I recently listened to one of my favourite podcasts – The Minimalists – where they were discussing behavioural addiction, specifically our societal addiction to our mobile phones. At the same time I was mid way through a book called ‘The world beyond your head – living in an age of distraction’. It was one of those perfect moments of confluence where two trusted sources were effectively talking about the same problem. As I listened to the podcast and reflected on what I had been reading, I began to recognise in myself many of the behaviours they were detailing.
Now, none of this is particularly new. We all know we spend too much time on our devices. We’re also very good at defending our habits in the same breath…
“I use this phone too much, but then I need it for work/need to stay in touch with my friends/need to keep abreast of the news/ etc etc”
Phones are like cigarettes?
Apologies for the following tangent…
The excuses we make remind me of the justifications I used to trot out when I was addicted to cigarettes. I smoked from the age of 15 until I was around 30 years old. I knew it was bad for me (For ten of those years I was a registered nurse working on the kind of hospital ward where smokers went to die), and yet I felt I was able to justify it to myself and others.
- I know it’s bad for me but…. I enjoy it (I didn’t – most of the cigarettes I smoked were horrible, some even made me feel sick)
- I know it’s bad for me but I can stop any time I want (except I couldn’t)
- I know it’s bad for me, but we’ve all gotta die of something (dying of emphysema is a horrible way to die – seen it, didn’t make me quit)
In the end I gave up smoking primarily because my health was beginning to suffer. I was getting terrible heartburn, a regular cough and even tingling in my fingers when I ran up the stairs. How I gave up was a simple (in retrospect) change of mindset.
I stopped thinking of quitting smoking as giving up and started thinking of it as getting something back. Smoking was the sacrifice, good health was the reward – not the other way round.
One of the other things I came to realise about smoking is that although there is a physical addiction component, the bigger challenge is the behavioural addiction part.
The companies that supply patches, gums and sprays (and now vapes), have a vested interest in getting people to believe that giving up smoking is hard. You will get cranky, you will suffer. I even heard some expert on TV suggesting that nicotine is more addictive than heroine. The TV adverts state that ‘willpower alone is not enough to give up – so buy our patches’.
The whole notion of willpower immediately enables people to abdicate responsibility for their behaviour, since they can bemoan their lack of it whilst simultaneously voice admiration for others who seemingly possess more of it.
As it turns out that the physical effects of nicotine equate to a gnawing sense of something missing, an edginess and a tightness of your jaw that will last about 3 to 5 days.
Knowing this gave me the confidence to address the real problem; that the biggest challenge with giving up smoking is the behavioural component of the addiction.
Smokers have a whole range of trigger moments when they light up. Morning coffee, after a nice meal, waiting for a bus, moments of boredom, after sex…. These are habitual in nature. Learned behaviours.
I smoked in the days when it was legal to do so on train platforms. I honestly couldn’t conceive of waiting for a train without knowing that I had a couple of cigarettes in my pocket. Cigarettes gave me something to do. I would roll my own (I was proud of my skill in this), and light it. Keeping the little bonfire alight and tending to the ash, looking cool and blowing smoke rings would keep me busy for 5 minutes until the train arrived.
So in the end, my moving on from cigarettes became about breaking the habit, not the physical addiction. I had to remove myself (temporarily) from situations where I would feel inclined, due to habit, to smoke. For me these situations were mostly pubs and hanging out with smokers.
It was a ball-ache, and it was hard to change my habits, but it worked. I gave up smoking and have taken time on a regular basis to appreciate what I have gained by not indulging in the habit.
Wasn’t this blog post about phones or something?
So last week I was lucky enough to go on holiday with my wife and kids. It was great. I’ve not been on a proper holiday for four years, and neither of my kids have been on a plane, let alone abroad.
Since starting the Living Unplugged journey, Laura and I have become more aware of the ways in which we could open ourselves to hypocrisy or double standards. So what would be the point of posting loads of Instagram brags from the beach whilst espousing a more deliberate lifestyle?
Well in fact I see no problem for people to capture memories on their phones, and if sharing those images gives you pleasure or value then you should totally do it. The key here is intentionality. If you’re going to use your device for anything, I feel it should be done with an absolute understanding of what that means.
If you want to check Facebook, cool! Check Facebook – but you should be happy with the trade off that this will bring. While you’re scrolling through your feed, you won’t be experiencing anything other than the feed. You won’t be able to engage with anyone else around you.
So for me, I didn’t want to engage with my phone. For me, checking Instagram or Facebook was only a step away from taking a peek at my work emails, and irrespective of how good my intention to not engage with work was, I know that it would impact on my attention and therefore my ability to be present on my holiday with all that entails.
I took my phone because I needed it for google maps and for the details of the Airbnb.
I failed however. I didn’t turn off the subject line previews on the home screen, so I saw that I had a couple of emails from work about a pitch I’d worked on. I didn’t read the emails, I dismissed the notifications – but even this was enough to bring me back to a reality I had paid money to escape from. I’ve learnt my lesson there!
We went away for four days. I read, I swam, ate, cooked and enjoyed the company of my wife and my children. I took a hand full of photos with my phone and considerably more with an old film camera (more on this another time).
When I returned to the UK, we still had a weekend before we had to return to work. My phone stayed on a shelf most of the time.
This Monday I returned to work. I had a whole bunch of emails to catch up on (turns out nothing that couldn’t wait) and a number of meetings to attend.
- When I went to the meetings, I left my phone on my desk.
- When I got the lift to the top floor of our building, I was the only one not silently reaching for my device to thumb through apps rather than deal with the silence.
- When I ate my lunch, my phone was still on my desk. In short I seem to have broken a couple of my habitual phone behaviours.
One meeting I attended this morning had four people in it (including me). There were six phones on the table. My phone was on my desk. I felt like a non-smoker in a room full of Philip Morris executives.
(As a side note, a recent study found that the mere presence of a mobile phone, even a dead one, is enough to significantly reduce the engagement between two people)
Four days was enough to break through the worst aspects of my addiction, and start learning new habits.
Phones are tools
We need our phones. They are windows to a limitless amount of information and functionality. They provide the ability to capture moments as images or videos (something unthinkable only a decade ago), and they enable our colleagues, family and friends to keep in contact with us.
Where phones stop being tools and become agents of distraction or pacification is the point at which we use them habitually.
When we reach for the phone on the train, or in the lift or after a meal, with our morning coffee or after sex… (yes there’s plenty of evidence that this is more common that you’d think), we’re not using them deliberately; we’re using them out of habit.
We are finite beings, with a finite capacity for attention on any given day. If we fill our moments with checking for notifications that never came, or live life through the curated images of someone else’s Instagram feed, we will experience a diminished enjoyment or engagement with the people and the world around us.
One of the most heartbreaking things to come out of my 3 year old son’s mouth was ‘Daddy, can you put your phone down and play with me?’
Breaking the cycle
Behavioural addiction is a new thing for human beings. Before phones came along, we only had to contend with cigarettes and gambling. Whilst I’m not downplaying the seriousness of gambling addictions, we don’t need to be told that gambling is bad. We know it’s a problem.
Phone addiction is more of a grey area. Habitual checking of Facebook and twitter notifications, playing endless games of Candy Crush and all the other things we gradually build into our daily routines are only part of why we have these devices. They are useful. To some extent we need them to participate in modern society. This makes it tough for us to separate what we need to use them for and what we actually use them for.
The best way I’ve found to break the habits associated with phone use is to set rules. Here’s what I am trying to do at the moment to be more intentional in my phone use.
- Leave the phone behind when I go to meetings, eat lunch, go to the loo…
- Don’t take the phone into the lounge of an evening. If I need to check something, I have to get up and go to the kitchen
- Buy an alarm clock. No phone in the bedroom means no late night Facebook scrolling, which means better sleep
- Install a usage monitoring app (like Quality Time for Android or Moment for iOS ). This will help you understand what apps you are spending using. You’ll be surprised.
- Uninstall Facebook. You can still use the browser to check your feed, but it’s more intentional.
Here’s the final thought. None of us are perfect. You’re going to slip up and fall into old habits. I have. Just be aware, be deliberate and know that you can always turn the fucking thing off and enjoy the world beyond the little screen.