A few years ago, I read the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. It was long enough ago that I can’t speak to the writing or the methods suggested in it with any confidence, but the fact that it was more than three years ago speaks to something that I’ve been struggling with for a long time: how much time do I spend on my phone?
The answer, according to Screen Time on my iPhone, is about 7 hours a day. SEVEN HOURS. There is a reason why my friends and I have begun to use the term “Screen Crimes” for this data. The saddest part is that it used to be worse. In early 2021, I regularly hit 12 hours on my phone a day. Why? What was I doing on there?
Mostly, social apps like Instagram were pulling me in and refusing to let me go. Discord was a main culprit, too, but that was fine, I reasoned, because I was making friends, running a business out of a server, playing creative games like Dungeons & Dragons, learning about the world. There were days when I somehow managed to read for four hours without realizing. That seemed okay, too… until I realized that a lot of those hours were being spent while I was less than 3 feet from my partner.
I’ve tried many strategies to reduce my phone usage, but something always seems to pull me in; I mean, that’s what the apps are designed to do, so it makes sense. Lately, however, I wanted to try again, and try something else.
The first change was something seemingly small, but it’s had a big impact. I started going upstairs after dinner, changing into my loungewear, and plugging my phone in to charge. I go back downstairs to enjoy a movie or a tv show with my partner without my phone. If I need to do something with my hands–which is true 99% of the time–I pick up some embroidery, or maybe it’s a mending project, sometimes it’s a book if we’re watching hockey or another sport.
This managed to reduce my phone time by 2 hours on its own and it helped me wrap up a few outstanding projects. There’s room for improvement–sometimes I forget to bring my phone upstairs and I catch myself checking it–but it’s good progress.
The second change I made was add a single Screen Time limit for Instagram. During the week, I give myself 15 minutes, on weekends I get an hour. Now, Screen Time limits aren’t perfect. You can get past them by adding one minute, or fifteen, or ignoring the limit for the day. I’d say its got about a 75% success rate of pulling me out of the Reels spiral though. It’s just jarring enough that I think “Wow that was 15 minutes? Okay better do something else.” This has helped a decent amount, though I’m not sure how many hours I’ve clawed back because of it–I just don’t have the data.
Future ideas include quarantining activities to certain devices or areas of the house. I’ve been eyeing an iPad mini for a while. If I were to get one, it would immediately become the sole device that had access to Instagram and the games I still keep on my phone. I don’t want to get rid of either of those activities completely, but I want to consciously choose to do them. Similarly, I’m beginning to transition to using my Kindle or paper books only for reading. No more Kindle app on my phone. Reading is good, but if I intend to read, I don’t want to be doing it in snatches, hunched over my desk when I could be working.
I think I may also set up a charging station for my phone away from my bedside table. I don’t use it for an alarm, and using it to wind down before I fall asleep is not a good habit. If it’s charging across the room or even in my office, that’ll be better.
As I come up with other strategies that work for me, I’ll be sure to share them!