No more Zombie Mode: how to spend less time on your phone

I’d call myself crazy if I told this 5 years a go. A while ago, I forgot my phone. Not that I lost it, I just didn’t think about it. I was taking the dog for a walk, and only when I arrived home I remembered that I had it on me the whole time. I could have been checking my phone the whole time during the walk, but I didn’t. And for some reason I felt sort of proud of that.

I have these moments where I’m completely hypnotized by my phone, and only when the battery dies I snap out of it, foggy in my head (and often I notice some cross-eyedness as well). Some six weeks ago I decided that it was enough. My phone usage, and especially my Whatsapp usage has gotten out of hand so I wanted to change my habits. I had to, all this just simply demanded too much of my time.

And I’m not alone. According to a U.S. Study, adults spend an average of three hours each day on their phone1. A friend of mine, a high-school teacher, once said that smartphone usage is a huge problem in high schools, as well as elementary school. But also at work it seems normal now to check your phone regularly. It seems there is a true smartphone pandemic. Apparently, I’m completely wasting my time along with the rest of the Dutch people. But there are lots of other things I want to achieve, skills I want to develop, books I want to read. This could go on no further.

Six weeks later, I don’t feel the urge to check my phone that often. A lot of mental noise has disappeared, I discovered that it’s easier to get in the flow of tasks, I can focus more easily on conversations as well as movies, books and tasks as well as writing this blog. Overall I’m a lot more productive.

In this story I’d like to tell you how I went from a phone-zombie to a lovely, moderate phone user. Why is my phone so addictive? What do we do on Whatsapp and if I quit, is that bad? What works and what doesn’t if I want to change my behavior? I think this story also applies in a broader sense, about changing yourself in general. There are, of course, a lot of things that have been written on this subject. But I noticed that a lot of articles tend to keep it short and tend to stick to tips and tricks. They don’t ask the questions behind the questions. It think that’s important because when I understand the why, I can start motivating myself more easily. Now I’m not a journalist nor a psychologist but I’ll try to go as in depth and be clear about it as much as much as I can. Let’s go!

Our phone seems to transform us into modern zombies. We’re all hugely wasting our time on Whatsapp, Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder. We’re ok while we’re checking our phones, but just after a long social media binge, or when we’re evaluating our behavior, it doesn’t seem that we’re too happy about ourselves. For example I hear a lot of new year’s resolutions about spending less time on the smartphone. So I guess a lot of people want to change their ways. But how are we going to do that? If I make new year’s resolution that’s great, but just that won’t get me there. I need some sort of plan.

Now I used to make excuses for myself. I’d say: “I’m just more sensitive to addiction than others”. Or: “I have so many things to think about. I’ll do this later.” But that doesn’t fix the problem. So if I want to change myself, I have to do something with these excuses. I didn’t think of them for no reason, right? Maybe they’re there because deep down I don’t want to change myself. Or maybe it’s because I don’t believe in myself in general. Maybe I’m insecure. Maybe we’re al insecure. Then I’ll just see insecurity as something I can’t change on the spot, but it’ll take training to become more self-confident. Who knows, that one day I can change whatever I want instantly, without having these moments of relapse. How cool is that!

One technique I learnt comes from cognitive behavioral therapy, called rephrasing. This way you can rephrase something you are saying to yourself, for example an excuse, to something else. That way the excuse can morph from a problem into a something that makes you want come into action. Language has the power to do that. For example, when I say “I am just very sensitive to addiction” is a passive statement. It’s easy to accept it, because it keeps me where I am (the comfort zone). But now let’s rephrase this to: “The amount of time it takes me to become addicted to something is less that most people”. Suddenly the same statement contains a sort of solution to a problem. That is, that it keeps my “self” out of the statement. It’s more confident that way because it doesn’t contain the “I am” but “I have”. I’m not sensitive per se, but i tend to become addicted quicker than average. By the way I don’t believe that I’m that sensitive to addiction. Someone once told me that, but I don’t like it. It’s negative and doesn’t imply action. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s not a problem until I really become addicted to something, right? As long as I believe that statement, things don’t change.

Nowadays I rephrase almost from something with a negative connotation to something positive. I won’t say: “this won’t work at all”, but: “Has it ever worked, if yes, will it work a second time?” Complicated is something I feel doesn’t. A large problem always exists of smaller parts. How does one devour a whale? One bite at a time. Time is the the only parameter. Okay, there are limitations. I’m never going to be a pro football player, but I guess 90% of the new skills I want to learn are still doable. That probably changes when I get old but for now I’m pretty young so lets ignore that.

If you want, you can try it out. Learn to recognize an excuse you’re making for yourself and try to rephrase. If you’re like me, very slowly you’ll start to notice that you’ll stop making excuses entirely. Let’s continue. How do we free ourselves from our phones? It must not be that hard to come up with ways to get ourselves into action. Like the opposite of excuses.

Let’s approach our smartphone problem in a good old positive manner. What if I fail and I give up, which means I continue my old ways, spending 2-3 hours a day on my phone. Am I weak if I can’t get to force myself into action somehow? Of course not! I’m just a human being, so I’m not going to punish myself for being normal. Also there have never been so many people with the same problem as I do right now. One thing’s for sure; calling myself weak wont change my behavior. So let’s not take the negative road. This is going to work, I’m remembering myself that I only need to be patient and try again when I’m having a weak moment or relapse. Babysteps.

So let’s analyze how I got so addicted in the first place. What’s going on?

Everyday, developers at Facebook research how they can improve my user experience. One tool they use, for example, is A/B testing. Sophisticated bleepy sounds, little red dots for notification, emails.. Everything gets tested to pull me into their apps. And they’re good at it. Apparently their definition of a good user experience is one where I’m spending all of my waking hours on my phone. Because of ads, of course.

Could it be that I’m not addicted per se, but that I’m conditioned to check my phone? If I want to get an uneasy, little stressful feeling in my head, all I have to do is think about Whatsapp. Maybe I have a new message. What about you? Do you have a new message already? Maybe you should check. Maybe I should check. No, I’m not going to. Oh yeah. I’m definitely feeling this urge to grab my phone. The “urge” is an automatic response that doesn’t need any conscious effort. I’m not even thinking anymore about content of that potential message. It’s all about the thrill of checking my phone.

What also doesn’t help with changing my ways is that I’m someone who has trouble concentrating. Or at least, that’s what people told me when I was little, so I just accepted that as a true fact. That’s why I never made a serious effort to do something about that. I just kept on distracting myself with whatever I could find so I didn’t get all that much done. Although I’ve always wondered why I could spend hours on end on videogames, tv or, nowadays, my phone. Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

Let’s talk about the negative effects of Whatsapp has, so I know what to look out for when I’m changing my behavior. Let’s say I wanted to check Whatsapp, but just “for a few minutes”, I always promise myself that. But these “few minutes” somehow turn into at least ten minutes up to two hours. Then all is lost, because I’m tumbling from one automatism into the next. It’s what I call my Zombie Mode. Just a few minutes of Facebook, then Instagram, then Snapchat, Tinder et cetera. What was I doing again? O yes, writing an article. Could it be that my phone use is slowly breaking down my ability to concentrate?

There’s also this thing that bothers me when I’m in a conversation and I lose my focus. Maybe the conversation is not that interesting, but still. It makes me want to check my phone. It would be very uncool to actually do that, so I wont. So then, during the boring conversation I’m thinking: “No, I’m not going to check my phone, focus. What was he talking about again?” And while I’m talking to myself during that conversation, of course I’m completely missing the story. So in the end I’m spending all this mental energy on myself, which isn’t very social nor polite towards the one I’m talking with.

Another effect is that the phone is an easy way for me to escape difficult tasks. if a task becomes complicated, for example writing this article, I’m already feeling this urge to grab my phone. That, in the end, makes me be less productive.

And then there’s the forgetfulness. It seems that phone use, or any addiction for that matter, and forgetting things are linked. It’s as if I forget to do important things for a day. I’m not exactly sure how that works, and it’s all a very subtle almost vague experience. I can’t really put my finger on it, but lately I feel clearer in my head and less forgetful already. As if the fog lifts.

So is excessive phone use harmful? It seems that I can’t spend a lot of time on one task without distracting myself from it. I can’t focus all that well, I’m not that productive and maybe it’s making me forget stuff. If I stop using my phone, will all these problems be solved? Should I just throw my phone away? To be honest I really like my phone. It makes me stay in touch with friends and it makes me relax. So what are the positive effects of Whatsapp?

For one, it’s an ideal tool to meet up with friends. Lunch, coffee, sports, band rehearsal. It would be a lot less convenient if I couldn’t do these things. Social media use makes up for the majority of the time spent on my phone. Whatsapp is the first thing I do when I check my phone. Then the other apps follow. It seems like a good idea to break down what Whatsapp is actually used for, so we can understand if we can safely stop using it.

Typical Whatsapp-moments would be using it before going to sleep, when waking up, in public transport, during work. Every situation has its own advantages and risks. , but almost every time I forget the time and go to bed too late.

Typical Whatsapp-moments would be in the morning, in public transport, during work or before going to bed. In the morning, when I’m just waking up, I almost always check my phone. What could my friends have sent me when I was sleeping? When I’m in public transport, that’s a great moment to check my phone. I don’t have that much to do anyway, right? Of course, between work, I can always check if I got some messages. And how nice is it to lay in bed and to send a few messages to dear friends?

But in the morning, checking my phone before I do everything else isn’t a great start of the day. For some reason, I start multitasking. I check my phone while putting on socks and brushing my teeth. So instead now I’m taking a shower first, having breakfast, spend time on my blog for the day and only then, of course I can check my Whatsapp for a bit. I already have done something productive. And when I’m riding the train, of course I can check my phone. And I will, for a short period of time because there is always that book I always wanted to read. And during work, I just look at it for a few minutes when I’m on break. I hate it if a co-worker next to me is distracting him/herself with their phone, so I don’t want to be that person. And then before going to bed is a risky business, because I’m tired and it’s hard to put the phone away. So for now I’m still struggling with this. What helps for me is setting my alarm early in the evening.

If I were to stop using Whatsapp, what would happen? Would I lose my friends? Probably not. My friends would understand. All of the friends whom we speak only on Whatsapp aren’t really friends I guess. Real friends are the ones you actually meet.

Would I become a boring person then? Again, probably not. If anything, it’s the other way around. As someone who spends a lot of time on his phone, I don’t feel like I have a lot to say in company. I mean; what do you talk about? There wouldn’t be a lot of things that make my life unique to me as a person when I spend all of it consuming online. How is that better than TV? While there is so much awesome stuff to do in a day! Drumming, running, dancing, drawing, reading a book. Yeah.

And what about chatting to that one girl I like? It’s safe, talking through text. But still, I’d eventually want to meet her. If I won’t meet up with her, all the time spent on my phone would be a waste of time. Also, not everyone is that expressive in text. Oh, the Tinder days. So there’s also the risk that the person in my head is completely different than the one in real life. I’d better ask her as soon as possible if she wants to have a drink.

I haven’t found a really good reason why I should spend such a huge amount of time on Whatsapp as I’m doing. But I’d hate it if I’d accidentally miss an appointment or an invite to a party. The goal here is spend more time living than phoning, right? This happened to me exactly one time. A friend asked if I wanted to grab a drink, but I saw the message too late. In the meantime my friend made other plans. Fortunately, he called later in the evening if I still had an hour or so left. He called! So yeah, it can happen that I miss an appointment now and then. I just accepted this a a temporary side effect.

When I’m consciously spending time on something, I seem to enjoy it more than if I would just “fill” my spare time with stuff. That means that if I decide to spend half an hour to check my Whatsapp, it’s different than when I check out of habit, or ‘accidentally’. In the latter case, I’d always have a little whispering voice in the back of my head to tell me that I’m probably wasting my time and I should spend it on other, more useful things. Being more conscious also helps me recognise when I’m going into Zombie Mode. Some people seem to call it mindfulness, but I just think that’s hippietalk.

So how do I undo my conditioned brain? I found a few tips on the internet. I shut off my notifications of course. Not just from the app settings, but from the system settings. Apps tend to “forget” their settings after an update. Facebook is really good at that. Also I don’t see those white icons in the upper left corner. I don’t need any of those triggers.

Also I can be aware to not start new chats on Whatsapp. Everything you send will get you a response. That way I’m doing the other a favor of spending less time on their phone, too.

I’ve tried removing Facebook. Doesn’t work. After a while I’m checking the mobile website and a month later I installed the app again because the website was not sufficient. It looks like I really have to change my own behavior. I think we can still dig a little deeper to see what we can do on a psychological level. Because in the end here is what it comes down to:

I want to spend less time on my phone, so I’m going to spend less time on my phone.

Before I’m able to change my behavior, I need to know what exactly it is to change. Maybe I need to start an inner dialogue, talk a bit with myself. As I would talk to someone else. In a positive constructive manner.

When am I spending the most time? What happened before I grabbed my phone?

When I’m grabbing my phone I say to myself; no, don’t. I won’t be able to do this all the time, so I’m just going to keep reminding myself not to look on my phone. I wonder how long it takes before I feel confident I’m not dependent on my phone. A week? A month? A year? I think in the end I have to do it on my own. All those tools and apps are ok, but the solution isn’t always in the technology.

So if that works, what will I do with those 3 hours each day I found? I’m surely not going to stare at a wall. Because then I become bored, and that probably makes me grab my phone again. I need a substitute behavior. There are lots of skills I can develop, and lots of people that I enjoy spending time with. And of course, writing this blog substitutes my phone time. That’s not a coincidence.

Since those six weeks I already feel a lot less of an urge to check my phone. But I’ve had a few relapses. But that’s okay, too. I’m discovering that getting into the flow of things is easy. It happens almost daily. Now and then I feel the phone nagging for attention, but yeah, that’s just my brain getting used to the new situation I guess. It’s already a lot easier to handle those moments than when I first started.

It’s funny. I’m getting into the flow, for example by writing this piece, and I’m also getting into the flow by checking my phone. One’s good, one’s bad. Or, at least, that’s my decision. I decide that spending time on my phone is bad, and writing this article is good. In both cases I forget the world around me, and I forget the things I need to do each day. Maybe our brains just like getting in the flow. If I were to spend all my waking hours writing blogs wouldn’t be wise either.

How many times may I check my smartphone each day? My brother said he treats Whatsapp the same as his email inbox which I thought was quite interesting. Although I’m checking my email twice a day. I don’t feel like that’s enough for Whatsapp. It’s also a bit of trial and error to find the right frequency. Now I first want to have done something useful. I have a big, clear to-do list so I can always remind myself what I want to do on a day.

Am I too hard for myself if I’d stop using Whatsapp altogether? It’s not that bad, is it? It’s a great tool if it leads to real live contact. But I don’t want to have those long chats anymore. When that happens it’s better to just arrange a meeting. I have to learn to separate the time-wasting moments from the ones that matter. In real life I can be much more nuanced in my communication. I have to remind myself of that. Also I will have the time to fully immerse myself in other things, like that one book I still wanted to read. That also helps with having something to talk about. I hate having that feeling of not being in control. As if life forces you to do stuff. From now on, I check my Whatsapp after I’m done with important tasks. Let’s just see how that goes for now.

There’s this noise in my head that I now recognize when I’m on my phone accidentally. I remember myself that there are other things that need to be done, even when at that moment I’m not sure what they are. And I know that I have to stop looking at my phone before there will be room in my head to remember those tasks. When I’m done with a few of those tasks, important ones preferably, only then I allow using my phone for a short period of my precious time. I will have to be careful when it’s late, because it seems more difficult to stop looking when I’m tired. I still have these urges to distract myself, but I recognize them now and that make is pretty easy to ignore them. And there are definitely drawback symptoms.

Such a relief. I feel a lot more free from my phone. As if the world opens up and I can do what I want. Suddenly I have found vast amounts of time to spend on fun or meaningful things. Nowadays I sometimes leave my phone at home. Or I forget it completely, like that one time I was walking the dog. I was proud of that because it made me remind myself about my progress.

I’m happy with where I am right now, and I’m not there yet. That moment will probably take a year or two. Now and then I will still have these off-days and I just grab my phone and won’t care about anything. But I guess we’re all human. Tomorrow I’ll try again.

There’s this point in life when you say: fuck it, I decide what I’m going to spend my time on, not my phone. And maybe it’s because I’m 29. But I became tired of having to deal with the noise and the stress. I know what I want, I have control over my own time. And that feeling is what I wanted to share with you. Hope it helps.

Sources

An interesting piece about smartphone addiction, which contains the statement about the 3 hours adults spend daily on their smartphone. By journalist Wouter van Noort for dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad

http://www.nrc.nl/next/2015/12/30/vier-uur-per-dag-naar-dat-kleine-schermpje-loeren-1570875

Log

15 jan 10:13 –

14 jan 10:14 – 11:03 (45 min) 100% done, next time finishing touches.

13 jan 11:30 – 12:54 (85 min) 80% done

12 jan 23:06 – 23:20 (15 min) 66% done

11 jan 9:45 – 10:23 (35 min) 65% done

10 jan 00:25 – 00:55 (30 min) 50% done

9 jan 10:49 – 11:42 (55 min) 30% done

8 jan 10:23 – 10:48 (30 min) start translating

7 jan 9:52 – 10:23 (30 min) Klaar, totaal 15,8 uur besteed 🙂

6 jan 8:24 – 9:19 (55 min) Stofkam momentje 2, blijven verfijnen. Nog heel ff.. Geduld. Dit wordt prachtig 🙂

5 jan 8:53 – 10:15 (85 min) Alles doorlezen. Stofkam momentje. Dit stuk kan bijna live.

4 jan 10:02 – 11:10 (70 min) Zie eind 4 jan, verder verfijnen. Samenhang. Therefore, but, meanwhile, back at the ranch.

3 jan 10:00 – 12:14 (120 min) Zie eind 3 jan, verder herschrijven ik-vorm.

2 jan 10:45 – 11:34 (50 min) zie 2 jan om verder te herschrijven

1 jan 16:15 – 16:57 (45 min) Volgende keer de ik-vorm beginnen in te bouwen.

31 dec 12:30 – 13:31 (60 min) Structuur is nu zo goed als af. Whatsapp-lijstje inkorten. (nadenken over evt. afbeeldingen)? Psychologische onderbouwing?

30 dec 11:01 – 12:03 (60 min) Volgende keer bezig met: “Wat loop je eigenlijk mis als je geen (of minder) whatsapp checkt?” Geef het een plek in het verhaal.

29 dec 10:28 – 11:22 (55 min) Volgende keer kijken wat ik in de tweede helft van het verhaal precies wil vertellen.

28 dec 9:29 – 10:08 (35 min) Volgende keer dit verhaal even helemaal doorlezen zonder meteen in een zin te duiken, en aantekenen waar het nog beter kan.

27 dec 22:11 – 23:18 (65 min) verder met schrijven. Einde verder oppakken volgende keer.

26 dec 10:00 – 11:42 (100 min) intro en analyse redelijk voor elkaar, probleem groot maken en oplossing aandragen.

25 dec 10:06 – 10:54 (50 min) Structureren, verder schrijven. De intro goed gebruiken als lijn, en laten terugkomen overal.

24 dec 9:31 – 10:39 (70 min) Initiële setup. Volgende keer meteen een lijn in het verhaal. Een intro, een verkenning, een plan.

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