“What’s the Harm?”
While waiting for the elevator, I’d pull out my phone to see if any new podcasts had appeared in my feed.
“What’s the harm?“
While working out, I’d pull out my phone between sets to see if I’d gotten any messages.
What’s the harm?
While sitting on the toilet, I’d pull out my phone to check ESPN.
What’s the harm?
While escorting Zac on a toddle down the seaside promenade, I’d pull out my phone to google what the Botswanan flag looks like.
What’s the harm?
While waiting for Kim to join me on the couch to watch The Challenge in the evening, I’d pull out my phone to see if I had any new emails.
What’s the harm?
All-in-all, I was “harmlessly” checking my phone between thirty and fifty times a day.
I was essentially Chinese water torturing my brain and my attention span.
So I needed to do something to break free from the drip, drip, drip of this horrible habit.
How Do You Find a Healthy Balance?
My first instinct was to forsake my phone entirely. Lock it in a box. Or replace my iPhone with a 2005 Motorola Razr. Life wasn’t so bad eighteen years ago, right?
But such a drastic intervention felt like cutting off my fingers to prevent myself from eating so many chocolate chips. My phone’s not an evil creature to be banished. It’s an incredible tool that, when used carefully, can improve my life.
So I needed to find a way to tightrope-walk the wire between overuse and underuse.
Self-control alone obviously wasn’t working for me. So I needed to stage an intervention.
Time For a Challenge
As it happened, I was preparing for my first-ever group monthly challenge, The November to Remember. Twenty-one people had signed up to join a private group to take on a challenge of their choosing.
Make that twenty-two! Because I signed myself up, too, to challenge myself to tone down my unhealthy phone-checking habit.
Then I asked myself:
What kind of 30-day challenge could I do to drastically cut, but not eliminate, the number of times I look at my phone?
I thought about this instead of looking at my phone during my walks with Zac.
And I came up with something:
“Keep It in Your Pants You Idiot”
Here’s the November challenge I set for myself:
- Maximum 500 phone unlocks in 30 days. I figured that was more than enough to use my phones for practical reasons like booking Ubers, playing podcasts, connecting to WiFi, and looking up wines on Vivino.
- Record my reason. Every time I unlock my phone, I would have to write in my Notes app what I unlocked 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.
The Story of My Phone-Checking Challenge
If you don’t care to read my story, jump to the tips I learned from my experience.
Phase 1: Finding Enablers
November 1, the first day of my phone checking challenge was particularly stressful because Kim, Zac, and I were flying from Portugal to Cape Town.
I had to unlock my phone multiple times to deal with seating and immigration issues, book our Uber, arrange to get our keys from our landlord, and set up internet in our apartment.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. So I came up with a workaround that I hadn’t considered when planning my challenge, but now was obvious:
I began begging Kim to unlock my phone for me.
I shamelessly coerced her into enabling my phone unlocking habit a dozen times that first day. Even so, I barely kept pace for my monthly challenge, with fifteen phone unlocks.
Phase 2: Making Every Unlock Count
By Day 3, Kim got fed up with unlocking my phone for me, so I evolved a new survival mechanism:
I made the most out of every time I used my phone.
If I made the sacrifice of unlocking 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 all the apps on my home screen, wondering what else I could use my phone for. And when I put my phone back in my pocket, I’d linger my finger on the screen to keep it from locking, just in case another “need” to use my phone popped up.
Not healthy behavior. I know. But I think it was a slight improvement over my previously unfettered phone.
And 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.
Phase 3: Swapping Notes
The upside of not whipping out my phone at every whim was that it gave my brain room to stretch. More ideas came to me as I walked around—things to look up, remember, work on, or write.
But what to do with these ideas?
I didn’t want to pull out my phone to address these ideas because that would A) Cost me an unlock, B) Halt my brain’s flow, and C) Lead to more distraction. But I also didn’t want to rely on my memory because the mental burden of not forgetting would prevent me from thinking anymore.
So I bought a cheap, pocket-sized notepad to use instead.
Whenever inspiration or curiosity struck, I’d pull it out of my pocket instead of my phone and jot it down. 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:
- I’d often deem things I previously wanted to look up not worth wasting my time on anymore.
- It gave me a second look at the creative ideas I had.
Phase 4: Embracing Notifications
Before my phone unlocking challenge, I was 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 or missed calls. 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, having completely forgot about what I had unlocked my phone to do in the first place.
To eliminate this, I re-enabled lock screen badges for messages and phone calls. Not only did this chop down the number of times I had to unlock my phone, but, thanks to a timely iOS upgrade, I discovered I could usually respond without unlocking my phone!
Phase 5: Cruising Along
Already by Day 5 of my phone unlocking challenge, I’d found a rhythm.
The minor speed bumps I installed—noting the reason and forfeiting a few cents every time I unlocked my phone—and having my physical notepad as an alternative were enough to make it almost easy to keep my phone in my pocket.
I rarely unlocked my phone more than ten times. And 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, during my challenge, I’d still be at 85% battery when I went to bed.
By November 15, I had unlocked my only phone 163 times, so I was on pace to end up 35 percent below my target of 500 for the month.
I could have lightened up for the second half of the month. But I didn’t feel the need to. And I wanted a bit of a challenge. So I upped the ante: I cut my target of 500 unlocks to 250 and doubled the financial “penalty.”
Phase 6: Smashing It
Toward the end of my 30-day challenge, I got fed up with my rule of having to note down the reason for unlocking my phone every time. It no longer seemed necessary because I’d hoisted my bad phone-unlocking habit high above my head, brought it down hard over my knee, and snapped it in half.
And speaking of halves, I ended up well below half the 500 unlocks I’d initialy targeted. Final total: 232. That’s probably one-sixth as many opens as in previous months.
Kim and I celebrated on the evening of November 30 with a R410 bottle of Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc at our favorite steakhouse in Cape Town.
Then, on December 1, I was free to go back to unfettered phone use. But I had zero desire to anymore. I liked my new system much more.
Tips for Looking at Your Phone Less
✓ Formally confront your bad habit.
I strongly recommend challenging yourself to limit the number of times you unlock your phone over a specific number of days.
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, telling others about your challenge, or at least writing your commitment in the comments of this post.
Or join me for a future Month of Discomfort.
✓ Install your own speed bumps.
My two speed bumps were having to note down why I decided to use my phone and a small monetary penalty.
You could try others, too:
- Take advantage of settings on your phone that restrict you from using certain apps during predefined periods.
- Put your phone in its case facing inward.
- Log out of every app 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.
✓ Give your brain something better to do.
Get a pocket-sized notepad and, whenever you feel compelled to pull out your phone, pull it out instead.
Also consider occupying your brain with a little project:
- Compile a bucket list of things you’d like to do before you die.
- Write down as many things about your spouse you are grateful for to say to them later that day. (A huge hit in my relationship with Kim.)
- Come up with ten business ideas every day.
✓ Maintain physical distance.
When out and about, put your phone in your bag to avoid the tempting sensation of your phone rubbing your thigh. And at home, keep your phone out of sight and out of mind, plugged in in another room.
My go-to storage location when I’m on the go is one of my wonderful backpack‘s water bottle holders. I don’t feel it there but I can reach around and pull it out if someone calls me.
✓ Don’t take your challenge hiking with you.
On November 12, 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.
Because of my reluctance to unlock my phone dozens of times to call, message, and coordinate, finding him took much, MUCH longer than it should have.
So, for safety’s sake, give yourself exemption days from your phone unlocking challenge as needed.
✓ Figure out ways to use your phone without unlocking it.
As I discovered, you can set your notifications in iOS so that you can view and respond to alerts on the lock screen itself. No doubt Android phones have similar capabilities.
Your phone’s voice assistant can also help you do some things. For instance, I can 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 add up to making a reasonable impact in reducing my overall phone use.
What’s the Harm?
I challenge you to challenge yourself to limit the number of times you look at your phone.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it surprisingly easy and rewarding.
The upside is you’ll learn to stop looking at your phone so much. And the downside is small. So give it a shot.
I mean, what’s the harm?
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About the author
I'm Chris. Grinding for conventional super success was exhausting, so I zagged. Now, my life's getting better and better—and part of that involves pushing you to work toward the same.
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