4 Non-Extreme Ways to Use Your Phone a Lot Less

Here’s how to maintain your digital resistance

Image: Sukanda Panpa / EyeEm / Getty

If you made a resolution to get off your phone, it’s probably starting to fall apart. The senseless alerts are back, your resolve to “just check one thing” bleeds into the next digital thing, and before you know it an hour (or two or three) have gone by.

You know what it’s costing you. You don’t want to be like the majority of Americans who spend on average 1,200 hours a year on their phone — a full waking month out of every year, a full waking year out of every decade. And yet: That greedy shard of metal and glass continues to gobble up your time and productivity.

Approaching my second anniversary of being iPhone-free, I can say from experience that lapses are inevitable. Remember: While you think that it’s just your two eyes looking at a screen, in reality, 10,000 programmers are looking back at you, recording your every click, constantly adjusting your digital environment so you’ll keep on scrolling.

A permanent digital diet is not only better for you financially, emotionally, and spiritually, it’s also very doable. Before you say, “I’m sorry, the phone is just too woven into my life for me to give it up,” let me offer a few tips. Not for going cold turkey, but for putting the phone in its proper place. You should be the user, not the used. Your phone should be a tool, not make you into one.

Here then are five ways to adjust your digital diet in a reasonable, sustainable way.

Delete your email account from your phone

You don’t need to answer mail on your phone. Really. In my two years being smartphone-free, I’ve found that I write more thoughtful emails with fewer mistakes when I take the time to answer them on my laptop during a prescribed period. If you find it too stressful delete all at once, resolve to reply only from your computer. You can bake that into your work habits by setting up an auto-reply informing your correspondents about your sane, measured approach.

Pare down the rest of your phone environment

Up until recently, most people thought they were getting something for free when they downloaded an app. But in reality, every time you put another app on your phone, you’re giving a bit more of your time away. You’re creating another peephole for developers to look into your habits and sell your attention to other companies. Believe me, you don’t need all those apps. Try seeing if you can get by with the bare minimum: phone, text, and maps. Really, that’s all you need.

Create an archipelago of unconnected places

The default for most modern locations is cellphone reception, Wi-Fi access, and often a public screen displaying a mix of content and advertising. Understand that while you cannot avoid this entirely, you can seek out places in the different parts of your day that buck the trend. They exist. Look for one of the increasing number of coffee shops that don’t have Wi-Fi access. If you live in a waterfront city, consider commuting by ferry — many ferries still float free of the internet. Parks, though sometimes wired, still contain many Wi-Fi-free zones. Use these unconnected places to do some quality reading on paper with devices off. Make it a regular habit. And again, if this seems too abrupt, try putting your phone to airplane mode for a prescribed portion of the day.

Declare a digital Sabbath

One of the ways phones keep us hooked is by making the real world seem unnavigable without them. The constancy of connection means that the illusion of the phone world being the real world is never broken. Just as waking up from a dream ends the illusions that the subconscious presents to you, so too does shutting down your devices one day a week break the spell of the necessity of constant digital connectedness. Try it out. See if your family will go along with it. Alert your friends that this is how you’ll be spending your Saturdays (or Sundays or Mondays).

And one nuclear option: Cancel the data plan on your phone

If none of the above gets you off the phone, consider the nuclear option and just cancel the data plan on your phone. Did you know that this is costing you upward of $80 a month? There is enough Wi-Fi in the world now that you can, in a pinch, seek out and find some connectivity. But canceling the data means that you won’t always have access to everything. And in time, you’ll find you don’t need everything but on your terms. Which, when you think about it, is the first step to going from using to being used.

Want more tips? Have a look at Goodbye Phone, Hello World from Chronicle.

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet: Fifty Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint paulgreenberg.org

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