We go to bed together. We wake up together. We're hardly ever apart.
To describe a relationship with a person in this way speaks of new love. But taken to describe another relationship, the one many of us have with our phones, the words betray a love twisted into dependency, and perhaps ring a bit too true.
At times I could describe my own relationship with my phone in this intimate way, and it doesn't make me feel great. Even though I try to be conscious of phone use it's easy to slip into the habit of pulling out my phone to quickly check the time...and then my email really quick and then Instagram, or to use it to check out by scrolling Instagram for a while. What I'll notice is that I'll pull my phone out to decompress if the boys are being wild or misbehaving, or to "relax" after we put them to bed (in quotations because I usually don't feel relaxed after scrolling).
Over the years I've found so much inspiration, encouragement, and connection through blogging, podcasting, and social media. But in a stressed or tired mental state I'm not ready to get the best out of my phone or social media. Instead of inspired I end up feeling overwhelmed by all the information and emotion being shared. My heart will break for people sharing struggles, or I will be reminded of the gross injustice of the world. Sometimes I start comparing my life to others, which is always the worst thing you can do on social media, and find myself feeling like I'm coming up short compared to people who doing amazing things with their creative and writing endeavors. Or, more superficially, find myself wishing for expensive house updates, pricey home decor items, and new clothes. The more time I spend on my phone, the less balanced I feel overall in my life, and, weirdly, the more time I end up spending on my phone.
My terms, not my phone's
The good thing is I recognize these tendencies in myself, and I know any "less than" feelings I get from my phone aren't true. My philosophy is that my phone is a tool to serve me and I want to interact with it on my terms, not on its terms. I also truly value time spent off of screens and try to keep my phone usage minimal, if at all, when I'm with other people, including Chris and the boys. For example, at home I often put my phone in my closet so that isn't not easily accessible and when I'm out with Chris or friends I don't get out my phone unless it's absolutely relevant to a conversation. But around the house, and therefore around Chris and the boys, it can be easy to let my good habits slip.
Bored and Brilliant makes the case for how our phones sap our creativity by filling our time with inane tasks and content, not to mention risking our personal information. By spending less time with your phone, it contends, you'll make space for boredom and more fulfillment which unleashes creativity. I read How to Break Up With Your Phone in one sitting last weekend (it's a quick read, I assume because it's targeting distracted phone users). The book walks through a day by day plan to scale back a toxic relationship with your phone to something healthier. I didn't feel the need to take 30 days for a detox but was still motivated by its recommendations. Both books reference the science behind phone addiction, which I find fascinating, motivating, and disgusting. Our phones are literally engineered to make us want to spend as much time with them as possible. It's also interesting to note that some of the very creators of the addictive technology we carry around put significant restrictions on how their own children used their creations: Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.
My rules for healthy phone use
So last weekend Chris and I talked and decided our phone habits need a refresh. We're both cutting back our phone use and these are the rules I'm personally following:
+ Minimal notifications. As part of my "my terms, not my phone's" general approach I already limit my notifications. I always keep my phone on silent (and no vibration) unless I am expecting an important call or text, and I only allow notifications for calls, messages, and calendar reminders. But I decided to take this to the next level by removing banner alerts for texts (where a preview of the text shows up at the top of your screen if you're using your phone) and removing the message app from the coveted home bar at the bottom of my phone screen. Now my home bar includes: phone, Google Keep (for all the lists I keep), photos, and Pocketcasts.
+ No phones in the bedroom. Chris and I are both following this rule and it's a big change for us because we've both been in the habit of listening to a podcast or audio book to fall asleep. This was a habit we started when we had babies who would be up at all hours and we needed something to help us get back to sleep as fast as possible after a night waking. However, the habit means our phones are close by and therefore so is the temptation to check social media or look something up. I was also wondering if just having the phone nearby was contributing to Chris's early waking (often 3:30 or 4 a.m.) by reminding him of emails and work.
+ No checking my phone after dinner. I want evenings to be a time to wind down and focus only on our family and myself. Once Chris is home from work there's really no reason I need to interact with my phone. Certainly picking up my phone to scroll Instagram or texts with friends that can wiat until tomorrow isn't contributing to winding down. A particular habit I had was scrolling on my phone after getting home from an evening fitness class or after book club. In both cases I would already be wound up from the exercise and social interaction and being on my phone would feed that and mean I went to bed even later. Since establishing my new rules I skipped scrolling after my Monday night fitness class and after book club. Instead, I read a book and was able to fall asleep a little earlier. To enforce my habit I have my phone set to turn on Do No Disturb starting at 6 p.m. This means I don't get notifications for calls or texts. If I'm tempted to look at my phone I see the "Do Not Disturb" reminder on my phone and remember why I have it set up.
+ No social media on the weekends. I've followed this rule loosely in the past but I'm recommitting to it. Weekends are for family time and recharging (sometimes these can even happen at the same time, haha!) and there's nothing happening on social media that's more important than that. What's so revealing is that I could easily spend two hours in a weekend looking at Instagram. Or I could spend zero time in a weekend on Instagram and on Monday I can catch up on anything I missed in a few minutes. It's a telling reminder that apps are engineered to make us feel like always need to be on them but the truth is five minutes is usually plenty.
+ Limited and intentional social media checks on the weekdays. At its best, Instagram is an amazing tool for capturing snapshots of life and connecting with people. I also value it for practicing and sharing my writing, and connecting with people who value the content (blog posts and podcast episodes) that I work hard to create. To keep it as a benevolent force in my life I'm cutting back on how often I'm checking it. When I do want to check into Instagram I first make a decision that I'll check it and what my intention is (posting, responding to comments, scrolling the timeline), instead of mindlessly opening the app.
After one week with these rules I found my inclination to mindlessly reach for my phone is significantly decreased and evenings feel more relaxing. I've been going to bed earlier too (by 9 p.m.) which is something I've been wanting to do. I was worried about having trouble falling asleep without an audiobook but the transition has been easier than I expected. Instead of listening to an audiobook at bedtime I read until I can't keep my eyes open, turn out the light, and then usually fall right to sleep. There was one night when the boys woke us up a few times and my mind started gearing up to think of tasks and lists. I did bend my rules about phones in the bedroom and listened to an audiobook, which helped put me to sleep, but it felt like a conscious choice to use my phone as a helpful tool instead of an accidental habit and I am okay with that.
Mindless phone use can be a negative feedback loop, encouraging more checking and scrolling even as it makes me feel worse, but luckily the opposite seems to be true as well. The less I use my phone the better I feel and the more I want to keep up my healthy phone habits.