Smart ideas

How I kicked my smartphone habit, and never looked back

By Alex Wood 9 March 2017
image: AndreyPopov/iStock

No willpower? No problem.

The first thing I reached for was my email.

After my shower, I checked Twitter. Do you realise how hard it is to dry yourself with one hand?

Breakfast fought for my attention as I scrolled through my tweets. Twitter won. Breakfast went cold.

Instagram was top of mind as I walked to the station. I was so absorbed I forgot to look ahead. Then I crashed into a commuter. She was taking a selfie.

I’m a smartphone addict.

And I’m not the only one. Recent studies suggest we’re all turning into zombies, tapping our smartphones over a million times a year, spending around 3 hours a day glued to them.

But this year something changed. I checked into digital rehab and found a way to “cure” my addiction. It really worked and I haven’t looked back.

People said I couldn’t do it, but with some simple tricks, I did. Here’s how:

1) Rip out your phone charger

Charging your phone by your bedside has to be the worst way to start and end your day, yet we all do it.

If you want the most impact with the least effort – move your charger and never let it back in your bedroom. Rip your partner’s charger out too. They won’t like it – but they’ll thank you a few weeks later.

Tip – Buy a ‘charging station’ and charge all your devices in a room far away from your bedroom. No excuses.

2) Blitz all your notifications

You don’t need notifications. That email can wait. Your picture got a like on Instagram – so what?

We survived without them before, and I realised 99% are a waste of time. Start by disabling ALL of yours. If you honestly miss something critical – turn the notification back on. You’ll be surprised how few you actually need.

Tip – Don’t use “Do not Disturb” on iOS or Android. You’re sticking a plaster on the problem. Man up and deal with it properly.

3) Delete Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and any other poison apps

This one is the hardest to do. If you want an easy fix, delete these apps immediately.

You won’t miss out – you can still get your Facebook fix through Safari or Chrome browsers AND with all these apps no longer tracking your every move (they really do), you’ll find your battery will last much, much longer.

But for me, even the hassle of going through a browser instead of an app wasn’t enough to stop me coming back. So then I decided to…

4) Switch to Android

Sorry Apple fans – this is where Android is light years ahead. I have embarrassingly-bad willpower and need all the help I can get.

The sheer number of tools and tricks for people with no self-control available on Android was one of the reasons I quit my iPhone for good.

Download AppBlock. It’s the simplest way to force yourself to stop. You select those time-wasting apps (yes I reinstalled them) to be blocked automatically at times to fit your schedule.

Here’s what worked for me:

Working days: 08:30 – 12:30,  13:00 – 18:00 (All social media blocked with a 30-minute gap at lunch).

Evenings: 20:00 – 06:00 (Social media + work email blocked).

Weekends: Sat, Sun (Social media + work email blocked).

Sounds extreme, but it works. Find a schedule that fits around your life.

Tip: In the settings for each schedule click the padlock in the top right corner to “lock it”. This means the only way you can disable your schedule is by plugging into a charger. Great for people with appalling self-control.

Tip 2: Find yourself checking in on Facebook etc in your mobile browser just as much the apps? Download TrendMicro Mobile Security and use the “Network protection” feature to blacklist all the services you’re addicted to.

5) Stop checking your email (seriously)

This one can be tough if you ‘need’ to be contactable throughout the day at work. If you’re at your desk, by all means keep your inbox open, but there’s no need for your phone to be constantly checking your emails.

For addicts like me, even without notifications, the temptation to check my inbox is far too great. So set your inbox to fetch new emails when you open the app (and control when it opens with Appblock), because when you’re in a meeting – be in a meeting, not in your inbox.

Tip – Need notifications for specific urgent emails? Set up alerts for specific senders (eg. your boss or clients) or urgent subject lines with a free service from IFTTT. Read our guide to IFTTT for more info. 

What happened next

It’s been 6 months since I started this experiment. Before, I used to wake up tired. My body would ache and my head felt sore, like waking up with a hangover.

Finally, I took control, like attending an AA class for addicts, I faced my tech demons. Now I wake up refreshed and realise how much it was a ‘real’ addiction that affects your health.

And my love life changed too. Remember when you first started dating? Those late night chats in bed that seemed to go on forever. In those moments, you felt so close, like together you were unstoppable.

I thought that withered away with time. It doesn’t, it’s your smartphone getting in the way. Now those moments are back. And I don’t want them to disappear again.

And on the work front, I get more done. Sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. Before I couldn’t get through a meeting, a TV show or even dinner with friends without “checking in”.

Now I know what it means to have focus. To give something my full attention and live in the moment. Anyone that wears their “always online” badge with pride and claims to be super productive is talking shit. They’re not.

Since cutting back, I gained an extra 84 hours each month. That’s 4 days a month worth of wasted time put to good use.

Finding the right fix for you

This experience reminded me a lot of dieting. There’s no quick fix – these tricks took me months to tweak and fit around my own life. Just like crash diets – quitting your smartphone altogether just isn’t going to work in today’s world.

It’s about finding balance. I became conscious of what matters to me, in my life. My smartphone is still a part of it, but it’s no longer the boss.

And I never looked back. And I hope you won’t look back either.