cutting my phone time in half
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with ways to reduce my screen time. I confess even I was surprised at how much I was on my phone: in mid-July, an average of 17 hours a week, or almost 3 hours every single day.
Now, I’m averaging just over an hour—total—and most days closer to 30-45 minutes.
- What was I doing?
- What matters?
- How did I change it?
What was I doing?
You can imagine: wake up, scroll Instagram. Pick up my phone constantly, at every lull—in the elevator, in between tasks at work, during tasks! Those pickups turning into half-hour reading-astrology-meme sessions. Checking my email constantly, even though nobody has emailed and even if they did, it wouldn’t be urgent.
Those days were always worse: less focused, more grouchy. I was constantly picking up my phone, and I knew it was taking me away from the things that mattered most. I know that I’m happiest when I’m focused, when I do productive and challenging work, and when I connect with people. It might not seem like “checking my email a lot” is at odds with that, but I know how powerful it is to not be constantly connected.
I’m definitely a Millenial, but I'm old enough that I didn’t grow up a digital kid. I remember the sound of the modem, the literal telephone game of planning to hang out with your friends, and my parents’ first Zack Morris cell phone. My college class was on the cutting edge: we had laptops, online curriculum portals, and we used email!
By now, my devices and my digital life are deeply entwined with my 3D life. But I do remember a time when it wasn’t this way. There’s so much that the digital world has brought us: connecting to communities we otherwise couldn’t reach, access to new skills, remote work, powerful information at our fingertips. Yet this “culture of constant connectivity” has also brought us isolation, anxiety, addiction, and escapism. If you say “social media anxiety,” everyone knows what you mean.
Cal Newport distinguishes between high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth communication. He argues that conversation is a high-bandwidth form of communication that is far more suited to our evolutionary development as social beings than the salvos of data with which social media pummel us. How ironic, Newport notes, that our fixation with the “like” button prevents us from truly knowing what we like. By liking another, we fail to know others. Indeed, by depriving ourselves of face-to-face contact with others, we widen the sea of angst that no amount of “likes” can ever hope to bridge. This phenomenon is borne out by research into college-age students, who experienced a radical increase in anxiety-related disorders around 2011, the same year that smartphones became widely available to consumers and teenagers began owning their own phones.
So what is it that I do want out of my digital life? I started looking at my personal values and goals, and asking myself how my habits were helping or hurting.
I value my mental and physical health: looking at my phone first thing in the morning, comparing myself negatively to people on Instagram, and the constant anxiety of notifications and email-checking? Not helping.
I value connecting with people and relationships: my Instagram friends? Definitely a plus here, but only if I’m spending my time on Instagram connecting with them and not scrolling mindlessly. Having my phone out constantly when I’m with people in 3D? Definitely not helping.
I value challenging work, deep focus, and flow state. I sleep better when I’ve challenged my brain and or body enough. A lot of the “work” I do on my phone is motion, not action—and I definitely can’t focus deeply when I’m checking my notifications constantly.
We have a limited supply of willpower and I wanted to use mine on important stuff, not “forcing” myself to not use my phone so much. So I started experimenting with using the built-in Downtime settings on my iPhone to reduce screen time.
How did I change it?
I started with two pretty simple tactics:
- Using the Downtime settings on my phone
- Putting my phone away
The iPhone has a built in feature called Downtime that lets you schedule hours where apps are unavailable and set time limits on certain apps.
I scheduled Downtime to hide most of my apps most of the day: everything is available from 4-7pm. This is the time of day I’m either already in deep focus so I don’t bother with my phone, or I’m in transit, pre-dinner but post-work, so I don’t mind some phone time. I left a few apps constantly available: the weather, my calendar, transportation-related apps, wallet/banking, the actual phone. None of this is stuff I get distracted by.
When Downtime is on, apps are greyed out, with a little hourglass icon. (Did you know that turning your phone to greyscale reduces the addictiveness, because your brain doesn’t respond to the bright red notifications and colors?)
When you open an app, you get a blank screen with a reminder of your limit. You can ignore it, of course, and it will let you disable the limit for the day, or remind you in 15 minutes.
You can go a lot more hardcore, if you want. I have a friend who sets a 1-hour limit on most of his apps, and his girlfriend sets the Screen Time password, so he can’t ignore the limit or go over it without her entering the password for him.
My goal was to reduce phone pickups and mindless scrolling sessions. The Downtime limit is often enough for me. If I pick up my phone and I’m presented with the locked black screen, it’s enough to remind me that I need a good reason to be here. That alone has reduced my phone pickups from 56 or more to around 35-45. Still have room to improve, but it’s helping. And pickups aren’t the whole story: a lot of pickups are “what time is it?” or using my bicycle rental app, or buying coffee. Not every pickup leads to Instagram.
In July, it did. In a total of 394 pickups over the week, 74 of them were straight to Instagram. Camera, Messages, and Calendar came next. Since then, my total pickups haven’t decreased much—still in the 300s—but Instagram as the first app after pickup has gone to 27-29—60% less!
Locking Instagram decreased how often I picked up my phone and went straight to Instagram by 60%.
More importantly, using Downtime reduced the total amount of time I spent on Instagram: from almost 9 hours a week to just 4—almost HALF. I want the time I spent on Instagram to be in comments, conversations, messages, connecting with people, not scrolling through memes. So far, so good. I’ve been posting more, and scrolling less.
The other thing I did was simply to put my phone away more. Rather than having it sit next to me at my desk, or on my bedside table, it now lives most of its life in my bag or across the room in its dock. It’s a lot harder to reach for it when you have to get up and go find it.
I’m still asking myself what value I get out of the actions I do, especially when it comes to my phone. I am pretty confident, but it’s hard not to feel bad when you compare yourself to other people online. I have a good sense of my style but I still want to shop when I get newsletters and see new things. It’s harder to focus than it is to mindlessly fuck around online, so this journey isn’t over.
I want to make my Instagram time even more productive, and more connected. I want to do more with less. It’s helping to schedule automatic posts, so I can write them in advance and not spend an hour each day trying to think of a caption. That leaves me more time to do what I value: connect with people.
I want to reduce my pickups even more, keeping my phone away for longer and longer stretches. I’d really like to get to have a day or two a week where I am completely phone or device free. I might even try this totally minimal all-white app-free iPhone setup. My husband and I don’t allow phones or devices at meals, and we’ve discussed extending that to all evening hours at home.
I already have notifications off for almost everything. Nothing makes my teeth grind more like being in a public place or my office and hearing the text message sound. You’re literally sitting right next to your device; the notification is only driving your addiction. I mean — forty notifications per day! Can you think of anything you'd like to get notified about forty times every single day? I can't. A good reason to try and reduce my notifications even more.
I am trying to establish a daily writing practice, and I still use my devices for that, so not all phone usage is bad. I appreciate writing on paper, though, so I might experiment with that.
But the point of this isn’t to remove technology—it’s to focus on what matters most: deep work, being challenged, connecting with people, and mental clarity.
How do you manage your phone use? What matters most to you?