Smartphones have become essential, but fixation with all they have to offer – apps for social media, streaming, games and more – can be a slippery slope.
Mainly because of insufficient research, phone addiction isn’t actually an official, medically accepted diagnosis. There are, however, criteria experts have used to describe behaviors, feelings and thoughts that indicate a lack of control over phone use. Those include phone use interfering with commitments and relationships; lack of access to your phone causing dread, anxiety or irritability; and hampered ability to think deeply or creatively.
Ignoring any potential negative consequences or loved ones’ comments about your excessive phone use are other indications “that we’ve clearly crossed into problematic behavior,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association.
If you’re finding it hard to look up from your phone these days, here are 12 ways to start moving in the right direction.
1. Know why you want to improve
Maybe you don’t want to reduce your phone use because the device seems so much more entertaining and rewarding than other activities you could be doing.
Recognizing the value in limiting phone use is a critical part of developing and maintaining “intrinsic motivation to make a change,” said Dr. Smita Das, the chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Addiction Psychiatry and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
If you reflect on what’s important to you and why, social, health or mental health consequences “start to have more importance in our brain compared to the short-term enjoyment that may come from, say, watching a video or being on social media,” Das said.
2. Log how long you use your phone
Also important is initially assessing how much time you spend on your phone by logging it manually or using your smartphone’s screen time data, Bufka said.
“Get a sense of what particularly pulls you in,” she added, whether it’s texting, social media or scrolling through the internet. “You want to know what the behavior is, where you’re trying to tackle it.”
3. Set time limits
Once you know what your weaknesses are, “set up in your smartphone a timer that will tell you you’ve reached the amount of time that you’re allowed to use for the day on that particular site,” Bufka suggested.
“Then you’ll actually have to consciously override that to continue.”
Some screen-time-tracking tools can be set to stop your engagement with other apps and ask whether you really want to continue your current activity or spend your time differently.
4. Learn your triggers
Why are you using your phone too much? With any behavior we’re trying to change, there is something that prompts us to do the behavior and another aspect that makes the behavior rewarding, Bufka said.
Knowing whether your problematic phone use is related to trying to address boredom or mental health issues can help guide your approach to reducing screen time.
5. Dismiss fears of missing out
If you want to use your phone less but are experiencing a little FOMO, it’s time to question the accuracy and logic of your concerns, Das suggested. “Am I catastrophizing that some horrible thing will befall me, or I will be perceived as the social outcast?”
What is the consequence of not immediately knowing what someone is doing? Are you worried that you won’t remember peoples’ birthdays if you’re not constantly on Facebook?
Counter such fears by reminding yourself of other ways to connect with people you actually care about. Enhancing the quality of your time online can also include paring down the list of whom you’re following to just people you know personally. Also, add your friends’ birthdays to your digital or print calendar.
6. Choose healthier activities
Changing behavior is often best accomplished by substituting a different action, Bufka said.
If you’re feeling the urge to mindlessly scroll, think of three things you could do besides using your phone, such as reading a book you’ve been wanting to read, exercising or cleaning something that has been on your to-do list for awhile, Bufka suggested.
7. Establish no-phone zones
Making mealtimes or evenings the periods when you don’t use your phone is another way to limit screen time. You might also implement physical limits, such as not allowing phones in family rooms or reading rooms during certain hours.
8. Sleep hygiene
Most people use their phones for alarm clocks, Bufka said, but having your phone in your room at night can easily lead to scrolling through social media or texting.
“If that’s the case, maybe you need to go back to a regular alarm clock and not pick up your phone immediately,” Bufka said. Leave your phone in a different room, she adds. “Anything that requires a little more energy or effort to get to the device will give you more opportunity to pause in the habitual use of it.”
9. Turn off notifications
Switching off unnecessary notifications can help limit temptations that lead to minutes or hours of unintended screen time.
10. Delete things you can use your laptop for
Eliminating phone access to apps you can use on your laptop or desktop monitor is another good way to mitigate temptations and distractions, Das said.
11. Phone stacking
If dining out without your friends staring at their phones is impossible, see if they’re open to some rules. Some friends prohibit phone use during dinner or stack their phones and say the first person to cave and use his phone foots the bill.
12. Turn to others
If none of these initial tips work, seek help from others who can hold you accountable, Bufka said. That could be friends, family members or health professionals.
“Changing a behavior that is consuming a lot of our time and effort and getting it back in line so that we’re engaged with the amount that reflects what we value is really important,” she added. “It won’t necessarily be easy to start off with, but it will help to free us.”