As some of you might know, I’ve been doing monthly self-improvement challenges. In January it was daily journaling and a quick workout routine
(both of which I abandoned pretty quickly after the month ended).
In February I decided to follow the 30-day plan in Catherine Price’s How to Break Up with Your Phone. Compared to a lot of people, I thought I was already reasonably good about not constantly reaching for and scrolling through my phone, but I knew there was room for improvement.
This was an … interesting experience, to say the least.
The problem isn’t smartphones themselves. The problem is our relationships with them.Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone
Week 1 – Technology Triage
Setting intentions and gathering data are the theme for this first week, which makes sense — there’s not much point to adjusting your phone usage if you aren’t sure exactly why you want to adjust it or what you want to adjust it to.
To be honest, I wasn’t immediately sold on these exercises; they reminded me a lot of those writing prompts they would give you in school, and it felt a little bit like there was a right answer which I wasn’t getting. But I had resolved to give it a genuine chance, so I persevered.
Some exercises are actual actions to take (such as downloading an app to track how long and how frequently you use your phone) and some are journaling/thinking prompts.
Here’s a few excerpts from my Phone Breakup journal (which I kept in a Google doc, because apparently I substituted extra computer-screen time for the phone-screen time I anticipated giving up):
What do you want to pay attention to?
I want to pay attention to the in-between moments, to fully experience this period of my life since time is a non-renewable resource. I want to pay attention to what my professors are saying, what I’m reading, what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling.
If you had to guess, how many times a day do you pick up your phone?
Honestly, it could be as few as 20 or as many as 100; I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe 50? [It turned out to be about 25.]
How much time do you estimate that you spend on it per day?
Hm. Typically it’s just a few minutes at a time (waiting for the bus, checking in with friends) but I’m sure it adds up quickly. Maybe 3 hours? [It turned out to be about 2 hours 20 minutes.]
If I had more time, I would like to
- Build projects that I can proudly share
- (Re)connect with loved ones regularly
- Finish another novel
Week 2 – Changing Your Habits
Actually, several of these were things I already do or did, which made me feel better about myself (though less so about the 30-day plan): turning off notifications, not charging my phone next to my bed, not checking my phone when I should be paying attention to someone like a professor or a friend I’m talking to. (This last one is apparently called “phubbing”, which is a term I hadn’t previously heard of!)
But I did get some new ideas to incorporate into my daily routine, perhaps most notably among them was setting No-Phone Zones (my bed and my desk) and deciding the hours during which I’m actually allowed to use my phone, barring extenuating circumstances (between 10 am and 10 pm).
What really sold this week for me were the reminders that habit change is hard, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. There were nights I stayed up until 2 am on my phone, or sneaked onto Discord during a boring club meeting. Still, I felt like it was a net improvement — and, perhaps more importantly, a sustainable one.
Week 3 – Reclaiming Your Brain
Oh, man. This week really challenged my dedication to the plan. Not because the exercises were especially difficult, but because I’ve tried and failed meditation (at the repeated suggestions of a well-meaning therapist) and it felt … weird to consciously “stop, breathe, and be” in the middle of a busy day.
And then came the Trial Separation. Unfortunately I forgot to warn my parents that I would be turning off my phone for 24 hours, and they understandably freaked out when they couldn’t get in touch with me. (Since obviously I wasn’t picking up calls, and also I am bad at checking my email.) Oops.
Guilt over worrying my parents aside, though, I barely noticed the absence of my phone:
Honestly, it’s not new for me to not touch my phone over the weekend — since I’m on my laptop and Kindle already (studying, reading, or streaming shows) I don’t really feel a need to constantly check my phone.
But it did feel like a relief to not worry about missing notifications, ironically. I didn’t feel more focused, but I did feel less anxious. More in control.
So while I appreciated the idea of having a little weekly or monthly ritual of putting away your phone for a set period of time, apparently it was already something I unconsciously did?
Week 4 – Your New Relationship
This last week moves into the long-term: digital organization and mindset changes. Again, there were some that I already used: separate emails for subscriptions/online accounts and important communications, unfollowing people I no longer have personal relationships with, not multitasking, etc.
But it was helpful to have them listed out, and to check in with myself. To jot down habits I want to keep or build or break. To notice how I had redefined my relationship with my phone over these 30 days.
Although this 30-day plan certainly hasn’t totally changed my life, and a lot of the items were things I already do or previously tried, I feel more equipped to take charge of my phone usage going forward. I don’t expect my progress to be linear or only upward, especially since it certainly hasn’t been so far, but I’m proud of the progress I have made and will continue to make.
The key is to keep asking yourself the same question, again and again and again: this is your life — what do you want to pay attention to?Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone
How Am I Doing Now?
I think the 30-day plan has been effective in the long-term because it didn’t create a drastic shift in the way I use my phone, but rather nudged me to be more aware of it and of my offline life.
While I do still use messaging apps to keep in touch with friends (especially now that I’m home for the rest of the semester) and occasionally redownload Hearthstone to pass the time, these feel more like deliberate choices than reflexes arising from boredom. I’ve read more books per month this year than I did last year; I’ve also gotten back into writing original fiction and plan to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo next month.
Now I just have to complete a similar breakup with my laptop …
- Are you ever concerned about the quantity and/or quality of your daily screen time?
- Have you considered “breaking up” with your devices (smartphone, laptop, etc)? Or at least taking a substantial break from using them?
- What would you have time for if you cut down on your screen time?