How I Stopped Looking at My Phone 83% as Often With Surprising Ease

How I stopped looking at my phone so much with surprising ease, the unexpected benefits, plus tips for your own intervention.

Updated:

I was Chinese water torturing my brain and attention span with the number of times I was looking at my phone.

Each individual phone check was harmless. But altogether it was costing me creativity, peace of mind, the respect of people around me, and who knows what else.

At least I wasn’t as bad as the “average American” who, depending on who you ask, looks at their phone 96, 144, or 352 times a day. I’d estimate I was between 30 and 50.

Even so, I felt like I needed to stage an intervention. But what? And how?

Me in 2005.
In 2005, I didn’t seem to mind not having my iPhone.

My first instinct to break my phone-checking habit was to forsake my phone entirely.

Lock it in a box and go smartphone-free for a month like this guy. Or replace my iPhone with a 2005 Motorola Razr. Life wasn’t so bad eighteen years ago, right?

But such drastic measures felt like cutting off my fingers to prevent myself from eating so many chocolate chips. My phone doesn’t have to be an attention-torturing, dopamine-unbalancing tumor I need to amputate from my life. It’s a fantastic tool that, when used carefully, can improve my life.

So I needed to find a way to tightrope-walk the phone usage wire between overuse and underuse. And I needed something more than self-control, which obviously wasn’t working for me.

I needed a challenge.

Embarking on my month-long phone-checking challenge.

Formally Confront Your Bad Habit

To stop looking at my phone so much, I gave myself the following monthly challenge:

  • Maximum 500 phone unlocks in 30 days. I figured that was enough to use my phone for practical reasons like booking Ubers, playing podcasts, connecting to WiFi, and looking up wines on Vivino.
  • Record every use. Every time I unlocked my phone, I had to first write in my Notes app what I was opening it for.
  • Pay R1 (about 0.07 USD) for every unlock. This money would go to a fund which I would spend on a nice bottle of wine to share with Kim as a celebration at the end of the month.

I named it the “Keep It in Your Pants You Idiot” challenge—or KIIYPYI (pronounced keep-ee) for short.

Phone placed in case backward to make it harder to check.
Slow yourself down by putting your phone in its case backward.

Install Speed Bumps

My two speed bumps were:

  1. Having to note down why I decided to pull out my phone.
  2. A small monetary penalty.

You could try others, too:

  • Take advantage of your phone’s settings that restrict you from using certain apps during predefined periods.
  • Put your phone in its case facing inward.
  • Log out of apps like Facebook and Twitter that you tend to overuse after every use.
  • Turn off facial recognition and come up with a convoluted password to unlock your phone.
  • Put a little combination lock on the pocket of the bag you keep your phone in.

Make Every Check Count

By Day 3 of my challenge, I had evolved a new survival mechanism:

I made the most out of every time I used my phone.

For example, if I wanted to pull out my phone to play a podcast, I’d use that opportunity to do everything I could think of with my phone and more:

  • Look at the weather forecast.
  • Review the schedule for Cape Town’s rolling blackouts.
  • Check my inbox for anything “urgent.”
  • Open Instagram just because, even though I never post there nor care about what other people post.

I’d then stare at my home screen, wondering, “What else could I use my phone for?”

Not optimal behavior. I know. But it was an improvement over my previously unfettered phone use.

One useful new approach came from it: I began lining up podcast episodes in the order I wanted to listen to them. That way, I didn’t have to pull out my phone every time one finished to pick the next one.

Baby steps.

Maintain Physical Distance

The feeling of my phone rubbing my thigh from my pocket was too alluring, so I started putting it in one of my wonderful backpack‘s water bottle holders while walking around. I didn’t feel the temptation there anymore, but I could still reach around and pull it out if someone called me.

And at home I kept my phone out of sight and out of mind, plugged in in another room.

Extra Tips: Start Your Days Screen-less

Consider using a standalone alarm clock instead of your phone to wake yourself up.

And, instead of scrolling around on your device in bed, grab a pen and try morning pages, i.e., unloading whatever comes to mind onto paper. I find it’s a great way to warm up my mind and get it in a creative rather than consumptive mood.

Notepad in my hand instead of my phone.
Not as easy to read as my phone’s note app, but better for brainstorming.

Give Your Brain an Outlet

Not whipping out my phone at every whim gave my brain room to stretch. More ideas came to me as I went about my day: things to look up, remember, work on, or write.

But what to do with these ideas?

I didn’t want to rely on my memory because A) It sucks and B) The mental burden of not forgetting would stall my creative flow.

So I bought a cheap, pocket-sized notepad.

Whenever inspiration or curiosity struck, I’d pull the pad out of my pocket instead of my phone. Then I’d continue thinking freely and jotting.

Every day or two, I’d go back through these notes and digitize them on my computer. This delay proved to have bonus benefits:

  • Some things I previously wanted to look up no longer felt worth wasting my time on.
  • It gave me a second look at the creative ideas I had.

Learn to Use Your Phone Without Unlocking It

I used to be an anti-notification extremist.

I didn’t allow any app to show anything on my lock screen, and the only unsolicited sounds I permitted were alarms and phone calls.

But my phone unlocking challenge helped me realize this behavior had a negative side-effect:

Every once in a while, I had to unlock my phone to check for messages, missed calls, or reminders. Nothing wrong with that on its own, but doing so popped the top off my iPandora’s box of distracting apps. Before I knew it, I was scrolling through my YouTube feed and had forgotten what I had unlocked my phone to do in the first place.

To eliminate this, I re-enabled lock screen badges for messages, phone calls, and time-sensitive reminders. I also learned how to respond to text messages and calls without unlocking my phone. And I started using the voice assistant more. For instance, I’d ask Siri to “Call Kim” rather than unlock my phone to do so.

These little tweaks feel insubstantial even as I write them. But my experience was that they added up to make a reasonable reduction in my overall phone use.

Friends and I hiking during my phone checking addiction-breaking challenge.
My friend Alex is not in this photo partly because I didn’t check my phone enough.

Don’t Take Your Challenge Hiking With You

On Day 12 of my challenge, I went hiking outside Cape Town. My friend Alex took a “shortcut” to try to catch up that turned into a bushwhacking (or “bundu bashing” as they call it in South Africa) misadventure for him.

Finding him took MUCH longer than it should have because of my reluctance to unlock my phone dozens of times to call, message, and coordinate.

So, for safety’s sake, give yourself exemption days from your phone unlocking challenge as needed.

Posted calendar with the successful results of my phone checking addiction challenge.
Only 232 unlocks in the month!

Smash It!

My “Keep It in Your Pants” challenge worked surprisingly quickly and remarkably well.

I rarely unlocked my phone more than ten times a day. And rather than feel a nasty dopamine itch, I felt fantastic! My creativity levels were up and my anxiety and urges to unlock my phone were way down.

My phone’s battery was loving it, too. I used to have to make mid-day phone recharges but, because of the reduced screen time from my challenge, I’d still have 85 percent battery when I went to bed.

That month, I ended up unlocking my phone only 232 times. That’s less than half my target of 500 and probably one-sixth as many opens as in previous months.

As my reward, Kim and I celebrated that evening with a R410 bottle of Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc at our favorite steakhouse in Cape Town.

The next day, I was free to go back to unfettered phone use. But I had no desire to do so anymore. I liked my new system much more.

What Are You Looking At?

I strongly recommend you challenge yourself to limit the number of times you look at your phone.

You may not even need to go for a whole month. A week to ten days is probably enough to make a noticeable change.

Better yet, start with a mini, 24-hour Keep It In Your Pants challenge and take it from there.

  • Every time you unlock your phone, you have to write down why.
  • Incur a penalty of $1 or $2 (or more if you’re financially flush) for every unlock.

Hold yourself accountable by finding a friend to join you or telling others about your challenge. Or join me for a future Month of Discomfort.

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it surprisingly easy and rewarding.

For more challenges and inspiration, consider:

About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

2 responses to “How I Stopped Looking at My Phone 83% as Often With Surprising Ease”

  1. Joaquín Murcia Avatar
    Joaquín Murcia

    Amazing article! It is so refreshing to see a personal opinion with such a thorough explanation of why you used some measures, how they worked and affected you, as opposed to just copy-paste tips like “block your apps” or “put your phone away”.
    So much more relatable and trustable!

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Amazing comment! Thanks Joaquín. If you take some ideas from this post (or come up with your own) to check your phone less often, I’d love to hear how it goes. All the best.

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