Written by Paul Greenberg
For the sake of yourself and your country, it is time to get off your phone.
Yes, I know you needed to see the latest from the Capitol storming, the impeachment hearings, the Republican backlash, and then you’ll need to know how it’s all going down with the new administration in the first 100 days, and then perhaps you’ll want to check in on the stalled Covid-19 vaccination effort. And then poof, before you know it, midterm elections will be ramping up and you’ll need to scroll and scroll and scroll.
But there’s a good reason to balance a civic duty to stay informed with a personal responsibility to protect yourself. According to online analytics company Chartbeat, Americans burned 173 million hours reading about Trump on their phones over the last four years — more than twice as much time as they spent reading about him on their laptops or desktops. Those same 173 million hours would have been enough time to clean all of our beaches of plastic debris or tackle any of our myriad personal goals.
But what’s really significant about all the doomscrolling time is how it has affected our minds. Phone-based news reading tends to be done in spurts, with scant attention paid to nuance or substantiation of argument. It is, in short, the perfect cave for Trumpian thoughts and conspiracy theories to dwell. We need to move our attention away from Twitter and TikTok and focus instead on fact-checked and fact-based arguments.
How to do this? As I write in my book Goodbye Phone, Hello World, changing your relationship to your phone requires a change in your relationship with your daily life. De-centering your phone won’t cause you to lose money, friendships, “connectedness,” or opportunity. Rather it will be an opportunity for you to take your life back from Big Tech’s agenda and start making rational, sound plans with you in control of your time.
Here are 12 steps you can take right now to begin the process:
Get an alarm clock
The moments between sleeping and waking are the times when we are most in touch with our subconscious, and thus precious for creativity. Protect those tender morning minutes. Have an alarm clock wake you up, so that the first thing you are focused on something other than your phone.
Engage with your dreams
Dreams are your window into what Carl Jung called “the night-sea journey,” the pathway to the inner workings of your being. Start a dream journal that you keep next to your bed. Record your dreams in words and images every morning the moment you wake before they dissipate in the morning light.
Choose something other than your phone as a morning practice
In the ancient Sanskrit sacred text The Bhagavad Gita, the God Krishna, incarnated as a charioteer, instructs the young warrior Arjuna on how to live a fulfilling life. He tells Arjuna that the divided mind is an unhappy mind but that “[w]hen a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that form.” Mastery through practice is faith. By replacing some of your device-divided time with unified time, you begin to lay down your own path.
Take a month to experiment with different practices that could be sustained over time. Is it the piano you once played? The watercolors you’ve always wanted to paint? Try taking 15 minutes of what was your smartphone time and dedicating it to that practice. Evaluate your feelings after each short session. At the end of a month, choose the practice you want to follow and pursue it consistently throughout the next month, increasing the time you spend on that practice by one-minute increments each day as time allows.
Do your morning reading from a physical magazine with in-depth, fact-checked reporting
Reading on paper can be good for you. A 2016 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that individuals who read on paper increased their life-span by an average of 23 months. Spend some time reading serious journalism — or a favorite book.
Make at least one meal a day tech-free
Research has shown that even the presence of an inert phone on the table serves to make conversations shallower.
Have an unedited conversation
Many people say they text or email rather than talk because they have come to fear the spontaneity of actual conversation. They fear an awkward silence. But “[i]t is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other,” Sherry Turkle writes in her book Reclaiming Conversation. Choose to be revealed.
Use your phone with intention
Before texting, posting, or making any other public statement, remember Gandhi’s helpful saying: “Speak only if it improves upon silence.”
Call a friend you’re about text
Use texting just for logistical purposes, saving emotional information for more direct communication.
Focus on real friends
The social media use of the word friend is an appropriation that downplays the critical roles actual friends play in our lives. Most psychologists agree that humans can only effectively maintain a relatively small number of truly intimate friendships — usually around 15. By this standard, having 1,000 “friends” is absurd. Take a long, hard look at your list of digital friends and cull the list to those with whom you have meaningful communication.
One of the things that distort our exercise regimen and attitudes toward our own bodies is an obsessive curating of self-image. Editing images of yourself and posting them online creates unrealizable expectations, especially for young adults.
Limit your self-curation both for your own sake and for the sake of the younger people in your life who are particularly susceptible. Try to go for a given period of time without editing photos of yourself or your loved ones. Examine how you feel after this “self-curation” diet.
Stick with your plans
Smartphones make it easy to waffle; you can always text an apology when you’re running late or bailing on plans entirely. Try to honor your commitments to your intimates. Make a plan and stick to it. Be respectful of the agreed-upon time you and your loved one have set aside to be together. Keeping commitments with your intimates is another bedrock of trustworthy relationships.
Protect the night
You’ll get a better night’s sleep if you avoid looking at screens beginning two hours before bed. In your last moments before sleep, write in a journal, meditate, read some lines of poetry, or have an exchange with your partner: a look in the eye, some words. Close your eyes with the expectation of exploring the wealth of your own mind in the morning.
Remember, breaking a phone addiction isn’t easy. Be gentle with yourself. Understand that when you stare into your phone 10,000 programmers’ eyes are staring back at you, monitoring your move, adapting the on-screen environment so that you’ll keep looking and scrolling. Let’s make 2021 the year when we stopped doing that mindlessly. Let’s take back control of our country, our time, and our minds.
Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg published by Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2020 by Paul Greenberg