I’ve been trying to use technology more mindfully, and in particular be more mindful about how I use my phone. I’m now trying to have an intention when I pick up my phone, instead of unlocking it and instinctively opening Chrome to hop on Twitter.
This isn’t to say I’m trying to use my phone less—this is not my goal, but a side effect of my goal. I think that generic “screen time” is a good metric, but sometimes misses the point.
One example of where screen time collapses as a metric is when I’m playing a lot of Pokemon GO. Playing PoGO requires the app to be open and my screen to be on, so my screen time naturally increases. But sometimes, I’m not even looking at my phone, and others I’ll have the app open while I’m walking around outside. That’s technically screen time, sure, but it’s very different than mindlessly scrolling through Reddit.
And sometimes, my intention is to use Reddit or Twitter. I use both for educational purposes (sometimes)—Twitter, for example, is where I find a lot of new papers to read and learn about new tools. Granted, I also subscribe to things like /r/AnimalCrossing, /r/sudoku, and /r/cats—but entertainment has value in moderation, too.
The purpose of writing all that isn’t to say that screen time is useless, but to recognize that, like all metrics, it is a proxy for what we’re actually interested in. For me, that’s mindful phone usage. Screen time gets some of the way there, but not all.
Instead of focusing on screen time, I’ve taken steps to reduce how impulsively I use my phone. That means reducing the number of native apps (no Reddit, no Twitter) and forcing myself to open Chrome and type “t” in the address bar for Twitter, or removing the autogenerated shortcut for Reddit from my Chrome new tab page.
I’ve generally found that increasing the number of steps I have to go through helps me to catch myself before I get to the end. I know this has a name in psychology, but I don’t remember what it is.
Mindful usage means that I’ll put my phone somewhere out of sight—behind my monitor, on the side of my desk, in a drawer. It means that when I want a break, I can still grab it, but it’s not competing for my attention.
And mindful usage still means tracking my screen time, but also having a persistent notification that informs me how much time I’ve spent using the current app and generally using my phone. It helps me to remember “hey, are you staring at your phone too much?”
That means blocking Gmail (which I view as a distractor—I don’t need to check my email more than twice a day), Chrome, and Snapchat between midnight and 8AM, so that I’m not scrolling through Reddit before bed.
Basically, I recognize that I need my phone, and even recognize that I like using social media (and that it generally adds value to my life). Instead of simply trying to use my phone less, I’m trying to reduce the number of times I unlock my phone without having an intention behind it.