There’s no denying that our smartphones have become a central part of our lives. We keep everything from our daily calendars to important emails and favorite photos all in the palm of our hand. It’s our friend. It gives us directions, lets us sign in for flights before we’re even at the airport, shows up funny videos when we’re bored (or in the bathroom) and occasionally rings. letting us hear another human’s voice on the other end.
A few years ago, I forgot my phone when I left the house to go to the grocery store and I felt completely lost in its absence. I kept trying to reach for it to check things before remembering it wasn’t there, then getting that lost feeling again. It was probably the longest hour of my life—make that second longest, my VBAC with Siggy definitively lasted decades—and I realized I needed to make a change.
With the new year just days away and seeing so many people asking questions about how to minimize phone time and be more present, I thought I would share what steps I took to put the phone down and be more intentional about how I use it.
The Big Move
I knew I needed separation from my phone, so I decided to take it out of my bedroom and get a real alarm clock. While I needed some space, I also wanted to make sure my phone was still accessible. Having 2 kids and husband that deployed regularly at the time, I needed to be able to get to quickly, so decided to put in a central location: our kitchen. Since we had an open floor plan and lots of counter space, I put my charger in the corner of one of the counters. Having the phone in the main area of the house meant I could hear if I got text, call or notification, but it didn’t have to be right next to me.
Another change we put in place is not allowing phones at the table. This one actually comes from growing when my mom didn’t allow my sister and I to have our phones (a Nextel and Blackberry, respectively) at the table. Even the home phone was taboo during dinner. Honestly, my only wish is that I could convince my husband to be completely screen-free while we eat, including the TV. I love being able to connect with each other as a family and not having to remind the kids to eat would fantastic.
Okay, full disclosure: am a Android girl. I’ve never had an iPhone and honestly don’t feel like I need an upgrade until either we change duty stations or the new models have made vast improvements to the camera (it’s the photographer side of me). That being said, I know most phones have these next features and I highly suggest using them.
The first is the Do Not Disturb function. This little guy basically blocks all notifications like the world’s worst secretary when you forgot her birthday. For about 3 years now, I’ve had this set to start at 8pm and turn off at 6:30am. Why? Because after I put the kids I know would be getting any messages, so I can put my phone on the charger and spend some quality time with Nick. I get up between 5-5:30, so this also gives me an hour before I get any notifications (which happen to come in at the same time the kids get up, in case I actually sleep in). For Android, you can set this up so if someone calls twice, the phone will ring on the second call, so in an emergency, someone can still get a hold of you.
The other distraction killer I love is called Focus mode. This is kind of like a lite version of the Do Not Disturb mode. You can choose which apps are accessible when you’re using this mode and even set up different settings. I use this a lot when I’m doing homework while the kids are at school. I created a setting called “school work” and made sure I access the school’s app, calculator, Spotify and the phone. This way, I will know if either of the schools call me, but I don’t get distracted by any messaging groups I’m in while I’m working.
Silencing the Noise
I realized I got a lot of notifications. From emails to games, shopping apps to social media; it felt like the phone rang every 5 minutes (and it may very well have). Let’s face it, we’re conditioned to look at our phones when they make noise, just like we look at an infant when they cough, cry or coo; we can’t help it (thanks Pavlov). Knowing this, I started going apps and turning off notifications. I didn’t need reminders to play a game or to know that light fixtures where on sale.
Starting with shopping and game apps made this an easy transition. Eventually, I deleted the games because I just play them, since the phone wasn’t always next to me. Next I turned off teh notifications on my social media apps (Facebook & Instagram). For me, silencing social media notifications was a HUGE step toward cutting my dependence on my phone. It took a few weeks, but I able to stop worrying about what was being posted by whom and started checking the app less and less. Over the last 3 years, I’ve taken several steps back from Facebook and really only check it a couple times a week, at most.
Unsubscribing from Clutter
After a few months, I eventually silenced my email notifications too, but I do suggest waiting until you feel ready for that. Before I took that leap, I decided to clean up my inbox and unsubscribed for any email I didn’t actually open or need (sorry, Torrid! I still love you!). I use unroll.me and still make it a point to go through my emails 3-4 time a year to clear out anything new that’s popped up. Unroll.me makes this really easy by listing all the email subscriptions you have and giving you the option to keep, delete or “roll up” those emails into 1 email. Initially I used the roll up feature, but then realized I just ended up deleting those, so I unsubscribed from all emails in that list too.
Having a clean inbox made is easier to wait to check my email, because I knew there wouldn’t be 200 unwanted messages to delete. Turning off the notifications means I can check my email when I’m ready and have time. No more feeling pressure while I cook dinner because the phone pinged or waking up to 10 notifications in a row. My inbox is a happier, more organized place and no longer feels like the Pit of Despair.
No matter why you choose to distance yourself from your phone, remember that our dependence on the device is a learned behavior. It’s going to take time to change your habits and unlearn that you need to be in constant contact with your phone. You can start small and gradually make changes when you feel ready or go all in, which ever works best for you. Some people take social media breaks while they do this, others set themselves restrictions on what times or how long they can use the phone. Most phones have a digital wellness app built in, so you can track your average daily use, how many times you unlock your phone and your most used apps. This can be a great starting point to really understand how you use your phone and what changes you want to make. No matter what you choose, give yourself some grace as you replace your old behaviors with new ones. You’ve got this, friend!