My roommate told me that he was giving up his phone for Lent. I asked some clarifying questions, like did he mean he was giving up social media? How would he receive phone calls? How would he get places without Google Maps?
He showed me this app he had called Moments that tracked his daily phone usage. He was spending almost a quarter of his day looking at his phone. A quarter of his life staring into a little screen and not interacting with the world around him.
That made me curious about my own phone usage, so I downloaded the app. I spend 26% of my day on my phone. At first, I gave myself an excuse, because I do rely on social media to run my business. I pick up my phone, on average, 51 times per day. That seems more like a compulsive behavior than anything else.
A huge portion of my phone usage happens in the morning when I wake up and at night when I’m going to bed. I mindlessly scroll on Instagram, and I read . The rest of the time comes in 3–5 minute increments when I am answering a text or checking my social accounts.
I decided that I would also make some changes for Lent considering that I am always complaining that I don’t have enough time to get everything done and far too often that includes sitting in quiet time for prayer.
I used to use my phone as my alarm and my sound machine (in Los Angeles, there are a lot of noises outside). I bought a fancy alarm clock that now wakes me with light, simulating the sun. I got a stand-alone sound machine and planned to plug my phone in on my dresser away from my bed.
The first night it took me over two hours to fall asleep without the lullaby of reading the news. I tried a book, and I still couldn’t fall asleep. I cursed my idea and wanted my phone back. I planned to not look at my phone in the morning until after I did my morning quiet time over coffee. I failed completely. My brain made excuses — “just check it while you’re making the coffee. Make sure nothing happened over night that you should know about.”
After that first look, I was done for. I would get so sucked in. It was a constant battle. I finally succumbed and plugged my charger back in next to my bed, and I’m back to my nightly news. The use of my smartphone is releasing dopamine in my brain and giving me good feelings similar to how drugs work. I am the first to say that I am addicted to my smartphone.
Psychology Today says that, “Complex conditions that affect reward, reinforcement, motivation, and memory systems of the brain, substance use and gambling disorders are characterized by impaired control over usage; social impairment, involving disruption of everyday activities and relationships; and may involve craving.”
When I started dating my fiancé Paul, he very quickly pointed out the overuse of my phone. I didn’t take well to the criticism and felt like he was telling me what to do. Eventually, he was able to explain to me that it wasn’t the use of the phone that bugged him; it was the disconnection to him that happened when I got my phone out. It was disrupting my most cherished relationship.
I tried to use willpower to stay off of it. I did want to spend my time with him and not my phone, but somehow I’d always mindlessly end up back on it.
I started to watch myself to see how it happened. We’d be somewhere, I would want to take a picture, I’d get out my phone to do that and see that I had three text messages. I would respond to those messages, and then my thumb would move across the screen and open Instagram. Then I’d see that our friends posted a story — probably of their cute baby — that I just had to see. It was insane. My willpower was not useful here.
It seemed that the picture-taking was the catalyst so I decided to buy a camera so that I could leave my phone behind. I knew that the most important people would be able to contact me through Paul if there were an emergency, and it would give me some intentional phone-free time. (The best part of the camera is that it connects to my phone with wifi so I can send the photos directly to it at a later time when I’m not in a social environment.)
This is still a work in progress in my life. Awareness is the first step. As for my roommate, he used paper maps to get around the city, he messaged from his computer if he really needed something, and used FaceTime from his desktop if he wanted to call his mom. He also read a lot of books and told me that he had a whole new appreciation for life when he was able to look up and around when he was waiting for the bus or standing in line at the grocery store.
Giving up our phones entirely is not completely realistic for all of us. But we can all be more mindful of our phone usage. If you want to move toward this, you might try:
- Download Moment on your smartphone
- Turn off notifications
- Turn off your phone when you’re in the presence of others
- Limit the time of day and week that you have your phone
- Go back to simpler times
With Moment, not only can you track the hours you spend on the screen and use each app, you can also set your phone to lock after a certain number of hours. If you set it at 3 hours, your phone will lock once you hit that time allowance. After it happens to you one time, you will likely learn to be more cautious of what you’re using the phone for with each pick-up and how long you’re spending on it.
An easy way to help yourself not look at your phone for longer stretches of time is to turn off the notifications. Without the reminder to look at the comment left on your Instagram or the “breaking news” from the News app, your attention will not be diverted to your phone for a longer period of time.
If you can’t leave your phone in your car (or even at home!) turn off your phone when you’re around other people. This will help to stay focused on the present moment and the person in front of you. When there is a lull in the conversation, you won’t be tempted to turn to your phone to “check in,” and you will also not have the temptation to quickly look something up on Google — a gateway to more phone usage.
If you are using your phone all day at work, it could be nice to limit the times of day that you allow yourself access to it. If you get home at 6 from work, you could try to cut off phone usage past 7 p.m. This will give you time to read a book, practice that thing you’ve been wanting to learn (like calligraphy!), or write a letter to your mom. Turning it off or leaving it in the other room can help.
Invest in a good camera, an alarm clock, and a paper map. Make it something fun rather than just making it about taking something away — a mindfulness practice that can bleed into all aspects of your life.