Your phone is training you to be its servant. Here’s how to fight back.
by Clint Carter
With every Facebook post you like, tweet you send, or question you type into Google, you’re giving the internet strength. Feeding the algorithms. Paying the advertisers. You’re also helping to fill server farms that will ultimately be replaced by bigger server farms, effectively anchoring the internet in the real world. This is all sweet and rosy, if the internet-human relationship is mutually beneficial. But it’s not clear that it is.
In some ways, our nonstop online lives are bringing us closer. But at least as often, the relentless pace of social media, email, and constant pings and beeps only serve to pull us further apart. And all this tech is certainly bad for our health and happiness: Research links social media to depression and high-speed internet to poor sleep. Simply having a phone visible during meals has been shown to make conversation among friends less enjoyable.
It’s probably hard to imagine life without a high-powered computer in your pocket or purse at all times, but it’s worth remembering that you’re still an autonomous being.
That said, these effects aren’t inevitable. Not yet, anyway. It’s probably hard to imagine life without a high-powered computer in your pocket or purse at all times, but it’s worth remembering that you’re still an autonomous being. You can decide how often and in what way you interact with the internet. And if you talk to the researchers, authors, and entrepreneurs who understand digital technology best, you discover that many of them already have.
We reached out to eight digital experts to find out how they maintain a (reasonably) healthy relationship with technology. All agreed that push notifications are evil, so you should go ahead and turn those off right now. Some of the experts even said they keep their ringers and text notifications off, at least some of the time. Beyond that, they all had unique strategies for defending themselves against the intrusive, obnoxious, and possibly destructive effects of technology.
Give Yourself One Honest Hour of Work Each Day
Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Much of Dan Ariely’s work — including Timeful, the A.I.-powered calendar app he built and sold to Google — focuses on making the most of limited time. One way he does this is by starting each morning in a distraction-free environment. “I think very carefully about the first hour of the day,” he says. “I used to have two computers, and one had no email or browser on it.” That’s the one he used for writing in the mornings.
“The thing is to realize that our time to work is actually quite precious.”
Ariely’s travel schedule forced him to abandon the dual-computer setup, but the experiment was fruitful enough that he now relies on a self-imposed internet ban to get work done. “The last thing I do each day is turn my computer off,” he says. “The next day, when I turn it back on, my browser and email are still off.” And Ariely keeps it that way until he’s powered through that first hour. “The thing is to realize that our time to work is actually quite precious,” he says. “We need to protect it.”
Quit Cold Turkey
Stanford professor, retired entrepreneur, and founder of the Lean Startup movement
Over the two-plus decades that Steve Blank helped shape Silicon Valley, he ushered eight technology startups into the world. But it was during his tenure at Rocket Science Games, a company he founded in the mid-1990s, that Blank began getting high on his own supply. “I found myself drug addicted,” he says. “I’d be up playing games until four in the morning.”
“The devices started as tools and ended up as drugs for most people.”
Video games are hardly a Schedule 1 narcotic, but Blank was losing sleep and, he felt, setting a bad example for his children. Emerging research confirms his idea that games and social media can exert drug-like forces over users. A study published in the journal PLOS One even found that digital addictions can shrink the amount of white matter at certain brain sites, creating changes similar to those seen in alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine addictions. “The devices started as tools and ended up as drugs for most people,” Blank says. “App manufacturers are incentivized to make us addicted. I’ll contend that a ton of social media is actually a lot like oxycontin.”
When Blank realized that his gaming habit was robbing him of happiness by way of lost sleep and family time, he snapped his CD-ROMs in half (this was the ’90s, remember). Then he threw the pieces into the trash. “I literally went cold turkey,” he says. “And I haven’t played a video game since.”
Create an Email System and Stick to It
Professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan
After studying Facebook — and, more important, after finding that the biggest users were the least satisfied with life — Ethan Kross decided to refrain from any social media use. But he still checks his email more often than he’d like. “It’s a self-control failure from a self-control expert,” he says.
To be fair, the professor is probably selling himself short. The truth is he relies on three solid rules to prevent compulsive emailing.
“So I just try to change my digital environment. We know from research that can be a powerful tool for enhancing self-control.”
First, Kross pushes all fast-moving work conversations to Slack. “That way I can get information from my lab collaborators quickly, and my email becomes less urgent.”
Second, he uses the snooze function, which is available on Gmail and services like Boomerang for Outlook, for any email that isn’t urgent. “If there are 50 things in my inbox, that can be disruptive to my immediate goals,” Kross says. So he snoozes them for a few hours or a few days, depending on the urgency.
Finally, Kross relies on an email-free iPad for reading, so he can’t check his incoming mail even if he wants to. “I don’t like checking my email when I’m in bed, because once every month I’ll receive something that makes me not sleep well,” he says. “So I just try to change my digital environment. We know from research that can be a powerful tool for enhancing self-control.”
Take Weeklong Breaks as Necessary
Researcher and professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of iGen, a book about how the internet is changing young adults
In April of last year, Jean Twenge signed up for Twitter. It’s her first and only social media account, and almost immediately she found herself clashing with people who disagreed with her research. “It’s a public forum, and I felt a compulsion to defend my arguments,” Twenge says. “But is that the right response? I don’t know. For my own mental health, I know it’s not.”
“It’s a public forum, and I felt a compulsion to defend my arguments.”
It’s not that she wanted to be on Twitter, but as an academic with a book to promote, Twenge felt like she had to. After six months with the service, though, Twenge noticed that she was increasingly giving in to a compulsion to check up on conversations that were making her miserable. “It completely confirmed why I don’t have social media,” she says. And so she scaled back. Twenge kept the account for promotional reasons and still has periods of time when she’s active, but when she needs a refresh, she consciously steps away for days or weeks.
When asked if she’s tempted to open an Instagram or Facebook account — even if just for research purposes — she replies quickly, “Nope.”
Dock Your Gadget and Walk Away
Professor at San Francisco State University and president of the Biofeedback Federation of Europe
As a researcher who explores the impact of excessive phone use (it makes us feel lonely) and the bad posture brought on by constantly staring at a screen, Erik Peper makes a point of keeping his phone at a distance. When he leaves home in the morning, he packs it into his backpack instead of his pocket. And when he returns in the evening, he docks it at the charging station by his front door.
What’s the point? There are two, actually.
“There are very few things that are truly urgent.”
First, the microwaves coming off mobile devices could present a small risk to their owners, Peper says. In a paper he wrote for the journal Biofeedback, Peper cites epidemiological research showing that people who use cellphones for more than 10 years are more likely than nonusers to have tumors on their salivary glands and inside their ear canals. They’re also three times as likely to have certain brain and spinal-cord tumors on the side of their head where they hold their phone. “The data is weak and controversial,” Peper admits. “But I believe in the precautionary principle, which says that you have to first prove something is totally safe before you can use it.”
The second reason is that, simply put, it’s a distraction. “The phone hijacks our evolutionary patterns,” Peper says. “We don’t do good with multitasking, so if you’re writing an article, and every five minutes you pop back to answer a message, you’re much less productive in the long term.” The same logic applies to socializing, he says, which is why his phone is stored out of sight when he’s with friends and family.
Does it matter that he’s a little slow to reply to messages? Or that he occasionally misses a call? “There are very few things that are truly urgent,” Peper says. “It’s different if you’re a firefighter, but beyond that, whether I answer the email this minute, later today, or even this evening — it really makes no difference.”
Eliminate Email on Your Phone
CEO of IFTTT, a service that lets you program your apps and smart devices to carry out rote tasks
Years ago, Linden Tibbets decided he didn’t want to be a slave to his email. Which meant, in short, that he would read and send messages only while sitting at his desk.
“The only time I send email on my phone is if I’m running late to a meeting and there’s no other way to communicate,” Tibbets says. “That’s literally the only time.”
“You can be endlessly entertained with what’s happening in the world around you. You don’t need your phone.”
The upshot, he says, is that he’s able to address his correspondance with better focus. “I would much rather spend an extra hour in the evening responding to email than to be distracted by it off and on throughout the day,” Tibbets says. If it takes a while to reply to people, no big deal. “I just say, ‘Thanks for your patience. I apologize for being slow to get back to you.’”
And if he finds himself with a moment of downtime — standing in line for groceries, for instance — Tibbets considers it rare opportunity for mind wandering. “I play a game with myself where I try not to look at my phone,” he says. “I look at people. I read food labels. I observe things in the environment. You can be endlessly entertained with what’s happening in the world around you. You don’t need your phone.”
Schedule Moments of Disconnection
Professor of marketing at New York University and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
In Irresistable, Adam Alter argues that in some ways, tech addiction may actually be worse than cigarette addiction. Because the web is built on social connections, each new addict makes it harder for the rest of us to abstain. “Addictive tech is part of the mainstream in a way that addictive substances never will be,” Alter writes. “Abstinence isn’t an option.”
“I try to put my phone on airplane mode on weekends.”
So what does the tech critic do to protect his own mental autonomy? He disconnects when the workweek’s done. “I try to put my phone on airplane mode on weekends so I can take photos of my two young kids without interruptions from emails and other needy platforms.”
Swap Out the Brain-Rot Apps for Ones That Enrich
Entrepreneurial consultant, host of Glambition, a podcast for women in business
Last year, Ali Brown had a social media reckoning. “It was after the election, when everything was getting toxic and weird,” she says. “I was getting all my news from Facebook, and I felt this sense of unease all the time.”
So Brown did an entirely logical thing that most of us haven’t done: She drained the swamp on her phone. In one heroic moment of full-steam bravado, Brown deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and replaced them with apps from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. “I decided to pay for some really good journalism,” she says. “I’ll use my time to read those instead.”
“Responding to social media all day is going to get you nowhere.”
Once her healthier new phone routine was established, Brown added back one social media app — but just one! “I like Instagram because it’s generally happy and fun,” she says. “I post about my kids.”
Brown is lucky enough to have a team to run her Twitter and Facebook accounts, but she knows there are better uses for investing her personal time. “If you’re here in this life to do great, powerful work, then you need to create some space in your day to be a freethinker,” she says. “Responding to social media all day is going to get you nowhere.”
To her clients — mostly women running seven- and eight-figure companies — Brown generally offers this advice: “Try deleting social media for a week. You won’t miss anything, you won’t cease to exist, and you’ll thank me later.”