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A woman in Reading, PA fell into a mall fountain while texting on her smartphone. She later sued the mall.

Editor’s note: this post — like many of my posts — hits close to home by addressing an issue that has affected me and my family greatly. I hope that you’ll take time to consider how your technology habits affect you and the people around you, and that this post would serve as the inspiration and encouragement that you need to begin to confront those behaviours.

If you were to guess how much time you spent using your phone each day, how much would you guess?  An hour? Two?  If you’re the average American, try a whopping 4.7 hours per day.  One survey found that Americans check their phones an average of 47 times per day — or around once every 20 minutes.

In addition to being a massive, ridiculous time suck, there is a growing body of research that seeks to document smartphone addiction as a clinical disorder. While we may not be pumping chemicals into our body from the outside, the dopamine rush we get when we see a new like on that cute photo of our kids on Facebook is virtually indistinguishable from the neurological effects of drug or alcohol addiction.

Smartphone addiction is a real problem, and chances are that it is affecting your quality of life in the areas of time management, relationships, and spiritual health.

So what are we to do about it?  Here are three steps that I’m taking to get my phone usage under control.

  1. Face the facts by quantifying your smartphone usage.
  2. Set realistic goals for minimizing smartphone use.
  3. Create an accountability structure to meet your goals.

Face the facts: quantifying your phone usage

I recently completed an experiment in which I documented every area of my life over a two week period — everything from app usage to caloric intake to bowel movements.  (I did say “document everything, didn’t I?)

Apple doesn’t allow apps to access device usage, but there’s another way to discover how you’re spending time on your phone. On your device, visit Settings > Battery.  Under Battery Usage, tap Last 24 Hours, tap the clock icon to the right, and be prepared to confront the truth about your app usage.

Every night before bed, I would screenshot my app usage for the day, and store it in an Evernote notebook. After two weeks of tracking, I went through my screenshots and recorded the data in a Google sheet, broken down by day and app. To get a better handle on the “buckets” in which I spent my time, I also assigned a category to each app, such as entertainment, productivity, or learning.  Apps that only had a minute or two of usage per day were excluded for the sake of convenience.

(Note: As I was researching this post, I discovered Moment, an app that claims to do this automagically.  I’ll be trying it out for the next couple of weeks. Android users may have luck with this app, but I can’t try it out personally.)

What did I find?  I spent an average 4.61 hours/day on my phone.  While that includes background usage and my “learning” (podcasts and audiobooks while driving, for example), nearly a third of that time was spent on entertainment — mostly mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed.

My app usage from 1/2/17 to 1/15/17.

(Note: as a blogger and digital marketer, I do have some legitimate work uses of Facebook, but that activity is usually done from my computer, not my phone.)

Understanding how I was using technology on a day-to-day basis was the first step in becoming unchained from my smartphone.  The second step is to set realistic goals for progress.

Chart the course: establish goals for progress

Whether that’s counting calories on a diet or setting a family budget, the very act of tracking your smartphone usage will go a long way toward kicking the habit.  But measurement isn’t enough.  In order to be successful, you’ll need to set realistic goals for smartphone usage.

Goal-setting has two components:

  1. Defining how much time you should spend using each app, and…
  2. Deciding which activities will replace your smartphone usage.

The reasons that we spend so much time on our phones are that we’re bored and our phones are easily accessible. When we have some idle time, we grab our phones and check Facebook… and then check our email… and then share that photo on Instagram, and… the next thing you know, an hour has passed and you’re wondering where the time has gone.

I know that unless I define an alternative means for spending my time, I will fill my time with the next easiest distraction for a while, and I’ll likely “relapse” back to my initial patterns of behavior.

For me, the biggest culprit is entertainment. I spend a whopping 1.8 hours per day on apps like Facebook.  If I reallocated just half of that time for scripture reading, I could read the New Testament in two weeks, or the entire Bible in around 3 months.

Goal: Limit entertainment usage to 30 minutes/day by 1/30/17.  Replace that time with 30 minutes of daily scripture reading and one hour of dedicated family time three times per week.

Redeeming smartphone usage

You may also consider “redeeming” your smartphone usage by shifting your activities from time-wasters to activities that provide a net improvement in your life.  Rather than binging on Candy Crush, for example, you could read scripture, spend time in prayer, or read a book.

The challenge here, at least in my experience, is that the temptations for distraction are strong. You can flip over to Google to look up a word and end up browsing Wikipedia for an hour, or open the Facebook app to share a quote and get sucked into mindlessly scrolling through your news feed.

Consider implementing some of hurdles below to eliminate distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.

Set yourself up for success: accountability structures

The key to success in developing any new habit is accountability.  Without the support of friends and family who have a vested interest in your success — and without immediate and tangible consequences for your behaviour — it’s difficult to create lasting and meaningful change.

There are two areas where you’ll need accountability:

  1. Make it more difficult to engage in the behavior.
  2. Recruit a support network.

Accountability strategy #1: Establish hurdles.

Part of why it’s so easy to get sucked into our phones is that they’re so accessible. One strategy that you can use to help break the habits that keep you chained to your phone is to make using your phone less convenient.  Hurdles can be simple and relatively simple and unobtrusive, or they can be more radical.  Here are a few strategies I’ve either used personally or have been recommended to me.

Basic hurdles:

  1. Remove the biggest distractions from your phone.  For me, this was Facebook.  If I wanted to check Facebook on my phone, I’d have to go through the step of opening my browser and logging into a mobile site that offers a degraded user experience.
  2. Leave your phone in another room.  If you need to get up to reach your phone, you’re less likely to pull it out of your pocket and get sucked into and endless stream of cat videos and political arguments.
  3. Turn your screen gray.  I haven’t used this one personally, as I process photos and do design work on my phone, but turning your screen gray can help you spend less time on your phone.

Advanced hurdles:

  1. Set up filtering on your device or on your home network. Parental controls aren’t just for kids. They can help you stay focused.  Consider using a device like Circle or an app for your phone.  iOS users can try the app that I mentioned earlier, Moment.
  2. If you’re really desperate, you can freeze your phone in a block of ice.  I wouldn’t recommend that, and I’m not responsible for the outcome should you decide to experiment with this method.

Accountability strategy #2: Recruit friends and family.

Once I started tracking my calorie intake and expenditure, my wife jumped on board as well. Not only can we encourage one another, we can commiserate about passing up on that second piece of chocolate cake.

Chances are that you’re not the only one whose life is affected by your smartphone use, and that you’re not the only one who struggles with breaking the habit.  Who else do you know who would enjoy a better quality of life and more rewarding relationships by kicking the smartphone habit?  Invite them into your life?

For a varsity-level strategy, get a group together and put some money on the line to create a consequence for dropping the ball.  You may even try the anti-charity method outlined in this article — putting your hard earned cash on the line and instructing it to be sent to a charity that you would never support if you drop the ball.

How would your life look different if you kicked the smartphone habit?

What would you do with an extra 4 hours/day?  What could you accomplish in that time?  How would your relationships look different?

What’s your first step in confronting the problem, and who do you need to turn to for support?