A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone

It’s there: in your pocket. On the desk. In the cup holder of the car.

You want to use it. Just grab it and alleviate the boredom or discomfort. Might as well check the headlines instead of struggling to type words on a blank screen. And why stay in this tense argument with your spouse when you can see what’s new on Instagram? “Hey, sorry buddy, I can’t play dinosaurs right now — I have to answer this email.”

That’s what our phones have become. An instant escape, and a constant burden. I remember when I got my first BlackBerry. It was an exciting and surprisingly moving moment. Not because of the technology, but because of what it meant: Someone at my job thought I was important enough to need one of these.

Over the years, though, that pride has worn off. My phone, once a source of liberation — I could check my email without having to go home, which meant I could spend more time out doing things — eventually became a weight that tied me down. Instead of making me better at my job, it started preventing what Cal Newport calls “deep work” — focused, dedicated, creative time. Instead of helping me have fun, it was making me miserable.

So recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use it less. About how to get the benefits from the technology without all the downsides.

If that’s what you’re looking for, too, these strategies might help you. Some of them are easy. Others are tougher, and you’ll probably think some of them are nuts. Maybe they are. But they work.

My lock screen is almost always blank. It’s not because nothing is happening or nobody needs me. It’s because I went into the general settings on my phone and turned off all alerts by default, with the exception of texts and alarms for literal emergencies. (In Texas, we have flash floods and tornadoes.) Even once I unlock my phone, I don’t see any red circles showing me how many messages or notifications I have. I don’t need Strava to tell me I need to check Strava. I definitely don’t allow anything to make noise or buzz me. (I turned off vibrate for texts as well.) No alerts means fewer things to check and a lot less FOMO.

One of the best decisions I made a few years ago was to limit how people can get in touch with me. Some people have email, text, phone calls, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger, Twitter and Instagram DMs, LinkedIn messages, Slack, Telegram, and God knows what else. No wonder they’re overwhelmed.

I basically limit myself to three: You can text, email, or call me. Email is day-to-day work stuff, texts are for friends and family, and when my phone rings, it’s usually something important from either one of those groups. I no longer feel the need to check 20 different apps and inboxes 50 times a day, because I know everything that actually matters will come in through one of those three channels.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is known for giving his young staffers old-school alarm clocks — not because he wants to make sure they’re on time for work, but so they don’t have an excuse to sleep with their phone on the nightstand. If you have an alarm that’s not your clock app, your phone can go in the other room, and if your phone is in the other room, you can’t check it at night.

This means you won’t know if you get a text message or an email. It means you won’t be tempted to scroll through social. It means you’ll have to lie there with your own thoughts, read a book, or maybe even go to sleep at a reasonable time.

About six months ago, I was invited to a challenge on the habit-building app Spar to not touch my phone for at least 10 minutes after I woke up. I’d been sleeping with it in the other room for years, but I still usually grabbed it first thing in the morning.

The challenge came with a powerful incentive — each time I failed, I’d have to pay $10. But the real draw was that it meant I could focus on being present with my son in my first waking moments. Soon, I started challenging myself to stretch 10 minutes into 30, then 45, then an hour. Now some mornings, if I am writing, I might not touch my phone until lunch. On those days, I’m happier and more productive.

I’m not a big fan of the “solve a device problem with another device” logic, but in this case, it’s really worked. Having a watch that connects to my phone — but that I don’t use as a phone — has substantially reduced the amount of time I spend on my phone, and helped me curb the desire to always have it near me. The only alerts I allow on my watch are calendar reminders and phone calls, which keeps me at least somewhat tethered to my work life. I can reject calls from my wrist, too, without having to go into my pocket.

Not having a physical cord tethering me to my phone makes a huge difference. I want to listen to music. I don’t want to be tempted by my email. I want to talk to this person on the phone. I don’t want to be scrolling at the same time.

I am old enough to remember the days when you checked Facebook and Twitter on your computer instead of carrying the apps around on your body 24 hours a day. That world was slightly less awful than the one we’re in today. Twitter used to be fun. Facebook used to have photos of people’s lunches. Now they’re both filled with constant arguing.

The decision to remove social media from my phone radically reduced the role these apps played in my life. Twitter is fine as a social diversion from time to time. As a thing you can access every time a thought pops in your head? Not so much.

Why do cellphone companies strike deals with Netflix? Why did AT&T buy DirecTV? Because they want to turn your phone into your television. They want you to mainline data and entertainment. This is good for them, but not good for you. When I’m on a plane, I don’t pull up my phone and watch movies; I read books. When I want to watch TV, I have to sit down on the couch and use a remote.

While we’re on the subject, delete your games, too. Really smart psychologists, designers, and marketers have figured out how to make them as addictive and immersive as possible, and cutting them out is one easy way to use your phone less. My phone is for communication, not entertainment, and maintaining this distinction helps subordinate its role in my life.

Chris “Drama” Pfaff, founder of the clothing brand Young & Reckless, once told me he carries two phones: one for work and one for fun. The fun one — the one with all his social media and other apps he likes — stays in the car while he’s at work. People laugh at him when he has to walk down to the garage to send a message, but it works. If you can afford it, this strategy is a good one.

If your phone is a distraction machine, your computer should be a tool for focus — and the more you keep them separate, the better. The last thing I want is my computer to start ringing. What the hell do I need texts on my desktop for? The more you can minimize interruptions, the better.

When I fly somewhere, the first thing I do is print my ticket at the self-check-in monitors. Why? First off, the bar code thing never works and I hate people who hold up the line trying to position their phone properly. Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to give myself an excuse to keep my phone at hand — the piece of paper in my pocket tells me everything I need to fly, and now I can zip my phone into my backpack and not check it. A minor reduction in phone time, sure, but I’ll take it where I can get it.

You know you can block certain sites on your phone, right? So if you deleted Facebook but still check it in your browser, you can use parental controls to protect yourself from yourself. There are a number of sites I wanted to stop checking, so I made it harder for me to do so.

Delete contacts you don’t use. Delete apps you don’t need. Clear your cookies. Do you need the Macy’s app? Do you actually need both Lyft and Uber? Simplify. Your phone wants to remember everything to make your experience using it more seamless. Don’t let it.

Use this feature all the time. Whenever you sit down to a meeting. Whenever you got into a movie. Whenever you’re doing something nice with your family. Put up a wall that prevents people, emails, and texts from getting through. Protect your space. Be in the moment.

If you read news on your phone, try subscribing to a newspaper or a magazine. If you want a restaurant recommendation, ask a friend. If you use a countdown app with your kids, get a kitchen timer. Yes, the phone can be easier for all these things, but what we don’t factor in is the mindless scrolling that we slip into once the task at hand is done. The less you use your phone to deal with trivial matters or minor conveniences, the less dependent you’ll be on it.

Okay, but what do you use your phone for, then? Well, lots of helpful things. It’s a calculator. It lets me look up information I need on the go. I can take pictures. I can listen to music and podcasts. I get directions. I can call an Uber to pick me up anywhere in the world. I manage my schedule. I write notes to myself. I record my runs and my swims. I FaceTime my kids when I’m away.

My life is better because of the ability to do these things. It’s the stuff that prevents me from doing them that I want to get rid of.

Because it’s my life and it’s ticking away every second. I want to be there for it, not staring at a screen.


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Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.