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Are You a Phone Addict?

Discover 4 simple ways to break your phone addiction.

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More than half of Americans say that smartphones have made it harder to give others their undivided attention. And most of us don't realize that using our phones during social events actually diminishes our own experience of those events. So we continue to use our smartphones, believing that everyone, except us, is responsible for our unsatisfying social interactions. The truth? We're addicted to our phones. And only we can fix it.

So what can we do? One answer: don’t use our phones. But that’s easier said than done, right? How is that supposed to work now in the digital age, when we need our phones to get around and stay connected. Here are some simple guidelines for how to break the phone addiction and use your phone wisely.

1. Turn off notifications for everything that is non-essential.

For example, on my phone I only keep notifications on for phone calls and text-messages. There will never be a social media post or app notification important enough to me that I would allow it harm my connections with others. You might be different, so you’ll have to decide for yourself where you draw the line. But you do need to draw a line somewhere. Go into your phone right now and turn off all notifications that are non-essential for you.

2. Define for yourself what you consider to be an important call or text.

What if you are waiting to hear back from someone who needs directions? What if your boss is planning to get back to you about an important project? What if the babysitter needs to be able to get in touch with you quickly? Think about the types of messages you would consider to be “important”. If you find that your list is getting really long, then zoom in on what’s “extremely important”. Before meeting up with others, use your list to determine how your phone will or will not be part of the interaction. If you’re expecting an important message, leave your phone on. If you’re not, turn your phone off or keep it a separate location.

3. Decide what you will do when you keep your phone on.

There will be times–maybe many times–when you decide to keep your phone on. So what do you do then? Your underlying goal here will be to devote 100% of your attention to others when you are with them and 100% of your attention to your phone when you are with it. I have found the best way to do this is to periodically excuse myself, walk away, and look at my phone some place private–like in the bathroom or outside.

Want to improve even faster? Ask your friends and family to help you. We are so used to pulling out our phones for just about everything–some estimates say we reach for our phones an average of 150 times per day. So we might not even notice when we do it. By asking others to keep you accountable, you may be able to build this skill more easily and quickly.

4. Decide what you will give your attention to.

So you’ve stepped away from others to check your phone. Maybe you see a text from your babysitter–your kiddo has a slight cough but nothing to worry about. Maybe your boss emailed you feedback on a project but it doesn’t need to be reviewed until Monday. If this message is not important, don’t engage with it. If you do, your attention could get hijacked–not just in that moment, but for as long as it takes for your brain to refocus on what’s happening in front of you.

For example, let’s say I decide to read my boss’s email and I discover that instead of positive feedback, I get a list of things I need to fix. Once I’ve read the message, even if I don’t plan to respond, that’s all I can think about. Reading that message prevents me from being able to pay attention and be fully present during any of my interactions for several hours.

Instead of just reading or listening to every message right when you get it, ask yourself: “Is this message important enough that I’m willing to risk it ruining the next few minutes, or hours, or however long it’ll take me to focus again?” If so, then fine. We each have to decide what we will and will not allow in our own lives. But if you do decide to read the message anyway, reflect on how it makes you feel during subsequent conversations? Are you having a hard time listening? Does your mind keep going back to the message? If so, then your interactions will end up being less satisfying for you and for others.

What might happen?

Following each of these guidelines can really help you enjoy your social interactions more. And, as a pleasant side effect, you may notice that your efforts start to have positive effects on others as well. These days, we tend to be accustomed to low quality interactions, constantly interrupted by buzzes and people staring at screens while only half-listening to us. So when we start giving people our undivided attention, they really appreciate it and engage with more fully us in return.

Since I started following these guidelines, all my social interactions have improved–people seem more eager to talk to me, I am more often invited to social events, and people even try harder to keep their phones out of view when they are with me. I’m not sure if they realize they are doing it–its just human nature to treat others as they treat you. And since I don’t use my phone with them, leaving them feeling neglected, they try to do the same for me. So it seems that putting our phones away with others leads to an upward spiral of positive interactions.

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Kushlev, K., Media technology and well-being: A complementarity-interference model, in Handbook of well-being, S.O. E. Diener, & L. Tay, Editor. 2018: Salt Lake City, UT.

Dwyer, R., K. Kushlev, and E. Dunn, Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2017.