How Much Life Do You Forfeit in Smartphone Usage?

To limit problematic use, consider taking small steps over time. 

by Debra Disney, Center for Wellbeing, University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria
using a cell phone
Rather than giving up your smartphone entirely, can you create a digital diet to limit problematic use?

A chronic problem of modern life is the perception of a lack of time. If you had more time, what would you do with it? Would you spend more time with family, reading, traveling, exercising or enjoying hobbies? The specific answer differs for each person, but the general answer likely involves spending time in ways aligned with your values and goals. What is gobbling up your free time? Smartphones may be one culprit, with the allure of “all-you-can-consume” data leading to “information obesity.” If this resonates with you, read on.

Attention is one of our most precious assets. In 1890, William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” Earl Nightingale, a motivational writer and speaker, once stated, “We become what we think about most of the time.” In other words, where we choose to place our attention ends up being the world in which we live. How we spend our minutes becomes how we spend our lives. So if digital information devours our days, our lives are starved of the experiences we intended to have. In addition, research indicates that problematic use of smartphones is linked to poor memory, sleep disturbance, procrastination, decreased ability to concentrate, negative impact on relationships, harm from accidents and repetitive strain injury.

Why do we allow this gap between our aspirations and our reality? For some, the instant gratification that comes from scrolling through social media may calm anxiety or ease loneliness or boredom. For others, it provides a means for procrastinating. It may ease the fear of missing out on something important (FOMSI) or of being unreachable (nomophobia). For many, smartphones satiate the craving humans have for “no limits” with the smorgasbord of data. 

What Is the Solution?
Just as a person addicted to sugar may try to completely abstain from sweets, a rash response may be a “digital detox.” But smartphones are used in many productive ways, from online calendars and time management apps to reading e-books. Rather than giving up your smartphone entirely, can you create a digital diet to limit problematic use? 

The Transtheoretical Model (TTM), also called the Stages of Change Model, indicates that people change behavior when they are ready to do so. TTM also indicates that change is not a quick fix, but a process that occurs continuously through a cyclical process of six stages.

If you have assessed that your phone use is problematic, you might find yourself in one of the six stages of change (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination). A person in the pre-contemplation stage has probably already quit reading this article, possibly underestimating the positive aspects and overestimating the disadvantages of decreasing smartphone usage. In the contemplation stage, you may be intending to use your phone less within the next six months. Once you are ready to take small steps toward using your phone less within the next 30 days, you are in the preparation stage—and the following tips may be useful. 

  1. Utilize apps. There are apps designed to monitor and customize connectivity, such as Offtime (offtime.app) and FocusMe (focusme.com). Not only is it ironic that more digital consumption would be used for a digital diet, very little evidence exists on whether these apps are effective. However, since the human tendency is to underestimate the amount of time spent on the phone, it may be advantageous to use an app to track software and sites visited and time spent. Some possible apps to explore include RescueTime (rescuetime.com) and SaveMyTime (savemytime.co). 
  2. Exploit the benefits of inconvenience. Keep your phone out of arm’s reach, perhaps even in another room. This will keep you from being distracted by notification sounds, and it exploits the benefit of inconvenience by introducing an obstacle to the ingrained habit of mindlessly reaching for your phone. Consider turning off all non-essential notifications, and experiment with moving problematic apps off the homepage or deleting at least one from your phone altogether. For example, rather than taking a Facebook sabbatical, you might remove the app from your phone, setting a timer when you open it on your desktop computer. 
  3. Claim your internal locus of control through language. Notice how empowering it is to say “I don’t bury my nose in my phone” versus “I shouldn’t bury my nose in my phone.” The first phrase suggests an internal locus of control, whereas the latter phrase could cause you to feel victimized by an external force. 
  4. Replace the habit. If you had more time, what would you do with it? When you are tempted to reach for your phone, perhaps you can pause and focus your attention for a few seconds on your aspirations for life. Maybe there is not time to do the desired activity, but spending a few minutes planning the desired activity will be enough to dodge the problematic phone usage. 

The final three stages of change include the action stage, where you keep moving forward with your new phone usage behavior; the maintenance stage, where you prevent relapse into previous patterns; and the termination stage, where you have no desire to return to problematic phone usage. In the maintenance stage, backsliding is normal. Experiment with changes until you find the balance that is right for you. Rather than expecting a quick fix with a one-time digital detox, think about incorporating new habits with small steps over time. 

You may also periodically reflect on aspirations that are truly conducive to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. By increasing your mindfulness to such aspirations, the interest that arises will naturally direct your attention to more wholesome activities. Notice the benefits as you gain more time for values-based living. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once observed, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”  PM

Debra Disney is director of the Center for Wellbeing at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria. To arrange a presentation or schedule a counseling appointment, email CenterForWellbeing@uic.edu or call
(309) 495-1683. For more information, visit peoriawellbeing.org.

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