  2. Turn off notifications
  3. Have your phone away from you

If you feel like you want to be more mindful with your use of your smartphone, I recommend starting with the above and then trying the following steps:

Know your weaknesses

For some of us it will scrolling through the pretty images on Instagram, for some it will be the lure of what every one is posting on Facebook, for others it might be a particular game, but regardless of what the app is, we will have a weakness (or even weaknesses!). To regain control of your smartphone use, you need to be honest with yourself and acknowledge what your weakness is.

From the survey it appears that Facebook provides the biggest challenge for readers.

And I have some suggestions that can help you be mindful about how using Facebook. If Facebook is your nemesis, psyche yourself up for what I am about to say:

Delete the Facebook App from your phone!

I can hear all the protests already! But don’t stop reading as I can show you how you can still use Facebook as a communication tool on your phone without using the Facebook App and exposing yourself to the temptation of the Facebook Zombie Scroll.

My kids will often use Messenger to communicate with me when they are out, so I have the Messenger app installed. It is a free app that lets you send messages or make calls via the Facebook Network, without accessing your feed. You can find the app here:

My gym has a Facebook Group where it communicates to members about workshops, events, timetable changes etc. I also have a Facebook Group for my Planned & Present E-Course that I need to communicate with and be able to present Live Videos to. To communicate with the groups I use the Facebook Groups App which you can find here:

I only go to these apps when I need to communicate in them. You can’t access your feed, so there is just less to do when you go there and you spend much less time on your phone because of it.

If you had an urgent need to access your Facebook feed from your phone, you can always still access it through a browser. This will require you to login which is always slightly painful when on your phone, so will often give you time to think about whether or not you can really be bothered going on it anyway!

Organise your apps

Last year I shared how I took time out to declutter the apps on my phone and create a set up for my apps that made more distracting apps harder to get to and useful apps that help me like my meditation app, easier to get to. You can read exactly how I did this here, but it is really worth the time to do this.

By putting apps that can be distracting like email, on the last page of a folder, a number of screen swipes away, you are setting yourself up for a better chance of success. The act of making something slightly harder to access, gives us time think about what we are actually doing and why, and gives us time to change our minds.

Find a replacement

Using our phones in every spare minute has become a habit. Standing in queue at the supermarket – check Facebook, waiting for the kids at school pick up – check our emails, slightly bored by the task we have to do – scroll through Instagram. It almost becomes likes a nervous twitch – every time there is a moment of white space we look to fill it by using one of the great apps on our phone.

I used to try and convince myself that I was being productive by doing this. That I was maximising every minute of my day, by always being “on” and always doing “something”. The truth is though, this approach actually made me less productive. I would spend more time on whatever app I was on than I wanted and more importantly I was preventing myself from opportunities to recharge, to think clearly, to slow down the pace and to fully interact with the world around me.

When trying to break a habit, we need to think about how the habit loop works. In The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg, the book notes that scientists generally believe habits emerge because the brain is always looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

How the brain does this is through what Duhigg describes as The Habit Loop:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

how to change a habit

To break the habit of the phone being our first point of call every time we have a spare minute, we need to replace it with something. What that something is may vary but you can try:

  • Books – since I stopped being on my phone so much I am reading significantly more.
  • Breathing – sometimes I do feel the draw to go to my phone, often it is when I am bored, feeling overwhelmed or am procrastinating. I am now doing my best to ignore the pull of the phone by taking a minute or two to focus on my breath. It helps calm me and regain focus.
  • Writing – I keep note pads and pencils in most of my bags. If I am waiting somewhere and have the itch to go on the phone, I will take out the note pad and make some notes. Some times it is for a blog post idea, other times it will be to sketch out an issue or problem I have and try to find solutions for it.

Sit with the discomfort

Going on our phones when we feel the urge gives us instant gratification. Checking our emails, posts, videos etc gives us a dopamine hit. To break the habit of being on our phone too much, sometimes we just have to sit in the discomfort of not having our dopamine hit. And the thing is, it doesn’t take long for urge to pass.

Give yourself a couple of minutes and see how the urge feels. Acknowledge the discomfort and push through it. You will feel so much better for it when you do!

What other strategies help you use your smartphone mindfully?