How to Maintain Presence with a Phone

Photo by  Blake Barlow

Photo by Blake Barlow

Originally published in the Ascent

You’ve heard it all before: phones enable so much wonder, yet can be alarmingly detrimental to our well-being.

Since the advent of the first iPhone just over a decade ago (crazy to think about, right?) smartphones have become ubiquitous; almost every adult that I know, both in first-world and developing countries, has one.

Phones, or at least many of the interfaces and applications that they run, are designed to be extremely addictive and aggravate our already overloaded minds. Dialogue around the many pros and cons of our devices are nothing new, so I don’t intend to continue pointlessly listing things that you’re already aware of.

But we don’t have to be slaves to our phones, and this is what I hope to explore and share with you in this article; small tricks with big results can be implemented to change how we relate to and use them.

Defining the Problem

Photo by  Robin Worrall

Photo by Robin Worrall

It’s so easy to rapidly flip from one thing to another on our devices that it’s common, as I’m sure you’re well aware, to be largely unconscious of what we’re engaging with and why we’re doing it in the first place.

Yet the many benefits inherent to modern technology and global infrastructure have made it very difficult to live without a smartphone. Having accepted the reality of this situation, I continually ask myself how I can relate to my rectangular friend in a more intentional way.

What can help me slow down and remind me of the pitfalls of over-use when I’m most susceptible to them? I’ve found a few things to be particularly helpful.

When I’m feeling anxious, frustrated, and likely to turn to my phone for distraction, several techniques remind me of why I may have picked it up, or discourage me from doing so in the first place.

Turn on Grayscale

Photo by  Marjan Grabowski

Most phones have the option to toggle “grayscale”, where colors are displayed in black and white.

For me, this has been the single most impactful thing in changing my relationship to my phone.

By stripping away all the neuron-stimulating colors on your phone, you are less motivated to check your phone even without any calls ringing or notifications buzzing.

Interacting with a colorless screen is far less enticing than the inverse. And yes, science backs this up.

If you absolutely need color, for whatever reason, make sure to enable night shift, essentially helping to reduce blue light (which suppresses production of your sleep hormone: melatonin).

Use a Timer

If I know I’m going to have to engage with my device for a prolonged period, I’ll set a timer with the intention to focus only on that one thing for the entire duration of the time. And if I don’t need internet for that activity? Then I’ll make sure to use airplane mode.

Even if I need to go on social media to interact with someone, I’ll set a timer…and often find that I’ll have been distracted by all the enticing tidbits we all know so well.

Setting a timer for my use of media platforms ensures that I don’t wake from a mindless stupor wondering where my time suddenly vanished.

…and Set Times for When you “Need” to Check Your Phone

If you don’t need to be responding continually to something (which, in all probability, you don’t), consider setting specific times where you check your device for updates.

This has helped me avoid the dozens of times per day that the average person checks their phone, and I feel better for it.

Count the Number of Times You Check Your Phone

I came across a statistic some time ago claiming that Millennials, fueled by a need for instant gratification, check their phones up to 150 times per day.

This was jarring (to say the least), so I experimented with recording, over the course of a week, my own average.

At that time, I’d thought myself quite conscious with my phone usage, so you can imagine my surprise at finding that I still looked at my screen almost 50 times per day.

This realization motivated me to change, and is a simple way to generate more awareness around your own habits.

Reduce Reduce Reduce: Notifications

Turn on Do Not Disturb Mode. If you can, enable airplane mode.

Of the apps on my phone, only a fraction of them are set to send me notifications; the only time that I allow my phone to vibrate is when a call is coming through.

While your situation may require that you can be easily reached, at least consider if you really need to have all the notifications enabled that you do.

If you use your phone as an alarm clock, or need to leave it on at night for some other reason, make sure to use airplane mode.

Checking your phone first thing in the morning essentially makes you start the day on someone else’s terms. Mornings are a time for output, not external stimulation.

For a great resource on how to get out of the dopamine spiral of checking your phone, take a look at this post by Tristan Harris.

Techniques to Type Slower

I’m really good at typing on a phone. Most people today are, unsurprising given how much time we spend doing it. There have been moments where I observe my thumbs move without a thought, astonished at how fast they glide over the screen.

This is nice, at times, but can also be a detriment when I’m feeling anxious or over stimulated, doing the opposite of calming my taxed mind.

Making a conscious effort to slow down my typing has really helped.

Try Narration

“And then he exited Instagram, and opened up Facebook!”

While this may seem silly, narrating my activities on a phone help to snap me out of the vortex that I’d so often get sucked in to.

It’s also fun, and can put into perspective how ridiculous my interactions with my phone can be.

A Quick Recap

The single most impactful way that I’ve curbed my negative habits around phone usage has been to enable grayscale mode. If you do nothing else, I’m willing to bet this will make a huge difference.

The other key takeaways? Try timing your interactions with your phone, set specific times that you use it, reduce the amount of notifications that catch your attention, and observe how many times per day you check your phone.

I hope you’ve found this article to be of support in some way.

Thanks for reading!