How to Break Dependence on the Phone

By Leo Babauta

On average, people spend more than 3 hours on their phones each day, picking up their phones nearly 60 times a day … with some people spending closer to 4 hours.

These numbers aren’t meant to be judgments — it’s not a bad thing to look at your phone — but instead are meant to bring some awareness to our phone usage.

A lot of people I talk to want to decrease their usage of phones — not necessarily decreasing to zero, but decreasing impulsive usage of their phones.

Many of us tend to grab our phones anytime there’s a lull, and once you get on your phone it can lead to mindless scrolling.

So how can we develop more mindful use of our phones, and become less dependent on them?

Let’s explore together.

Becoming More Mindful of Phone Usage

If you don’t have awareness, you can’t change something. So the most important first step is to start to bring mindfulness to your phone usage.

Here’s how:

Get a small notebook or scrap of paper, and each time you reach for your phone, make a tally mark on the paper. This will bring awareness to reaching for your phone.

Notice what you’re feeling when you reach for the phone. Write that down on the paper or notebook as well. Boredom, anxiety, overwhelm, sadness, loneliness, fear, frustration. This is the reason you’re reaching for the phone — in hopes of dealing with this emotion (hint: it doesn’t work).

Take three breaths before you actually unlock the phone. You have the phone in your hand … pause for a moment and take three breaths. Notice the feeling you’re feeling that makes you want to reach for the phone. Do the breaths help with the feeling?

Commit to doing this for a week. You’ll develop beautiful mindfulness around your phone usage, even if you don’t stop using the phone.

Breaking the Habit of Phone Dependence

At this point, your mindful practice has set you up for success to break the habit.

Let’s look at how to change the habit:

Understand your Why: Before you start, ask yourself why you want to make this change. Is it important, or is it a “this would be nice” kind of thing? If it’s just going to be “nice” to make the change, you won’t stick with it, because it’s not more important than your urges. You need a more meaningful reason: it’s going to lead to better mental health, better relationships, better productivity with your meaningful work, or whatever would be meaningful for you. Write this reason down and have it somewhere you’ll see it each day.

Set an intention: Commit yourself to making this change. Is your intention to not look at social media or certain apps on your phone? Is it to only use those apps twice a day for 30 minutes each session? Is it to never use your phone except for reading or music? Set a clear intention, and commit yourself to it for a certain amount of time (let’s say 4 weeks).

Lock screen reminder: Make your phone lock screen something that will remind you of your intention. A nature scene, a quote, a photo of your kids, whatever it takes. This will help you bring awareness whenever the urge comes up.

Find other meaningful activities: What do you want to do instead of look at your phone? It should be something that 1) addresses the emotions you identified in the “mindful” section above and 2) you enjoy or find meaningful. For example, if you reach for your phone when you feel overwhelmed or anxious … maybe sitting in meditation, doing a few yoga poses, or going for a short walk will help you deal with those emotions, and lead to greater health or mental clarity. Other ideas: connect with a friend, do some stretches or pushups, drink a cup of tea, do some breathing exercises, or write someone a love note.

Pause practice: When you are about to use your phone, practice taking a short pause. Breathe. Notice your emotions. Tend to them. Consider your meaningful Why and your intention. If you can’t avoid using the phone after this pause, don’t beat yourself up. Just introducing the pause is a huge, huge step. Celebrate any progress.

Be willing to be with all of life: We most often use our phones because there are things we don’t want to feel or experience. It’s an avoidance mechanism. But what if we train ourselves to open up to all experiences, all parts of life? We don’t need our coping mechanisms anymore. So each time you reach for the phone, practice being with and opening to the experience you want to avoid. This is a training, and with practice, you’ll increase your capacity to experience and love every experience that life has to offer.

Daily review: At the end of each day, before you go to sleep, set a reminder to do a short review. How did you do with your intention? What got in the way? What feelings did you resist being with? What can you improve tomorrow? Be compassionate with yourself. But use this daily review for continual learning and improvement.

This is not an easy habit to change, but it’s changeable … if you commit yourself, and find a meaningful reason. And if you let yourself continue to learn and grow in this process. 

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