Rules for Screens, Part Two

Let’s talk about your phone.

This is part two of a series. If you haven’t yet, read part one.

Last time we hurled our televisions out the window into a dumpster. If you actually did that, like I did once in college, you know that the sound of that crunch and exploding screen was awesome. Well maybe not, CRT screens aren’t around anymore. Anyway, if you didn’t actually hurl it out a window, well, hopefully you at least sold or gave away your TV. Remember, you can have a television or you can have a life.

Televisions are not the screen everyone wrings their hands over these days though. That’s a little odd to me because according to statistics on screen time, that’s where most of us spend our time. But the evil de jour is phones. You phone is doing all kinds of things to you and will probably eventually be a direct contributor to the collapse of western culture if you believe everything you read. Which is sign you’re using your phone too much.

I don’t love phones, and I do think we should all use them less. If you’ve feel addicted to your phone, well, um, you’re right. You are. Everything about the design of the apps on your phone is engineered to create dopamine pathways that make sure you experience physical withdrawal when you go without them. That’s addiction pure and simple.

But. Did you know that culturally we’ve been wringing our hands over the distractions in our lives for centuries? Meister Eckhart, writing around 1307, calls “distraction” the second most powerful thing preventing communion with God. In 1550s Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner worries that the printing press will worsen the problem of distraction with a “confusing and harmful” amount of data “unleashed on the unsuspecting.” To pick a more recent, and revealing, example consider writer Italo Calvino’s 1983 account of his daily newspaper habit:

Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills… always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back homeā€”or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then… I cannot do without them. They are like a drug.

Note the use of the phrase, “like a drug,” which we’re still using today to describe our latest and most powerful distraction, phones.

I point this out not to downplay the addictive, attention-steal nature of screens, but to remind you that being distracted is not new. Think of it slightly differently, the desire for distraction is not new. All that’s happened over the last century is we’ve created ever more engrossing mediums to distract ourselves with. This strongly suggests that if we just reduce our exposure to the current symptom without addressing the underlying desire for distraction we’re just switching one thing for another, like alcoholics chugging coffee and chain smoking at AA meetings1.

And I bring up AA in part because I think that phones are a problem partly for the same reason alcohol is a problem: they’re culturally acceptable. No one pulls our a syringe in the middle of four star restaurant and shoots up heroin, but no one bats an eye when someone orders a bottle of wine in the same situation. Both are addictive, destructive drugs (arguably alcohol is much worse on your body), but one is culturally acceptable and one is not. This makes a world of difference when it comes time to stop. You don’t have to work hard to avoid heroin, but you’ll run into alcohol, and screens, at every turn.

Our phones aren’t just addictive, they’re also completely culturally acceptable in the west. No one cares if you pull one out in the middle of dinner. Well, I will. You might. But the cultural message seems to be that it’s okay. In some places and some situations the cultural message might even be that you’re an oddball if you’re not staring at a screen.

Let’s assume though, that, like people who email me, you want to use your phone less. Here are some tricks to help with that, most of which I used to cut back on my own screen use.

Luxagraf’s Rules for Screens, part deux.

Rule Five: Know Yourself

If you want to use your phone less, you need to know how much you use it. There are some tools to figure this out built-in to both iOS and Android, but I never bothered to figure those out because I had already downloaded and used Your Hour (Android App Store). Space appears to offer similar features and works on iOS too. The app isn’t really important, just get something that records how much time you spend and how often you unlock your phone.

That will give you a baseline and let you know how much you use your phone. Personally I disabled tracking for maps and music/podcasts because although I’m using my phone, I’m not really staring at the screen. There’s an element of gamification to these apps that’s easy to get sucked into. I had Your Hour on my phone for about a week before I got pretty obsessed with how little I could use my phone in a day.

Rule Six: Adapt to Yourself

If, like me, you discover that you use your phone to check the time throughout the day, consider getting a watch. Or, if you hate wearing a watch, and live in a small bus with your family like I do, just encourage everyone else to wear a watch and ask them what time it is.

The point is, most likely Rule Five will reveal some habits that you can break, but are too idiosyncratic to you for me to solve for you. My general advice is, if you have some behavior that involves the phone that could involve some analog thing, like a watch for instance, replace those screen checks with a watch. Not a smart watch or fitness tracker, just a watch.

A few things I have heard of people doing include, putting your phone in a bag to make it more of a pain to pull out and use, using it as a coaster so you can’t pick it up, and using a pen and paper to make notes rather than using your phone.

Rule Seven: Turn Off All Notifications

I think the reason we are bothered by how much we use our phones has to do with agency. We like to think we are the rulers of our days and are conscious of all our decisions and actions and phones are stark reminder that we are not that guy/gal. The best way to grant yourself back some agency is to get rid of all notifications.

Notifications are really just little serotonin agitators. Check your email when you feel like it, not when a notification badge agitates your serotonin level past the point of resistance. Turn them off, all of them.

Rule Eight: Practice Doing Nothing

This does not mean meditating. It means doing nothing. Or at least do nothing productive. When you were a child you were probably happy to lie in the grass all afternoon doing nothing. At most you might pick out shapes in the clouds, but you were fine doing nothing. Or at least if you’re over 35 and actually had a childhood then you might remember doing nothing. If not. Well, learn. Practice.

Of all the rules in this list, this is the hardest for me. I have this need to always be making something. I am ill at ease doing nothing. I read a good bit, I also practice discursive meditation, but neither of those qualify. The only time I really do nothing, is lying in a hammock, so I make sure to get some time in the hammock at least a couple times a week.

It might take some time to figure out the way you do nothing the best. If you do get stuck on this one, I highly recommend a hammock.

Rule Nine: Record Your Practice

Write down when you do nothing. Write down when you don’t do nothing. Write down how you miss notifications if you do. Write how you overcome your strange screen habits and most of all, write down when you still use screens. Don’t judge yourself for it, step back, detach and just record what happened, what you did, and for how long. Try to be a disinterested observer of yourself, this will be much more helpful than berating or congratulating.

  1. This is not meant to disparage AA or anyone struggling with alcoholism. Most AA members I know are fully aware of the irony of swapping one addiction for another, but when alcohol has taken over your life to that point, it’s not a bad trade to make. 


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