I Checked My Phone 89 Times on 19 December. Or, Why We Might Need To Break Up With Our Phones

I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. On one hand, I appreciate having the world at my fingertips: a state-of-the-art camera, instant connection to the people I love (for both meaningful conversations and to facilitate the sharing of hilarious memes), a flashlight, timer, dictionary, and even an app (that I downloaded on an island in the middle of nowhere, I might add) to alert me to the fact that yes, in fact, my son had been playing in poison ivy for almost an hour. Cue facepalm.

But I hate that I turn to it for mindless entertainment. I hate that I turn to it to numb me from the stress and anxiety of parenting and a pandemic and renovations (even though, paradoxically enough, I often end up reading the news which does nothing to bolster my mood). I hate that I pick it up over and over and over again each day – to check the weather, look up lyrics to a song, or to Google “How many toilet paper rolls – jumbo size – would it take to circumnavigate the Earth.” You know, incredibly important tasks of that ilk.

I hate that I can be distracted when the kids are trying to interact with me – often under the guise of helping them (texting parents to arrange playdates, for example). I hate that I reach for it first thing in the morning and that I feel panicked if I head out to run errands and realize I’ve left it home on the counter.

I say all this and yet I think I actually have a lot of well-established boundaries with my phone. I don’t text while driving, don’t have any social media apps (which makes sense because I don’t have any social media accounts!), and generally keep my daily screen time below 2 hours (and most weeks this hovers around the 1 hour/day mark).

I’ve decluttered my home screen, leaving only a handful of apps, and I try to only check e-mail on my phone a few times a day. I deleted all my news apps years ago, so have to navigate to physical web addresses each time (which does help lessen my news consumption, but I still head to news sites more than would be advisable given the general tone of coverage).

But, but, but…

I can tell there is significant room for improvement. I know there are ways to decrease my screen time and, more importantly to me right now, improve how I feel when I walk away from time on my digital device.

I talk with my family a lot about things being net-negative or net-positive. I think, despite all the upsides, social media is a net-negative experience for almost all users (and I believe the mental health statistics from the last decade would back me up on this). Most technologies have positives and negatives, and it’s all about assessing the net result. For example, washing machines can break down clothing fibers far more quickly than hand-washing, but I can think of a dozen reasons why I’m not rushing to eBay to source a washboard and lye soap anytime soon. To me, a washing machine falls neatly into the net-positive category.

But right now, despite my best efforts and “good” habits, my phone feels like a net-negative. I think it has less to do with the amount of time (quantity) and more to do with the function of that time (quality).

I just finished reading How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Instead of trying to summarize everything she said, I’m just going to discuss some of the key takeaways I wrote down while reading the book (it’s short, readable, very practical, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that wants to revisit their relationship with smartphones) + some direct quotes.

Action items I’m implementing

  1. I’ve put a hair elastic around my phone as a tangible/sensory reminder to me to pay attention each time I pick up my phone. She calls this sort of thing “speed bumps” – little reminders that slow us down and either make time on our phones seem less efficient/attractive or, at the very least, leave us aware that we’ve reached for our phone again. [She also suggests changing the picture on the lock screen to something like “Notice” or a taking a picture of a piece of paper – bonus points if someone you love is holding it up – that reads: “Why did you pick me up?”I love my current picture (of the hubby and I on vacation) too much to do that, but I still thought it was a good idea.]
  2. Use the WWW prompt. Price suggests we ask ourselves the following questions when we’re reaching for our phone: What For (Why am I picking up the phone?Name a specific purpose – to order underwear on Amazon, to look up reviews on a new restaurant, to kill time?), Why Now (Is it practical – to take a picture of something; is it situational – am I on an awkward elevator ride; is it emotional – I want a distraction?), and What Else (What else could I be doing instead of turning to my phone?)?
  3. Pick a new charging spot. I’m a bit stymied by this one, but will report back when I find a better location than my bedside table which certainly doesn’t help me avoid the last-thing-at-night/first-thing-in-the-morning phone usage. For the last few days I’ve been leaving my phone on the dresser and not charging it until it gets low. A happy by-product of using my phone less – it doesn’t need to be charged every day and I can always plug it in first thing in the morning, which will make it less convenient to over-consume in the first place.
  4. Track total pickups. I think I have a pretty good handle on total time (I like this to be about an hour, and am generally within 20 minutes or so of this, but can definitely spike over 2 hours without much effort, especially if I’ve had a tough day). I think my bigger issue is how often I reach for my phone and how that short check-in with texts can morph into 30 minutes catastrophizing about COVID and climate change and politics on the BBC news website. In my defence of the screenshot below – some of the 89 pick-ups on December 18th are related to preparing all the verses for our Christmas gifts; the fact that the Bible app was responsible for at least 17 of those pickups has to count for something! Also, I don’t mind seeing a high Camera count because that is one of my favourite uses for the phone. The issue is I’ll open up my camera and then see a text and then enter a search string and…you know how the rest of this story goes, right?

QUotes that stood out

“Smartphones…nag us. They disturb us when we’re working. They demand our attention and reward us when we give it to them. Smartphones engage in disruptive behaviors that have traditionally been performed only by extremely annoying people.”

  • I bolded that last bit because…it literally made me laugh out loud.

“When we check our phones, we occasionally find something satisfying – a complimentary e-mail…an interesting piece of news. The resulting burst of dopamine makes us begin to associate the art of checking our phones with the receipt of a reward. Similarly, there are times when checking your phone out of anxiety really does leave you feeling soothed. 

Once that link has been established, it doesn’t matter if we’re rewarded only one time out of every fifty. Thanks to dopamine, our brains remember that one time. And instead of dissuading us, the fact that we can’t predict which of our fifty checks is going to be rewarding makes us check our phones even more. 

Want to know another device that uses intermittent rewards to drive compulsive behavior? Slot machines.

In fact, the similarities between the two devices are so powerful that Harris [who wrote an article titled: How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind] frequently compares smartphones to slot machines [considered to be one of the most addictive devices ever invented] we keep in our pockets.”

  • Okay, this hits close to home. I actually spent a year of my Master’s using classic Pavlovian conditioning – on honeybees, not humans or dogs, admittedly – and my all-time favourite clip from the office is the Altoid exchange between Dwight and Jim. In other words: I should recognize this pattern and know better.

[Referring to social media and “likes”]: “Put this all together, and it makes sense that spending a lot of time on social media could be associated with depression and lower self-esteem. What doesn’t make sense is that we are deliberately choosing to relive the worst parts of middle school.

  • This also made me laugh because…it’s so relatable. Middle school (and high school, too) are just so objectively tough and awkward when it comes to the judgement of a few, specific “popular” people we admire for their perceived status who don’t care about our emotional wellbeing. And now, as a society, we are so often willingly opening ourselves up to the same sort of critique!?

“…a New York Times analysis calculated that as of 2014, Facebook users were spending a collective 39,757 years’ worth of attention on the site, every single day. It’s attention that we didn’t spend on our families, or our friends, or ourselves. And just like time, once we’ve spent attention, we can never get it back. 

This is a really big deal, because our attention is the most valuable thing we have. We experience only what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.”

  • I am so easily distracted, not just by my phone but I think largely because of it; because I’ve wired myself to short bursts of attention, to supposed “multitasking” and to always feeling like I need to be doing…something. Can anyone else see parallels with Oliver Burkeman’s productivity trap discussion?

“…if you wanted to invent a device that could rewire our minds, if you wanted to create a society of people who were perpetually distracted, isolated, and overtired, if you wanted to weaken our memories and damage our capacity for focus and deep thought, if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption, and redraw the lines of social etiquette, you’d likely end up with a smartphone. “

  • Hmmm. She’s clearly not holding back any punches in this quote.

“Most of the things we do on our phones – reading the news, playing games – are stimulating activities. Imagine how difficult it would be to doze off if all of the people you follow on social media were in the room with you, the television was blaring in the background, and several friends were having a political debate. That’s essentially what you’re doing when you bring your phone into bed with you.”

  • I thought this was a great perspective/unique way of visualizing the problem. I have definitely caught myself going to my phone for one final “check-in” before bed and seeing a challenging work e-mail, depressing news story or frustrating text…and then not being able to get it off my mind.

“We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of [our cravings]. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives.” Pema Chodron

  • I read about something similar in Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap (also highly recommend) where he talks about surfing the urge. This could be related to overconsumption of food or getting angry at your kids or, in this case, the urge to pick up a smartphone. Being conscious of the urge (or itch) is part of the solution – once we’re aware of the triggers we can actually tune into the feedback our body is giving us (physical and mental clues) and simply try to ride it out.

“The point of breaking up with our phones isn’t to deprive ourselves of the benefits of modern technology. It’s to set boundaries so that we can enjoy the good parts of our phones while also protecting ourselves from the bad.”

  • How true! There is SO much good about phone technology and I appreciate the fact this book isn’t designed to be a giant guilt-trip.

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

  • Again, it’s about awareness. And too often I pick the phone up out of habit, not with a true sense of purpose in mind (or, if my purpose is clear, I quickly forget it with notifications and pinging notifcations).

[Quote from a participant in the author’s focus group]: “Checking your phone is like picking your nose: there’s nothing wrong with it, but no one should have to watch you do it.” Alex

  • Made me laugh, while also being insightful.

“At first you’re likely to feel physically and emotionally twitchy, as if your brain is banging on a door that usually opens, and panicking when it realizes that it’s locked.”

  • Again, I liked this imagery. We get so used to reaching for our phone in a lineup or when we’re angry or overwhelmed or scared or bored or tired; also, it’s another reminder to sit still with the “itch.”

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • I am an introvert. I think I’ve come to realize the importance of this aspect of my personality more and more (likely compounded by the fact, for many months, there was very little chance for solitude with pandemic lockdowns and a young family at home). I like stillness and solitude and communion with God and spending time in nature, and need to be more proactive about seeking this out each and every day, even when I can’t necessarily carve out solo time.

Phew…that was a big, long post.

What are your thoughts about phones/screentime? Anything you’re looking to change in 2022 or any “hacks” you’ve successfully implemented to improve your interactions with your smartphone?

Header photo by Benjaminrobyn Jespersen on Unsplash

19 thoughts on “I Checked My Phone 89 Times on 19 December. Or, Why We Might Need To Break Up With Our Phones”

  1. I’ve read a lot on this topic (including Digital Minimalism, which is good!) and I’m starting to see quite a lot of similarities with diet culture. Software companies intentionally created a device that uses psychological techniques to keep us coming back for more. They capitalize on that dopamine hit. But somehow, checking a phone too much has morphed into personal responsibility and willpower. Instead of companies making their apps less addictive, we are expected to come up with hacks and systems to somehow outsmart these systems. Same with diet culture – processed snack foods are engineered to have the perfect combination of salt, sweetness, flavor, and crunch to light up our pleasure centers, but if we end up eating too much of these foods, it’s OUR fault.

    That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an effort to stand up against these app developers and pay more attention to our real lives. But we need to recognize what we’re up against, and not be too hard on ourselves when we know we’re being taken advantage of!

    1. I read Digital Minimalism too, and things you’re so right!
      Here are two quotes from that book that hit on this:
      “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.” Cal Newport

      “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerdy gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T–shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking. Philip Morris just wanted your lungs. The App Store wants your soul.” Bill Maher

      In terms of how this relates to food, I read Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions by Michael Moss this year and it goes into great detail about all those things you mention about having foods engineered to become highly addictive. It was a sobering – and frustrating – read.

  2. I love this whole post so much. This morning, I had to say, out loud, three times, “Do not pick up your phone.” I am working on using it less, leaving it upstairs in my bedroom, limiting the amount of time I am on apps. (Although I have been spending more time on my computer, out of the frying pan into the fire.) It’s so hard. But my biggest impetus is that my daughter has started complaining that I focus too much on my phone. That’s awful. I never want her to feel like I prefer the company of my PHONE to hers!

    1. I definitely use my phone as a distraction. When I have moments to fill…and want a break from tasks or interruptions from the kids. What did we do a decade ago without texting and constant cell-phone use – I honestly can’t remember?
      I do end up using my laptop more when I decrease smartphone usage, but I’m not as bothered by the computer time. For starters, I don’t whip out my laptop while waiting in a lineup at the grocery store and I also think I feel more accessible to the kids when I’m on a laptop?

  3. I’m on a quick work break so I had to skim over some of this post to fit it in…but I definitely relate!!! I read that book out loud to my husband a few years ago now as we were driving to Florida for vacation. My phone is constant source of irritation to me. And I do use social media, which is probably my biggest source of problem. But then again, I like some things about it too. Like you, though, my biggest issue I think is the constant checking. The “fragmented mind” feeling, and the constant need to be checking something or doing something. It drives me crazy! Like Suzanne said, my boys also sometimes makes comments about me being on my phone, which is terrible!!! Or sometimes I’ll be looking at something and they’ll come in the room and start talking to me, and I find myself sort of saying, “mm hmm…” / basically dismissing them in favor of whatever I was looking at on my phone! NOT OKAY. I am still working on my goals list for 2022 and I know I want to do something related to decreasing phone use/ social media, but I can’t decide what exactly!! I also considered the idea of working on decreasing number of checks. My pickup number is often over 100!!! (on the screen time app, anyway). I also keep coming back to the idea of deleting the social media apps and scheduling in a couple checks per week, on my laptop or something, a la Cal Newport rec style.

    1. I think it’s extra hard because (Cal Newport aside maybe) – most of us really DO need our phones and need to be on them regularly. My kids school sends text updates, teachers sometimes text – just about everyone in my life texts regularly and because we DON’T call anymore, even “urgent” type requests come up via text. I guess I could ask people to call if they have a time-sensitive issue, but that’s not necessarily realistic.
      Because I do use my phone as a tool so often (as a camera, GPS, to house my shopping list), it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff…
      My pickups yesterday were 101 – with 51 pickups going right to WhatsApp (some of that was work related, but still…I only interact with two people regularly on WhatsApp, so that seems pretty sad!)

  4. Oh, man. I FEEL this post.


    I have a love hate relationship with my phone too – for me it’s social media scrolling and constant rechecking emails. I do have a news app and read the headlines each day, but I think that’s an improvement for me… I’ve lived in a bubble of no news consumption for years and at times it made me feel quite ignorant of important things. So I scan news headlines each day but don’t tend to doom scroll (or haven’t since the early pandemic days).

    But social media… oh man.

    And you’re right, having my daughter tell me to put my phone down is a crappy feeling every time. We were watching TV tonight and I grabbed my phone and scrolled, and she asked me put it away. I did, and apologised. Even though she was enjoying watching the TV, she wanted us to be doing it together, and I was wasting that by scrolling. Ugh.

    I like the idea of charging/keeping it away from the bedside, but I have such a fear of needing to use it in an emergency overnight (specifically a home invasion, which is crazy as I’ve never been involved in one and don’t live in an area where they are common) I can’t face not having it there so I can call for help if I needed.

    A lot to think about!

    (I’d check my pick up total but – surprise, surprise – I left my phone downstairs!)

    1. There is a lot to think about! And I think our phones definitely contribute to the “there-but-no-there” issue. I notice this a lot in restaurants (well, pre-COVID at least), where people would be on their phones during a meal. Like most of the meal. Outside the house.
      We basically never use phones at the table, but I definitely do the scrolling while the kids watch TV thing and I can be present for a whole movie and not take in a single second of it because I’ve been on my phone.

  5. I wish I can send your post to my husband who is glue to his phone 24/7. We had so many fights around it. It’s okay to use entertainment when he’s alone but not when we are together as a family. but sigh… i can’t change him because his why is different than mine.
    I was worried about my phone dependence/addition last year and tried to cut down pick up times/total screen time to see how I did. What I learned is if I’m aware of I’m doing it, I stop kind quickly. if I don’t have FB in my phone, I don’t open it on my phone. If I don’t have work email, I don’t check it unless I’m waiting for an answer. So I was relieved to know that I’m not addicted to it, I can live without my phone. I do use it daily for whatsapp/wechat as communication, youtube/insta for workout videos, and health trackers. I am subscriber to Atlantic and new year times but rarely open them on my phone.
    in summary: as long as I know why i am using it for (not for entertainment but for a specific purpose), i’m not too worried about screentime/pick up times.

  6. I don’t track phone pickups (maybe I should!) but I do track total screen time on my phone, and I try to keep it fairly low. I find that if I just leave my phone in a different room, that helps so much with my focus. It’s interesting, I could go most of the day without looking at it, but when I do look at it, I find it’s hard to stop picking it up. So addictive! Anyway, a while back I deleted the apps that were time sucks and that helped for me too.

    1. Definitely helps when it’s out of reach. I think texts are one of the hardest things because when a conversation starts the back-and-forth can end up eating up a lot of time so I end up feeling like I’m constantly pulling out my phone to reply…

  7. I should read this book this year as well as digital minimalism. I really want to focus on being on my phone less. I wish the screen time ap was more customizable, though. I spend a lot of time reading on my phone and also am on my phone quite a bit for work (and when on hold with doctors offices – that sums to HOURS this week). But screen time doesn’t seem to deduct my phone time so it looks shockingly high. I went off social media on 12/4 and am not sure when/if I will go back. Like you said, I believe it’s net negative for me. I do miss seeing pictures of friend’s kids. I have tried to replicate that experience by starting a weekly check in text with 2 friends but we fizzled pretty quickly. I used to really limit what I had access to from 4:30-6:30 since that is when I should have been focusing on my son. That was mostly to keep me off social media. It’s less of a problem lately since my hands are pretty full with the 2 boys. But there is room for improvement.

    But this is good food for thought for me. I think my first focus should be # of pick-ups on the weekend. And possibly the week day but if I have a lot of work calls, I’ll be set up to fail, so maybe the focus should be on what I go to first when picking up my phone. Because your example of going to the bible ap and your camera are not bad reasons to pick up your phone IMO!

    1. Exactly – I’m aiming for quality time on my phone. For me that is definitely time spent using it to take pictures + texting with close friends/family. Beyond that, it’s usually not a great use of my time.
      I’m trying to only check e-mail on my laptop where it’s much easier to respond to things (i.e. if I need to attach things for work)…and I’m less likely to get detoured by something else.

  8. I wish I didn’t have to have my phone with me all the time for work purposes. It would be nice if I could just leave it upstairs when I’m downstairs or vice versa, but the couple of times I’ve done that, I have missed important phone calls. I think it’s sad that these devices have created a world in which the home/work divide is so limited.

    I will have a think on my smart phone use (the WWW prompt is super smart) and maybe set some goals to reduce use next quarter.

    1. The whole work thing is SO tough. So many jobs require excessive amounts of time on the phone or at least being accessible and that makes it so hard to balance. Especially since many people use their work phones for personal things as well.
      There is no real downtime.
      I like the idea of having a digital Sabbath each week and will admit I kinda miss having a landline. We only got rid of it a little over a year ago and while it was a bit of a nuisance to have to give out two numbers, it meant that I felt I COULD leave my cell phone at home and not miss important messages because people could get the answering machine. Now that I can take my phone with me…I just always tend to do so.
      BUT, after reading this book I’ve been a bit better about leaving the phone home when I go for a walk etc. Lots of room for improvement, though.

  9. Well, I set a goal last year to limit my social media time (because I know that’s the biggest culprit – not the Kindle app or my email) and failed miserably. I was more mindful about it, but I did nothing to actually limit the time I was on social media (mainly Instagram and IG, sometimes Twitter). I can relate to so much you touched on in this post. The biggest struggle is that most of my family and friends are far away and I can’t substitute actual face time with “connecting” on the phone. I know I have to set some boundaries, so I should probably read some of the suggested books.

  10. Oof, I will not tell you what my screen time averages out on a weekly basis… but it is nowhere close to 1-2 hours, haha. But my numbers are a bit inflated since I listen to podcasts/audiobooks. I guess I could just subtract those numbers, but I also sometimes play games on my phone while listening haha. I do try to set time limits on some apps, though, like Instagram. I should set it for other apps, too, just to be more aware of how much time I’m spending on them. A good practice!

    1. I know that the Apple Screen Time app isn’t necessarily a great reflection of usage since there are some valid things that can drive up the time (for example, using GPS to navigate somewhere, even if I barely look at the screen). I’m not quite sure how to accommodate for that, but this week I’ve been noting what number of pickups started with me going to the camera, for example, because I don’t have any problem with the time I use on the camera because that is a very important phone function to me).

      It’s more about being mindful, to me, and feeling good when I get off the screen, and less about the total time (but at a certain point they’re almost always related)!

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