The past few months have been a very different lifestyle for everyone. Our outings have been limited to picking things up and taking them home, going to work, and other “necessary” things. We haven’t had Happy Hour, girls’ or guys’ nights out, concerts, movies, dinners out, or any of the other activities we usually engage in when we want to spend time with friends or family.
Many of us have turned to our phones to fill the gap in our social lives. We already often used our phones to fill moments of boredom pre-pandemic, but now it’s become a huge part of our day. We pick it up when we’re bored. We pick it up when we want to connect with friends or family. We pick it up when we need a distraction from work, a difficult discussion, or want to procrastinate. We even pick it up when we’re watching TV or reading a book — just because it’s become a habit.
It’s a habit that many times, once we realize it’s a habit, we want to break. We don’t want to be like Pavlov’s Dogs when it comes to our phones. Yet we get so used to responding to the dings, chimes, chirps, and rings of notifications, and to reaching for the thin rectangle when we need something to do, that it can be hard to stop.
But it’s not impossible. In fact, I found five steps that made it easier for me to start putting down my phone and enjoying the world around me again.
Assess your app usage
If you want to stop using your phone so much, one key is going to be getting rid of or strictly limiting your use of the apps you use the most. So the first step is to go through the apps on your phone and figure out your app usage.
I went through all the apps on my phone. If I found ones I never used, I deleted them without a second thought. For the rest, I ranked them from those I used most to least. In some cases, I had usage statistics to show me how often I used the app. In others, I had to judge for myself. That meant being really honest with myself and not trying to pretend that I didn’t spend as much time on one app or another as I really did.
You might need to take a few days with this. If you feel like you really have no idea how much you use different apps on your phone, take 2–4 days to start paying more attention to what you’re using and when. Jot down notes as you use your phone.
Explore how the apps make you feel
Once you have a grasp on which apps you use the most, start exploring how they make you feel. Your first thought might be that they make you feel good, otherwise why would you keep using them?
But that’s not necessarily the case. You might discover that you actually end up feeling like crap about yourself after using Instagram or Facebook, yet your thumb still instinctively goes to that icon when you pick up your phone.
If you find that using an app makes you feel bad, go ahead and get rid of it. If it’s social media, you can still go to the website and you can always reinstall the app later if you really want to. But by getting rid of it for now, you give yourself a chance to stop feeling bad — at least for now.
What about if it makes you feel good? Sometimes we really do feel good when using an app and that’s why we use it so much. And if it makes you feel good, you might not want to delete it. You don’t have to. But you should turn off any notifications it offers. This will keep you from using the app just because of a notification and allow you to be more intentional about your usage.
Use an app to be more intentional about phone usage
Yes, I know — I’m advising yet another app to help you get your app usage under control. The irony is not lost on me. But in the early days of trying to get your phone addiction under control, there are some apps that can be really helpful.
AppDetox allows you to set all your own rules with granular controls. You can set different rules for different apps. You can set rules limiting the amount of time you can spend on an app in a day, the hours during which you can use it, or how many times you can open it before you’re locked out for the day, for example. And it also keeps track of how often you break (or try to break) your own rules.
The problem I’ve found with AppDetox is that if you’re using an app when a rule kicks in (you’re over your limit, you’re not supposed to use it after 5 p.m. but you’re using it when the clock turns to 5 p.m., etc.), it doesn’t override what you’re doing. So it’ll show you later that you broke your rule but not actually stop you from using the app. Additionally, because you set your own rules, you can also easily go in and change them when you decide it’s not convenient for you anymore.
Zenscreen offers fewer control options, but is better at preventing you from using your phone. I actually had an emergency in the middle of the night recently and Zenscreen prevented me from using an app I desperately needed to deal with the emergency. It also prevented me from logging out or uninstalling Zenscreen to be able to use the app — I actually had to borrow a phone so I could deal with the emergency.
Zenscreen’s controls are about time frames: calm nights is about reducing app usage in the evening for better sleep, while their morning setting allows 10 minutes of phone usage before locking it down so you do something else. You can set quiet time when it’s all shut down, and there are a couple of other settings as well.
What I like about Zenscreen is that it allows you to sort apps into categories: entertainment, productive, ignore. Ignore is what it sounds like: if you set an app as ignore, it simply gets ignored by Zenscreen and allows you to use it whenever. The other two categories allow you to have access to apps you might need for work or other productivity while restricting you from other apps that are just time wasters.
The cool part of it is that you can change a default category. So you can set something as being entertainment to block it because you know it’s a problem for you, even if Zenscreen thinks it’s productive. Or you can set, for example, Facebook Page Manager as productive even if Zenscreen calls it entertainment because you know it’s for work.
Either of these apps, or others you might prefer, can help you be more intentional about your phone and app usage. They can also help you see which apps are the biggest issues for you if you’re still struggling to identify those.
Find more fulfilling activities to fill your phone time
Once you’ve done all of the above steps, you’ll find yourself with some free time and twiddling thumbs. What are you supposed to do with all this new free time? You fill it with new, fulfilling activities. Like what?
Well, what kinds of things have you thought it’d be nice to do but you just didn’t have time for them? There’s a start!
If you do all those, or don’t have a list of things you didn’t have time for, read books, watch movies, work out, start a journal, meditate, do some yoga, or get to know your neighbors. Think about former hobbies you haven’t done for years and pick them up again.
If you find that what you have is a bunch of little pockets of time, 5–15 minutes scattered through your day, find some things that don’t take long or can easily be put down to fill that time. Word searches, crossword, or sudoku puzzles, adult coloring books, magazines, and puzzles are all excellent options that can either be done quickly or that you can put down and pick up at will without struggling to remember where you were.
Find other ways to connect with loved ones
For many of us that are addicted to our phones, social media is the biggest addiction. And we justify it by claiming it’s how we keep in touch with family and friends who are both near and far.
It’s true — social media is a quick and simple way to keep up with lots of people easily. We can keep tabs on what everyone is up to, make a few comments here and there on what they share, and feel like we’re staying connected.
And while we may be staying in touch, social media isn’t the strongest of connections. It gives us a false sense of closeness to others that allows us to get lazy with our relationships.
So while you’re working to break your phone addiction, look for other ways to strengthen those connections and relationships. Use your phone to actually call those you love and have verbal conversations about what everyone is up to with the give and take that comes with genuinely talking.
Write letters, or at least emails, to loved ones.
Plan some backyard get-togethers, movie nights, or game nights with friends for some in-person quality time together.
It might not be easy but you can do it
Phone addictions can be hard to break. We need our phones for a variety of valid reasons so we can’t just get rid of them. And if you’re in an area where things are still closed up and therefore you’re still stuck at home a lot, it can be hard to change up your routine enough to shake the habit of reaching for your phone.
But if you’re really determined to do it, you can. These steps aren’t a foolproof guarantee that will have you over your phone addiction in a snap. But they can get you well on your way.
Wendy Miller is a Certified Happiness Coach, freelance writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love & happiness they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
You might also enjoy:
12 Habits For a Healthier & Happier You
Whether you’re looking for ways to make it through the holidays or planning for a better you in the new year, these 12…
7 Steps to a Happier Morning
Need a happiness boost in the A.M.? These are some of the best!