Smartphone addiction: how to reduce distractions and master your phone

I’m a big fan of automating behaviour, but sometimes it can backfire big time.

Two weeks ago, I did something a bit reckless.
I didn’t turn my phone on until 7pm. I actually switched it off at 9pm. Such a blissful day.

You see, I have this rule to never turn my phone on before 9am. This alone makes my mornings faster and more energised, my days more positive and my work more productive.
Instead of starting the day in reactive mode, you make sure you have everything under control first.

But lately, I wasn’t doing that. I made an exception one day, which turned an automated habit into a conscious exertion of willpower.
And then another exception came, until checking my smartphone in the morning became normal again for a couple of weeks.

Once I noticed how my focus, energy, and creativity suffered from it, I decided to go the other way and spend a whole day with my phone off. That’s not on airplane mode by the way.
That’s off.

smartphone addiction

The result?
I had the most creative, focused, and problem-solving day in weeks. Having no distractions and expecting no distractions freed up a lot of mind space, but it also allowed me to dive deeper in my tasks.

Imagine this. You’re a deep diver, and you have to recover a chest of doubloons from under the sea. Easy job, except that every 5 minutes someone calls you back to the surface and asks you “hows it going” or says “can you please do it while you’re at it”.
Not only you’ll have to start from the surface every time you dive, you will never manage to get into that state of flow and concentration you’ll need to spot all those doubloons against the colourful sea bed.

Sounds like a bedtime story, but I know you’ve been there too.

Keeping my phone off and focusing on one task allowed me to go deep and produce a quality of thinking and working that we’re rarely allowed.
When you have uninterrupted focus you unlock a level of creative productivity that allows you to make a difference. You do you unique, signature work.
When you stay on the surface, you just work on tasks. You tick boxes someone else could tick instead of you. You shuffle papers around in your head.

In Albert Einstein’s words “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Is smartphone addiction a real thing?

Most of us never have the chance to dive deep.
Research shows that we check our phones 100 times a day, or every 6 minutes on average.
And because we’re training ourselves to expect a distraction every few minutes, the thought of “having to check our phones” is in the back of our minds during those moments in between too.


Ah. If only multitasking wasn’t an urban legend.

So how can you reclaim your ability to do deep work?
Here’s a list of ways to take back control of your time, counteract the negative effects of smartphones, and go from Smartphone Addict to Tech Overlord.


Level 1: get comfortable

smartphone addiction solution

The first step is to get comfortable with the idea of switching off.

We love notifications, because they make us feel needed. Like stuff is happening, and it’s happening NOW.
Our brain loves notifications, because every time you complete a task -no matter how small- it gets rewarded with a spike of dopamine, the feel-good chemical.
They’re actually chemically addictive.

Now the choice is this: you can spend your day replying to messages, emails, calls, and all the likes, or you can switch off and focus on making real progress on one thing.
In the first case, you’ll feel good throughout the day, and awful at the end of the day.
In the second case, you’ll feel kinda bad throughout the day, and amazing at the end of the day and at the end of the week.

Now the first time you switch off, even just for a couple of hours, you’ll keep feeling guilty.
“What if someone needs me?” “What if they’re stuck because they need my input?”.

It’s all good.

Just remind yourself how narcissistic this view really is: the human race did ok in the few hundred thousands of years before you were born. And they didn’t even have phones.
If someone really is waiting on your reply, maybe it’s time they re-evaluate their own priorities: feel free to send them this article.

Don’t be rude: autoresponders are there for you to use, but in the end you’ll have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, until you realise that the consequences of not being on alert all the time are only positive ones.

Action: screen free Saturday mornings

The best way to start putting your phone down is to start observing screen free Saturday mornings.
As you might expect, the rules are pretty simple: do not turn any screen on until 12 noon. No TV, no tablet, no laptop, no phone. Instead, sleep in, go for a walk or a run outside, read a book, have a conversation with a friend (make sure to agree on a time and a place the day before), meditate, just enjoy your day as it unfolds.
This will require a bit of discipline and planning, but it’s a great place to start. Remember, if you’ve forgotten something or have a last minute thing, let it go so you can experience the consequences: none.

Next, you can start integrating Amish Time into your day, and make sure you turn your phone off 30 minutes before going to bed. This will not only improve the quality of your sleep and your day, it will also train you to be able to switch off and reclaim your time.


Level 2: prune distractions

cut distractions

Next, rig the game in your favour. We are going to minimise notifications and distractions, so you can be present with whatever you’re doing.
But remember: the most persistent notifications reside in your head, so give yourself at least two weeks to get used to the changes.

Action: filter out distractions

Block mobile data on certain apps.

Smartphones are different from laptops, because they’re every time, every where. Mobile data plays a big part in this, offering access to an infinity of distractions at any one time. Why enjoying your lunch when you can Google it instead? 
On iPhone, go into settings > mobile > and deactivate distracting apps you don’t need.
I have deactivated YouTube, Safari (browser), and a few other apps I don’t really need to access right now.

Eliminate infinity apps.

Some apps can give you unlimited, irrelevant content which is impossible to be up to date to. Which means you’ll forever be checking.
Personally, I have no Facebook app on my iPhone, and only use Facebook Groups and Messenger instead (with caution).

Reduce notifications.

This takes patience, but it’s worth it.
Look at your recent notifications, and check which ones you have been ignoring for a while: deactivate them in settings.
Next, go through all your notifications and be brutal. If you’re on iOS, you can decide how you want to receive notifications: you can choose whether you want it to play a sound, show a badge, pop up on your lock screen, or…all of the above.
It’s time consuming, but it will pay off every day.

Delete emails.

Emails are not texts. They were never meant to be texts.
Delete them from your phone and reply however regularly you choose from your computer.
Emails have been off my phone for nearly two years now, but if you really can’t do without, at least turn those notifications off.

Use Do Not Disturb wisely.

Most phones allow a Do Not Disturb function, which essentially mutes and hides notifications coming in. Use it as much as possible, especially when you’re working on your pomodoro burst.

No iPhone in bed.

Give it a rest. Literally. Mindlessly browsing the web in bed hurts your sleep, your relationships, and brings your daily worries into the most relaxing place.


Level 3: detachment

put your phone down

Ok here we are, the Nirvana of smartphone usage.
Some of these may be a bit extreme, so pick and choose whichever work for you and the particular situation you’re in.
Just make sure you don’t use generic feelings like “busy” or “urgent” to justify bad choices.

Use dedicated objects.

The best thing about smartphones is also the worst: they can handle lots of things. Though this is very handy, it also means that you associate opposite activities with the same object. You can reply to a very stressful email, but you can also start a meditation course, all from the same screen.

Having single-purpose objects can help you make a few habits special and distraction-free.
My favourites are: paper books, a paper journal, an analog alarm clock, and my watch.
Wearing a watch allowed me to drastically cut the times I check my phone and get distracted by lurking notifications. Just make sure it’s not a smart watch.

Having a separate iPod Touch is a great solution to keep positive apps independent from interruptions.

Eliminate vibration AND sounds.

Have you noticed how “silent” mode is actually pretty loud? When that phone vibrates against your desk, it’s such an annoying noise. And even when you can only feel it, what’s the point. Turn it off, and you’ll be able to switch between normal mode and bliss mode.

Use a Dumb phone. Ok, let me be clear: I do not have a dumb phone, and my iPhone is an important creative and communication tool for me.
However, I have recently talked to two people that moved to a dumb phone and never looked back. Remember, it doesn’t have to be always: you could swap phones for a day of deep focus.

Make your own recipe

That was a long list. Not everything will work for you, like some (like switching to a dumb phone) are not for me. So pick and choose: experiment, and see what works for your lifestyle and your priorities. Just make sure you communicate the changes, and you don’t fall into the trap of made up excuses.

Your turn now: what’s one thing you can do to reduce distractions? And why?
Send me an email and let me know – I love to read your stories.

— Matt

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