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Is Reaching For Your Phone a Reflex? Consider These 3 Tactics for Forming Better Tech Habits

If you use your phone too much throughout the day, there's a good chance you feel like it's holding you back and preventing you from achieving your goals. By implementing the three strategies discussed in this article, you can change your habits and better build the life you want.

photo of man sitting on the sidewalk and looking at his phone
Blake Reichenbach

Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

If you want to horrify yourself just a bit, consider keeping a tally of all the times you reach for your phone throughout the day when you don't have an explicit purpose for doing so. Chances are, you'll be a bit surprised by how often you do. 

We all like to think of ourselves as the main character, so we tend to underestimate the amount of times we engage in fruitless or unproductive behaviors in our day-to-day life. As a result, we fail to realize how much time we're actually spending on our phones doing essentially nothing. Often, in my own life, it's not until I get the screentime report on my iPhone each Sunday that I realize exactly how much time I've been on my phone throughout the week. It's fairly common that the time I've spent on my phone could equate to a second full-time job, and I have to kick myself and wonder what else I could have accomplished that week if I hadn't spent so much time on my phone. 

Any time I write about tech use, I want to clarify: tech is not bad, but the way we use it often is. 

I work for a software company. I'm surrounded by some of the most advanced (and coolest) pieces of technology on the market each and every day. I love technology and the opportunities it has created for us; what I don't love, and what I want to respond to in content like this, is the tendency for us to leverage technology to further ingrain bad habits into our lives. To be more specific, when I discuss "bad habits," I'm speaking about the things we do on autopilot which create hurdles that prevent us from living the happiest, most-fulfilled versions of our lives. 

Based upon anecdotal data I've collected, it seems that most of us in the 24-35 age range end up averaging somewhere between 5 and 7 hours on our phones each day. While these numbers may be somewhat skewed by accounting for things like listening to podcasts and audiobooks passively rather than intentionally reaching for our phones, they're still significant. Research by ZD Net corroborates this figure as well, suggesting that Americans spend an average of 5.4 hours per day on their phones, with the top 10% of heavy phone users having an average of 5,427 touches on their mobile phones daily. 

If we extrapolate this average a bit, that would equate to an average of 37.8 hours per week. As mentioned above, that's nearly a full-time job. Take a moment and ask yourself what it may look like if you had a second full-time job devoted to:

  • reading books that excite and enrich you
  • exploring and practicing your hobbies
  • exercising
  • tidying up your house
  • networking with professionals in your industry
  • working with a coach to clarify your goals

The list could go on and on and on. Obviously, it's not a perfect way to think about things– reaching for your phone between tasks at work, for example, doesn't take the same amount of time or effort as going to a networking event. Still, the point remains. Those quick smartphone check-ins throughout the day add up to account for a lot of time that is ultimately wasted. 

Why Are Our Phones so Tempting?

Often, when discussing cell phone addiction or impulse-control issues, researchers are quick to cite the dopamine-inducing effect of using our phones. To quote from Healthline,

And there’s another similarity between behavioral addiction and cell phone overuse: the triggering of a chemical in the brain that reinforces the compulsive behavior.

Your brain contains several pathways that transmit a feel-good chemical called dopamine when you’re in rewarding situations. For many people, social interaction stimulates the release of dopamine.

Because so many people use their phones as tools of social interaction, they become accustomed to constantly checking them for that hit of dopamine that’s released when they connect with others on social media or some other app.

App programmers are counting on that drive to keep you checking your phone. Some apps even withhold and release social reinforcements, such as “likes” and “comments,” so we receive them in an unpredictable pattern. When we can’t predict the pattern, we check our phones more often.

That cycle can lead to a tipping point: when your phone ceases to be something you enjoy and becomes something you’re virtually compelled to use.

To simplify this, you could say that using our phones often correlates with a sense of validation or entertainment. We get a quick hit of dopamine, and we train ourselves to adopt that behavior as a way to repeat this process of getting those dopamine fixes. 

In practice, based upon conversations I've had with folks, it seems that our tendency to default to tech use goes beyond quick, mood-boosting bursts. In addition, our phones provide a way for us to minimize stress and discomfort in the short-term. From my anecdotal data, a trend that I'm seeing arise is that people who tend to be more insecure, struggle with chronic anxiety, or deal with a condition like depression or social anxiety have a tendency to use their phones to create a temporary buffer between their present situation and their stressors. For example, if you're feeling stressed and uncomfortable, using apps like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter which rely upon a constant stream of novelty gives you an easy way to distract your brain. It's easy to switch to something new any time you aren't satisfactorily distracted. Next thing you know, you've spent two hours watching thirst traps and lip syncing trends. (Or maybe that's just me.)

As much as I endorse self-care and being patient with yourself when it comes to mental health, I also think that the phone trap doesn't actually help resolve issues associated with mental health. It provides a temporary relief from the symptoms, but it doesn't substantiate long-term growth or resilience. Plus, it trains us to rely on our smartphones in unhealthful ways; if we then enter into a situation where our phones aren't an available source of distraction, we're even more anxious and uncomfortable. 

Breaking Our Phone Habits

1: Define Your Reason for Changing Your Habits

If you want to use your phone less, you need to have a good reason for doing so. The impulsive nature of smart phone use often means that we reach for our devices without thinking about why we are doing so. As such, we involuntarily form habits and make these actions a part of our daily routine. 

In order to break that habit and form a newer, better one, we need to have a motivation for doing so. Having a specific goal or motivating factor helps us prioritize how we spend our time and can serve as a reminder for keeping on track. Simply saying "I'm spending too much time on my phone" isn't going to give you the umph that you need when you're tired, stressed, or otherwise low on willpower. 

Instead, I like to reframe the situation by asking the following question: how would my time be better spent if I wasn't wasting it on ___________? Get specific with yourself when you're thinking about this question. For example, in my own processes, it wasn't so much that I was checking my phone too often in the middle of the day; instead, it was that I was prone to listen to YouTube videos on my phone while I was working, which prevented me from working very productively. So, I framed the question to myself as, "how would my time be better spent if I wasn't listening to YouTube videos all day?" 

From there, I created a list of the things that I could be doing instead. For me, that list ended up looking something like: I could increase my workload and qualify for a promotion, I could wrap up my core responsibilities faster and have time to allocate to working on Self-Himprovement, and I could have more time in my workday to meet with folks in my network. 

If you give yourself something specific to work toward and incentivize it with the payoff that could come from changing your behaviors, you're already in a better place to change your behaviors. 

2: Assess Your Current Usage Habits

One of the best things you can do to change your habits, especially ones associated with tech usage, is to get a better understanding of where you're currently at. Use an app or your phone's built in features to accurately measure how much time you're spending on your phone each day and how that time is distributed. When we have bad habits, we tend to underestimate their impact; tools that aren't as influenced by our own views of ourselves are better equipped to tell us the truth.

As you become more aware of how much you're using your devices non-productively on average, start to look at what you do immediately before and after you reach for your phone. 

For example, early on as I evaluated how my phone use limited my personal sense of productivity and accomplishment, one of the things that I noticed was that reaching for my phone or turning on a YouTube video as background noise most often occurred when: 

  1. I first woke up and was trying to ease into my day. 
  2. I was stuck on a difficult problem at work and was having trouble figuring it out. 
  3. A webpage, report, or script that I needed for work was taking more than a few seconds to load/ run. 
  4. I generally felt stressed, anxious, bored, or uncomfortable. 

I made a note of these things and kept a notebook by my computer. Whenever I started to notice that I was reaching for my phone or opening YouTube automatically, I made a note of what I was doing and why I felt like turning to my devices was the best option in those cases. 

By bringing attention to the triggers of this habit, I unearthed an incredibly valuable tool: awareness. When we are aware of our behaviors and what motivates them, we bring logic into otherwise illogical actions. From that vantage point, as I noticed those behaviors moving forward, it was easy to tell myself, "I don't actually want to watch or listen to a YouTube video, I just don't want to deal with this stressful situation right now." Immediately, this reframes the situation and gives us a new way of looking at our actions; it also introduces the possibility of taking alternative actions because it stops us from operating on autopilot. 

3: Create Barriers to Bad Habits and Pathways to Good Habits

At times, we're all going to run low on willpower or otherwise feel compelled to slip back into our bad habits. In these situations, it's important that we take steps to safeguard ourselves against reestablishing or reenforcing habits that can get in our way and prevent us from building the lives we deserve. 

One of the best ways to go about this is to consider the ways that you might be able to make it harder on yourself to perpetuate bad habits and easier on yourself to perpetuate good habits. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

  • If you find that you waste time scrolling in bed upon first waking up in the morning, consider using a radio alarm clock instead of your phone; you may even want to put your phone in another room– perhaps next to your coffee pot or your water bottle where you mix up your Athletic Greens (I can't help it... I'm addicted)– so that you can't easily get back in bed and start the scroll-cycle. 
  • If you habitually waste time on your phone between tasks at work, consider putting your phone in a drawer or your bag– somewhere where you can access it if needed, but it remains out of sight and out of mind. 
  • If you notice that you're prone to engaging in distracted behavior when you've got writer's block, thinking fatigue, or otherwise feel stuck, consider what other actions you could do in that moment to step away from what you're working on and get refreshed without fully going into mind-numbing mode. For example, I'll step away from my computer and stretch or do some push-ups. It gives me an opportunity to feel more refreshed without feeling like my brain cells are turning into unproductive mush. 

By bringing awareness and intentionality to our automatic actions, we can rewire them into actions that work for us. Again, there's nothing wrong with using the technology that's available to us, and in many ways it can benefit us. However, many of us have crossed the line into a territory where our relationship with technology does more to hold us back than it does to build us up. Luckily, we've got tools at our disposal to respond to that. 

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