Smartphones are magical.
A device that’s small enough to fit in your pocket, allows you to instantly communicate with virtually anyone on earth, take breathtaking photos, and access humanity’s collected knowledge. Amazing!
But like any magical implement, the smartphone’s power can be so consuming that all you want to do is stare into its comforting, glowing, little screen and cling to it like Gollum does his “Precious” in The Lord of the Rings.
Unsurprisingly a growing number of people feel disconcerted with the insatiable pull their phones exercise on them, and are unhappy with the amount of time and attention they give to these devices in return. When I talked with professor Cal Newport on my podcast about what smartphones are doing to our minds, the discussion seemed to really resonate with a lot of you. I received a sack full of letters from readers sharing their frustration with their smartphone use and how it’s hurt their relationships, and gotten in the way of not only doing productive and meaningful work, but being fully present in their lives.
Many of you also wanted to know the names of the apps I mentioned on the podcast that I personally have found helpful in managing my own smartphone use. Today I’ll share those apps, while also laying out a more encompassing guide to breaking the smartphone habit. While putting certain access blockers on your phone can be a great help, you also have to take a truly holistic and intentional approach to maintaining a healthy relationship with your phone.
Below I present such a game plan with all the tools and techniques you might consider implementing in order to get a handle on your smartphone habit. I really couldn’t find a comparable resource online, so I’ve made this article pretty robust, with ideas that can work regardless of your situation in life, how you want/need to use your smartphone for business and pleasure, and which phone you use.
For ease in sorting through it all and figuring out which approach might work best for you, I’ve 1) created a flow chart, and 2) offered a summary of what I’ve done in my own life to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend on my smartphone; hopefully it will give you a better grasp of how these apps and techniques can be implemented.
Let’s get started, beginning with why you might consider limiting your smartphone use in the first place.
The Negative Effects of Chronic Smartphone Use
For many folks, checking and twiddling with their smartphone has become a habit boarding on addiction. Many would shrug off this ubiquitous habit as simply a harmless distraction from boredom, and certainly smartphones can be a big positive in our lives — a source of both entertainment and a nearly indispensable tool for business and communication in the modern world.
Yet research shows that heavy smartphone use can also have a deleterious effect on several different aspects of our lives:
Loss of empathy and connection with others. In Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle highlights research that communication mediated through smartphone screens makes us less empathetic. Texting can be convenient, but we lose the inflections, tone, and facial expressions that are so key in our bonding with and understanding others. (For even more insight on this topic, check out my interview with her on the podcast.)
Heck, research shows that simply having a smartphone in our line of sight causes us to pay less attention to the people we’re with and keep our conversations more superficial; when there’s a good chance we’ll be interrupted, we don’t see the point in trying to connect with someone on a deeper level.
While there are lots of factors contributing to the increasing sense of loneliness in Western society, growing smartphone use has certainly played a role.
Loss of sleep. According to surveys, 44% of those 18-24 say they fall asleep with their smartphone in their hand, and a quarter say, “I don’t sleep as well as I used to because I am connected to technology all the time.” Smartphone use can negatively impact your sleep because its blue light messes with your circadian rhythm, and its pings can awaken you after you’ve dozed off; 4 in 10 adults and teenagers say they’ve checked their phone in the middle of the night after getting a notification. If you’re anxious about how someone’s going to respond to your text, you may also simply have trouble putting the phone aside and falling asleep in the first place.
Loss of focus and the ability to do deep, meaningful work. Even though one of the original selling points of smartphones was their ability to help us get work done on the go, they’re ironically one of the greatest inhibitors of our productivity.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the case that smartphones, along with other digital devices, are training our brains to be constantly distracted. The pings and buzzes of smartphone notifications condition us to stay in a state of divided attention; we can never truly immerse ourselves in a task because there’s a chance we’ll miss something on our phones.
Newport highlights research showing that even when chronic smartphone and computer users shut everything off so they can focus on a single task, the habit of operating with divided attention is so ingrained in their brains, they still have a hard time concentrating. In other words, smartphones atrophy our ability to think and work deeply.
Loss of the ability to be fully present in your life. More people reach for their smartphone first thing in the morning than their significant other. People spend an average of 8 hours a day on their laptops and smartphones, and 81% say they have their phone switched on all the time. Over half of Millennials say they check and use their phone “constantly.”
Each time you look down at your phone’s screen, you’re not looking at something else in your environment. You’re not looking at your kids, or the beautiful scenery on a trip, or the friend who’s sitting right across from you. You’re not present. By giving your phone hours of your life, day after day, what might you be missing out on?
How to Break the Smartphone Habit
Are you tired of being unable to really engage in conversations with your friends because you’re always checking your phone? Do you feel guilty about how often your kids catch you staring at a screen when you should be interacting with them? Are you sick of ending each day bemoaning your utter lack of focus and productivity at work, and how little progress you’re making on your goals?
While the bad news is that chronic smartphone use can have a negative impact on your life, the good news is that research demonstrates that the restless, distraction-producing itch they exercise on us can be reversed. It just takes some work and discipline to get a handle on your habit. Here’s how to do it:
Perform an Audit on Your Cell Phone Use
The first step in breaking the smartphone habit is to measure how much time you’re actually spending on your phone throughout the day. Seeing how you’re using it will allow you to make more intentional and mindful decisions about the kind of relationship you want to have with your phone.
Heck, just seeing hard numbers on how much time you’re spending on your phone can affect your use. When I saw that I checked my smartphone 100 times in a day, I immediately started checking it less.
Thanks to a few apps out there, auditing your smartphone use is pretty easy. Android has more robust tracking apps than the iPhone thanks to the openness of the Android platform. So you’ll find that most of the apps I list are Android (this will be a re-occurring theme). Many of them not only track your smartphone time, but can also help you manage that time, which will come in handy in “dumbifying” your phone, which we’ll discuss below.
Auditing Apps Available for Both iPhone and Android
Checky. This app shows you how many times you’ve checked your smartphone a day and allows you to compare stats day to day. While it doesn’t show you how much time you’re spending within each app on your phone, just seeing how many times you pick up your phone and swipe the unlock screen can provide some much-needed perspective on your smartphone use.
Auditing Apps Available for Android Only
RescueTime. RescueTime is a paid service that allows you track how much time you spend on certain websites and even how long you use certain apps on your computer and smartphone. You simply create an account with RescueTime, install the app on your smartphone, and the software takes care of the rest.
At the end of each week, RescueTime will send you an email report that gives you a breakdown of how much time you spent within each app on your smartphone.
BreakFree. BreakFree tracks app usage on your smartphone. It will even send you notifications if it thinks you’re checking your smartphone too much. Besides the app tracking, BreakFree has tools to help you curtail smartphone usage by turning off its notifications and wifi at set times.
QualityTime. QualityTime is another Android app that tracks app usage and gives you detailed breakdowns of how much time you’re spending on each. You can set time limits for each app and QualityTime will send you a warning when you’re getting close to your limit. You can even block certain time-wasting apps.
Auditing App Available for iPhone Only
Moment. While Moment doesn’t tell you how much time you’re spending within each app on your iPhone, it gives you an overall look at how much time you spend on your phone each day. Moment allows you to set time limits on your iPhone usage, and once you reach it, the app will block you from using your device.
Pick a tracking app and use it for a week. Use your smartphone as you usually do (though, that’s hard because once you start observing a particular behavior, that behavior typically changes). By the end of the week, you should have a rough idea of how often you’re checking your smartphone and exactly how you’re using it.
Going Nuclear, or Getting a “Dumbphone”
Alright. It’s been a week, and you have a good idea of how much you’re using your smartphone and what apps you’re using. Maybe you’re so appalled by the results of your smartphone audit that you decide the best course of action is to completely chuck your smartphone altogether and downgrade to a rudimentary “dumbphone” that just allows you to make calls and send simple text messages.
If that’s what you decide to do, you’ll be in good company. In recent years there’s been a burgeoning “dumbphone movement” in which individuals deliberately choose to opt out of the culture of hyper-connectedness by using cell phones that looks like the one you owned back in 2001. By eliminating the ability to access apps on their phones, these retronauts eliminate the temptation to constantly check them.
Ironically, many of the developers and business execs in Silicon Valley who are making addiction-inducing smartphone apps, count themselves as members of the dumbphone movement. By going with the dumbphone, they’re better able to focus on the work of making you less focused. They’re like junk food execs who want to get you hooked on Doritos, but eat a clean paleo diet themselves!
Besides saving your attention span, dumbphones come with other upsides as well. For starters, the devices themselves are significantly cheaper than their high-powered smartphone counterparts and their data plans only cost a few dollars a month. What’s more, dumbphones eliminate the temptation to continually upgrade your device to the latest and greatest. If all you want to do is make calls and send text messages, you don’t need a phone with a built-in heart rate monitor or a screen that will scroll automatically as you read.
Dumbphones also provide more security and privacy than smartphones. Many high-level executives prefer the dumbphone because it poses less of a security risk if it’s lost or stolen. Think about the amount of sensitive data you keep on your smartphone — bank account info in your banking apps, emails, stored passwords, etc. A person with malintent could do a lot of damage if they got ahold of your phone. And if you’re concerned about corporations or the government tracking your every movement around the globe, dumbphones lack GPS.
If switching to a dumbphone seems like the best option for you, here are a few to check out:
- Samsung Jitterbug
- Nokia 106
- Blu Tank II
- Doro PhoneEasy (according to rumors that Cal Newport has heard, this is a popular phone with business executives)
- Emporia Essence Plus (made for seniors, so it has a giant SOS button on the back in case you’ve fallen and can’t get up)
Making Your Smartphone Dumber
After seriously considering ditching the smartphone, you’ve decided owning a dumbphone just isn’t going to be a viable option for you. Maybe your work requires you to answer email from your phone and use other apps. Or maybe you like being able to snap high-quality pics of your kids using your phone’s built-in camera.
The question then becomes how do you take advantage of all the benefits that come with your smartphone while not getting sucked into the smartphone-checking habit?
The answer is to make your smartphone dumber. Below I show you various ways how.
Change Your Smartphone Settings to Make Your Smartphone Dumber
The first tactic you can use to make your smartphone dumber is changing settings on your phone so that it acts more like a dumbphone. This can be done by turning off notifications as well as your cellular data and wifi.
Turn off notifications. The easiest thing you can do to instantly reduce the itch to check your smartphone is to turn off notifications.
One of the things that makes these devices so irresistible to check are the pings, buzzes, and flashing lights that go off whenever you get a new email or someone has commented on your Instagram pic. They’re like Pavlovian bells that condition you to immediately pick up your phone as soon as the little light starts flashing. The conditioning can get so deep that you may find yourself constantly glancing at your phone in mere anticipation of incoming notifications. It’s hard to be present and focused on the task at hand when you’re eyeing your smartphone every ten seconds.
You can curb this technological salivation by getting rid of notifications. Within every app on your phone, you have the option to turn notifications on or off. App makers prefer that you turn notifications on because it means you’ll check their app more frequently. Consequently, many apps are designed to automatically opt you into notifications and require you to manually opt out.
Go through all your essential, yet distracting smartphone apps and turn off the notifications. This includes email and messaging apps. You’ll be amazed how this one little change will dramatically reduce how often you check your smartphone. Without the buzz or flashing light, there’s no cue for you to check your phone. Instead, you’ll check it whenever you consciously decide to.
Turn off cellular data and wifi. Let’s assume you’ve turned off notifications, but you still have the itch to pick up your phone to check email or other apps. You can change the settings on your smartphone to make it temporarily dumb for certain periods of time. All you need to do is turn off your cellular data and wifi.
When you turn these services off, you’ll still be able to make calls and send simple text messages. You just won’t be able to refresh your email inbox, or check Instagram or Snapchat, or send or receive pics via text messaging — you know, the really distracting things on your smartphone.
Turning off wifi is easy to do on both iPhone and Android. Figuring out how to turn off cellular data can be a little trickier, so follow the links below for instructions on how to do so on both operating systems:
The downside of this method is that it’s pretty easy to circumvent. If you really want to check your email or Instagram feed, all you have to do is turn your cell data and wifi back on. But for many people, simply adding in this small buffer lessens the temptation to check their phone all the time. Human beings are lazy. Knowing that you’ll have to mess with your phone’s settings to get your smartphone fix will make it more likely that you won’t even bother.
This is a good tactic to use during study or “deep work” sessions or when you simply want to choose certain time periods as “no smartphone time,” like when you get home from work or on a Tech Sabbath.
You can speed up the dumbification of your phone in Android by using the Automate app and creating a workflow that will automatically turn off cell and wifi data at certain times or when you arrive at home from work. Sorry iPhone users — nothing like this exists for you.
Won’t People Be Annoyed With Me If I Don’t Respond to Them Right Away?
If you’re a diehard smartphone user, your big concern with turning off notifications and dumbifying your phone will likely be: “But I need to know as soon as I get an email or text. I’ve got to respond to it right away.”
But this is mostly bull. While the immediacy of digital communication has conditioned us to feel that all dispatches are urgent, the vast majority are not.
Even in business, most email can wait an hour or two (heck, most email doesn’t need a response for an entire day — if ever!) before it needs a response. And if it’s truly urgent and important, or a genuine emergency, the person can just call you.
The same goes for personal text messaging. I know there’s an expectation that you should respond to texts right away or within a few minutes, but in my experience, most text messages aren’t urgent or important. It’s mainly idle chit-chat — sharing some good news, planning a weekend dinner, sharing funny pics or links. And once you start responding, it’s hard to stop. It puts you in a state of constant divided attention throughout the day.
Don’t do that to your brain. Turn off the text notifications and only check your phone during certain windows, not because a ping has conditioned you to check it. To the extent that you can, you need to control your attention, rather than letting others control it.
I know being less responsive may come off as rude to some, but if you want to have a more focused and less distracted life, you need to be a little harder to get ahold of.
Some entrepreneurs and execs who only check their email/phone at certain times have an auto-response that lets the sender know about their policy. But I always feel this need to announce your freedom from your phone comes off as self-important and unnecessary. The expectation of an immediate response is unwarranted in the first place, and there’s no need to explain yourself.
While at first your associates and friends will likely be a little peeved that you take so long to respond to texts and emails, they’ll eventually come to get a feel for your new phone checking rhythms and habits and will adjust their expectations accordingly.
Remove Certain Apps to Make Your Smartphone Dumber
Another tactic to dumbify your smartphone while keeping the benefits that come with your device is to remove the apps that 1) don’t provide any significant improvement to your life and 2) encourage distracted thinking.
If you sit down to honestly evaluate each app on your smartphone, you’ll probably realize that maybe 20% of them provide significant improvement to your life while not being distracting, while the other 80% are extremely habit forming and, at best, mildly entertaining. Seriously. How has checking Instagram every 10 minutes or beating another level on Candy Crush significantly improved your life? It probably hasn’t and if you want to be more focused and present, you should get rid of them. That’s what we’re going to do right now.
Look at every single little app on your screen. As your eyes rest on each one, ask yourself 1) “Does this app significantly improve my life (or is work essential)?” and 2) “Does this app get in the way of deep thinking?”
If your answers are “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second, immediately delete the app. Games and social media apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat typically fall into this category.
If your answers are “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second, keep the app. Utility apps like banking, Google Maps, and e-readers like Kindle might fall into this category. They can make your life better, but you don’t have the same itch to check them all the time like you do with Twitter or Instagram.
It gets trickier when your answers are “yes” and “yes.” Maybe you need these apps for work, but they’re also a source of constant temptation. Apps like email, text messaging, and perhaps a few social media apps might fall under this rubric. How do we manage our attention with these apps?
That’s where we’ll turn next.
Fight Technology With Technology — Apps to Manage Your Smartphone Use
So you’ve pared down your apps to the most essential. Even with that done, you still have the temptation to constantly check these work or life essential apps over and over to scratch a mental itch.
Take email for example. Sure, your job may need you to check and answer email from your phone, but do you really have to check it all the time? Probably not. Most emails you get aren’t important or even urgent, so you can probably wait until you get to your desktop to answer them. But it’s hard to not check your email. There’s always that hope that the next email you get will be filled with life-altering news.
Or maybe you use Instagram for your job or to keep up with your family. I get it. That’s why I have Instagram on my phone. But you don’t need to scroll through it every 30 minutes. If your Instagram feed looks anything like mine, you’re going to see pretty much the same thing every time you check — dudes deadlifting, dudes shooting guns, dudes showing off their cool outfit of the day, some nice nature pics, and, of course, artistic-looking motivational quotes. Basically, I’m not missing out on much if I don’t check. But the way Instagram is set up, the infinite scroll makes it irresistible to check. Like email, there’s always the hope that with just one more scroll, you’ll come across an amazingly entertaining or cool picture — something your brain worries it’ll miss out on.
If you can’t or simply don’t want to remove these distracting and habit-forming apps, you can manage the desire to constantly check them by using technology to fight technology. We’re going to use blocking/time managing apps to limit how much and when we can use our most distracting and habit-forming apps.
First a note about these apps: most of them are Android. Unfortunately, the stringent standards Apple imposes on apps prevents developers from creating ones that allow users to block specific apps on their iPhones. I’ve only come across one app for iPhone that lets you block apps or websites. I’m sure if you jailbroke your phone and had some programming skills, you could create some pretty spiffy apps that allow you to block things. But since most folks don’t know how to do that, they’ll have to settle for some of the other options discussed above to manage their smartphone use.
App-Managing App for Both Android and iPhone
Freedom. Freedom is a paid service that works across devices. You simply install the app on the devices you want to control your use on, tell Freedom which apps and websites you want to block, and presto! No more distractions. It doesn’t matter if you’re on your iPhone, MacBook, Android, or Windows laptop, all your distracting apps and websites will be blocked when you’ve initiated a Freedom session.
Freedom allows you to schedule distraction-free sessions in advance, so you could create a Pomodoro schedule for yourself throughout the day where Freedom will alternate between 45-minute distraction-free sessions and 15-minute break sessions.
The service is new, so there are a few bugs, but I’ve messed around with it and found it to be pretty dang robust.
If you’re an iPhone user, this is the only app out there I’ve found that will allow you to block certain apps on your phone.
App-Managing Apps for Android Only
FocusOn. FocusOn lets you schedule times when certain apps and websites are blocked on your smartphone. The software also makes it extremely hard for you to back out of a blocked session. You can create multiple FocusOn sessions. So for example, you can create a session that blocks apps in the morning and another session that prevents apps from opening during your study times.
To deactivate a blocked session, you’ll need to type out a complicated paragraph using your smartphone keypad. No copying and pasting. If you get just one thing wrong, like adding an extra space or missing a comma, FocusOn will make you try again. It’s so tedious and time-consuming that you’ll give up trying to bail on your blocked session after the first time you fail the challenge. (Update: It looks like this app is no longer available. It was available right before I published this. Not sure what happened. Looking into it.)
Focus Lock. Similar to FocusOn. Just pick which apps you want to block and when you want them blocked.
ClearLock. Similar to FocusOn. The only downside is you can’t schedule blocked sessions in advance. You have to tell the app how long you want to block your apps each time you want to enter into distraction-free mode.
Stay Focused. Instead of blocking apps up front, Stay Focused allows you to budget how much time you can use on a particular app each day. When you’ve used up all your allotted time, it will become inaccessible for the rest of the day. The only downside with Stay Focused is that it’s super easy to turn off; there’s no challenge like you have with FocusOn.
My Personal Set-Up
I use RescueTime to monitor both my desktop and smartphone use and check it weekly to see how I’m spending my time on those two devices.
I’ve made my smartphone dumber by first eliminating non-essential and highly addictive apps from my phone. I don’t have any games, nor Twitter or Facebook. I also don’t have any news reading apps like Flipboard. I used to have them, but I was spending too much time on them and felt they didn’t provide enough ROI.
Because my business relies heavily on email and messaging, I do have Gmail and Google Hangouts on my phone so I can take care of urgent and important business even when I’m away from my computer. I also decided to keep Instagram on my phone because it’s the only way I can upload photos to the Art of Manliness Instagram account. (Plug: follow us on Instagram!)
While these apps are work essential, they’re extremely distracting and habit forming. So I use two apps to manage when and how much I can access them.
I use FocusOn to schedule out times when I can’t access my most distracting apps. I’ve scheduled distraction-free times weekday mornings from 5:30 AM until 9:00 AM and from 5:00 PM until 8:00 PM so I can be fully present for things like scripture study, journal writing, working out, and my kids. On Sundays, I block Gmail, Instagram, and my Chrome browser so I can have my weekly Tech Sabbath.
I don’t want to spend even my non-blocked sessions completely glued to my phone, so I use Stay Focused to limit the amount of time I use these apps when they’re available. I’ve given myself 30 minutes a day for each app. Thirty minutes is just enough time to post a new pic to Instagram as well as do some mindless scrolling and email browsing. Once my time is up, I’m done using those apps for the day.
My smartphone set-up is coupled with my set-up on my MacBook, which ensures that when I’m on my laptop, I stay focused on my most important work and train my mind for deep, focused thinking. I’m amazed at how much more I can get done when I’m not constantly checking my gizmos.
I hope this guide will help you get a handle on your own smartphone habit, so you can use your phone in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its drawbacks. Give these apps and techniques a try if you’re looking to be a more productive, industrious, and successful man.
Be the master of your technology, not its slave!
Last updated: July 28, 2016