In June 2021 I read the audiobook “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price. The first half of the book outlines how smartphones have changed our lives, and specifically how they’ve changed our brains and commandeered our attention and focus. It’s a persuasive argument for creating a more intentional relationship with the tiny computer in your pocket.
I’ve been skirting around the idea of minimising my phone and social media use for a while. I decided to dive head first into the 30 day challenge that makes up the second half of the book: breaking up with my phone.
This blog post will outline the prompts (if you want the short version) as well as what I’ve learned.
I shared the daily prompts on my Facebook profile, in the hope of building a little community doing the challenge too. After all, these things are more fun with friends! A couple of friends took me up on it, but interest in my posts soon waned and it eventually dawned on me that dammit, I should be putting this content on my own channel. Not the one that feigns “connection for free” while secretly building a database on each individual for commercial gain… That sentence is not written very articulately (and I could write a whole article just on my relationship with social media) but I think you get the picture.
If you’re curious about what it looks like to “break up with your phone” and maybe even trying it yourself, read on.
The first couple of weeks are blank for now – I’ll come back and fill them in later from the FB posts I’ve already published. For now, I just wanted to urgently start posting my daily prompts and learnings here in this article (rather than on Facebook).
Week One >> Technology Triage
Week Two >> Changing Your Habits
Week Three >> Reclaiming Your Brain
Day 18. Thursday. Meditate.
Paying attention isn’t just choosing what to focus on: it’s also ignoring distractions. The better we are at ignoring, the better we are at paying attention.
Today we’re going to practice ignoring distractions, with a ‘mindfulness meditation’.
In this practice, you choose something from your present experience to focus on. It might be:
📱Coming and going of thoughts
📱Sounds you hear
Then you maintain your attention on that one thing for a period of time – without judging yourself.
“Doing nothing” may sound easy, but it most definitely is not. Your mind will wander – that’s what your mind was built to do! The trick is not to fight when it wanders. Simply notice you’ve wandered from your focus, then gently bring it back – without criticising yourself. You’ll probably have to do this often, maybe even every few seconds. That’s fine. It’s about noticing: that’s the practice! The harder you find it, the more important it is to do. And the more practice you’ll get.
Try a brief session today. If you don’t want to use your phone, set a timer for 5 minutes and focus on your breath for 5 minutes, bringing your focus back every time it wanders. The other option is doing a guided meditation via the internet using – gasp – your phone. This is one of those instances where your phone can be a really useful tool! If you’re worried about getting sucked into a phone spiral you can reduce temptation by using the app blocker you installed earlier. You might also place your meditation app on your newly redesigned Home Screen 😉
Try 5-10 mins today, and then try to make it a daily practice.
For me, I’ve been doing some form of daily meditation for a while (I can’t tell you how long because I used to track it via an app on my phone, and since I’ve stopped using my phone so much I’ve actually stopped tracking my daily habits, lol. I think I’ve skipped maybe a couple of days this whole year). I use Insight Timer, mostly. Sometimes I use the Chopra app, when they’re doing a free challenge. I also have an Uplifted yoga membership, which includes meditations that I occasionally do. For this challenge, I am going to try the timer option outlined above.
I do want to say something else about meditation. I recently listened to a podcast where the guest was talking about meditation, and emphasised the overall goal of meditation is for the benefit of the entire planet. As in, if you’re just meditating for yourself and those around you, you’re missing the point. It’s something I’ve started pondering a little more.
Day 19. Friday. Prepare for Trial Separation.
The ‘trial separation’ should be already scheduled into your calendar by this point in the challenge. Today’s goal is to prepare, and make this separation as easy and rewarding as possible.
The below ideas are all optional, and you should adjust them to suit your needs. This is to help you prepare.
📱First, clearly identify what you’re actually taking a break from. In addition to your phone you may try tablets, smart watches, computers and even TV. The author recommends avoiding screens entirely. This trial separation is, after all, supposed to be dramatic!
📱Then, tell everyone who’s likely to try and contact you what you’re doing, and other ways they might get in contact with you for the next 24 hours.
📱It’s a great idea to get others on board. Ideally everyone in your household will participate, or even a friend.
📱Make plans! Schedule fun things to do.
📱Use hard copy instructions. Yes – when driving, you’re going to navigate without your phone. You can always ask for directions 😉 This one also applies to recipes – I get so many of mine online!
📱Get a pad of paper or a notebook. During your trial separation, make a list of ‘to phone’ things to do when your trial separation is over. When you switch your phone back on after the separation, you may well find you no longer want to follow these up.
📱Set an automated phone greeting, to explain what you’re doing and alternative ways to get in touch.
📱Create a physical contact list for anyone you may need to contact.
📱Use call forwarding – to your landline, if you have one. (I don’t, so I guess I simply won’t be contactable! I’m going to need to rethink this if I do it again in future.)
📱If you are worried about missing emails, set an out of office response, if you feel you need to. You can also set a text message auto responder, to tell people via SMS that you’re not currently checking messages. Again, you may want to offer an alternative way to get in touch.
As far as timing, the author recommends from Friday to Saturday evening, and this is what I’m going to do. So I’ll post the weekend’s prompt tonight before I switch off!
Day 20/21. The Weekend. Your Trial Separation
As mentioned earlier, the author suggests using any 24 hour period during this weekend for your trial separation. Then when the time comes, simply turn it off (and all other internet-enabled devices).
Not airplane mode. Off.
📱What to expect
You may find the exercise is less difficult than you feared. You may also be surprised at how hard or uncomfortable it is. Our phones distract us from our emotions… so don’t be surprised if you feel impatient, irritable, or flooded with a wave of existential malaise. You can choose to either sit with the discomfort, or use your free time to do one of your pre-identified activities. Ie, the things you said you’d love more time to do!
You might find it hard to maintain enough focus to do one of the things you said you wanted to do! If so, use it as an opportunity to practice one of the mindfulness exercises we’ve looked at so far.
Basically, use your newfound free time to do whatever you want. (Doesn’t that sound lovely!?)
💗Make room for serendipity. There’s no room for It when you carry the internet in your pocket! Researching things can be exhausting, and can eliminate the joy of finding something by accident. So be open to serendipitous moments during this separately.
💗Take a walk in your neighbourhood with no particular destination.
💗Check your local paper and find something new from the listings to go and try/ experience/ participate in.
💗Visit a restaurant you’v been meaning to try.
💗Go for a wander, with no expectations.
📱Have a fleeting interaction with a stranger that creates a sense of connection. Without the temptation to stare at your phone, you’re more likely to have the attention for a brief exchange. For example, have a cheerful chat with a waiter, join a group cheer at a sports bar, or have a chat on a plane (these all sound somewhat unattainable in today’s COVID world but you get the idea). It can help us feel more connected. The more we stare at our phones, the less chance we have to have such short, real interactions.
📱Do something fun, with real people.
📱What to do in an emergency…
Use your phone! If you’re nervous about leaving the house without it, remember that everyone around you has one 😉
Week Four and Beyond >> Your New Relationship
From now on , the art you’re perfecting is sticking with the lessons you’ve learned, and remembering how you want to live. The author highlights that “what started as a break up will hopefully end up as a breakthrough.” For me, I definitely feel I’m on this path.
By now, you should have a clearer picture of how you want to use your phone and how you want to spend your attention. You should also have an inkling as to how you have been spending your attention and what you’re changing.
This week is about locking in your new positive habits and the changes you’ve been working on.
Day 22. Monday. Trial Separation Recap
Today our goal is simply to reflect on and learn from our separation (as completed over the weekend).
Our prompts are:
Use the following as writing prompts or conversation starters with anyone who joined you in participating in the trial separation.
📱What did you observe about yourself, behaviour and emotions?
📱What did you see? Ie, what happened?
📱What did these observations make you think about? What thoughts come into your mind?
📱How do you feel about your phone itself, as well as your relationship with it, now that you’ve had a separation?
📱What do you wonder? What questions do you have? What would you like to know more about?
Now consider these questions:
📱What was the hardest part?
📱What was the best part?
📱What surprised you?
📱What did you learn from the experience that you can use once your official break up is over?
I’m going to have fun journaling on this stuff. I went 36 hours without my phone (or laptop or smart watch or iPad) and it was highly valuable. In a nutshell, my experience was that it wasn’t particularly hard (outside of coordinating logistics with my family without a phone) but I most definitely noticed impulses to use my phone – when I truly didn’t need to. A very interesting experiment that I’ll certainly be doing again – and regularly!
Day 23. Tuesday. Phast.
As we’ve discovered, phone fasts – phasts! – are good for our emotional and mental health. If nothing else, it’s good to take a break to prove that you can!
Even though the 24 hours was great, it doesn’t have to be this long to feel the benefits. For example, you might decide to turn off your phone on a Friday night and give it a wake up time several hours after your own (on Saturday).
Another option is to choose an activity for the weekend that you’ll do without your phone, such as a hike or a family outing.
If social media is your vice you might mandate a break for yourself by having someone change your password for you!
Remember that the point is not to punish yourself. It’s to make yourself feel good! It’s not “when can I force myself to take a break?” But rather “When would I like to take a break from my phone?”
Try to identify 30-60 mins today that you’ll leave your phone behind. For example, having dinner, walking the dog, or having lunch. Then experiment with these short phasts. The more you take a break, the less you’ll be tempted to reach for your phone throughout the day.
I plan to implement these, I was so happy with the weekend’s experiment!
Day 24. Wednesday. Manage Your Invitations.
One of the hardest things is saying no to the constant invitations from your brain.
For example, “oh hi, I see you’ve just woken up. Let’s check the news to see what we missed.”
“I see you’re about to meditate. Let’s just quickly check social media first.”
“This date is boring. Let’s excuse ourselves and text someone from the bathroom.”
You’ve already done a lot of work to proactively manage external invitations and physical boundaries.
The practice of managing internal invitations, founded in mindfulness, can be really valuable in other areas of your life too.
Today, practice noticing the invitations your brain is sending you about how to use your phone (and also in non-phone related situations), then make a conscious decision about how you want to respond. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, don’t immediately respond with gestures and obscenities (if that’s your go-to). Instead, stop breathe and be. Notice how your brain is inviting you to respond. Consider possible alternatives. Then decide how you actually want to react.
I love this. Such an intentional approach to life. And while I certainly think there’s room for passion, if we’re a little more intentional it can really make a difference to our everyday life!
Day 25. Thursday. Clean Up the Rest of Your Digital Life.
We’ve talked about text messages, dating, games, app blockers and passwords. The next step is to focus on email… you get too many and most are unimportant. (As an email marketer I flinch at this – but realistically I am guilty of getting way too many emails too).
Here are the tips for today.
📱Unsubscribe. For the next week, take a moment to unsubscribe from lists you no longer want to hear from. You can also search for and use a plugin that unsubscribes you.
📱You don’t have to respond immediately to every message in your inbox. Eg set an app blocker that allows access to mail at certain times of the day. Control how many times and for how long you can check email each day using your settings.
📱Use folders to keep yourself sane. Create a “needs response” folder to store messages that do need a reply. You could even sort them by importance, to reduce your sense of overwhelm.
📱Set up a commerce email account (for when you buy things online). You know you’ll hear about sales (and get delivery updates) but you won’t get them into your primary account.
📱Set up a VIP list for people whose emails you don’t want to miss… and ignore everyone else 😉
📱When you’re on holiday, avoid the dreaded email pile-up upon return by setting up a specific email account such as “yourname_important” then set an autoresponder saying you won’t be reading these emails during your holiday, NOR when you return. In the autoresponder include the name of someone they can contact in an emergency, and then say if they really must have a response from you when you return they should forward their message to the above-mentioned email address and that you’ll respond when you’re back. I’ve never tried this and it seems rather dramatic, but I’m curious! Alternatively you can download Thrive Away (an app that automatically deletes new emails and sends an auto response telling people when you’re back.)
Social media. Ideally by now your social media use is drastically reduced, but regardless, take the time to prune your accounts. Unfollow people who don’t bring you joy. Create lists of people based on their roles in your life so when you share a photo you can specify which people will see it. Consider a separate professional account, if you use social media for work. Add something to your profile that indicates how often you’ll check it. Explore the depths of your settings, if you haven’t already – there are lots of things you can control (but most people don’t).
Driving. Take advantage of auto drive modes that disable your phone when you reach a certain speed. iPhone also has a driving mode that sends an auto response to people letting them know you’re driving and can’t respond! (I used this as my text responder during my trial separation, though I don’t know if it worked.)
Linked accounts, ie when you log into a platform using social media accounts (such as logging into Spotify with your Facebook credentials). Do not use this option! (I stay away from these like the plague, because of the data that is shared). If you’ve already linked accounts, take time to separate them. The author doesn’t talk about why, but I know what data this means you’re sharing across platforms, and it isn’t a good idea if you want to have any control over your online data and privacy.
Day 26. Friday. Check Your Checking.
Whenever you notice you’re itching to check your phone, use it as an opportunity to ask yourself a few questions:
📱What’s the best thing that can happen when you check your phone?
📱What’s the best email, piece of news, notification, or emotion you could experience?
📱And then, What’s the likelihood this will actually happen?
Realistically, the chances that you’ll see the best piece of news, receive a job offer for your dream job or get that message you’ve been waiting for are low! Very low. What’s more likely is that you’ll see something that upsets you or stresses you out.
When you think about these possibilities, it becomes easier to stop checking your phone.
Use other people’s checking to check your checking! You’ll notice other people’s habits. You’ll see people crossing the road with eyes glued to phones. Families having dinner whilst all on their phones. Subway cars with cars lit by familiar blue glow. Use it as a cue to consider your own checking (in a non-judgmental way, of course!)
Pick a habitual time you check (for example when you’re standing in a lift on the way to work, or waiting in a line), and start noticing other people checking, and use it as your cue.
Ask yourself what you’d like to pay attention to. This is the question we keep coming back to. Because what we pay attention to is how we live our life.
Day 27. Saturday. Digital Sabbath Life Hacks.
Many people find that the trial separation was so enjoyable, they want to turn it into a regular habit. Even once a month will go a long way. Nor does it need to be all devices, or complete shut off.
The point is to personalise your experience.
Feel free to experiment this weekend with another break from your phone. Or if you’re not into that idea, use it to solidify some of the other habits you’ve been working on.
Some ideas for taking regular digital sabbaths…
📱Untangle your devices. Smart phones serve so many purposes, but this is also their downfall (it’s how you decide to listen to a podcast before bed but end up scrolling the news for an hour). Consider investing in separate devices for different things. For example you might get a music player, a digital camera, or an e reader – all depending on what you need.
📱Get a house phone – instead of discarding your phone when it’s time, use it as a house phone with no apps except for a few tools (timer, calculator, security alarm, camera). Essentially this makes it a remote control. And it won’t need a service plan as long as you have wifi. If you don’t have an old phone, buy a used one from ebay or use an iPod (which is internet enabled)! Just be very selective about which apps you install.
📱Use phone suspension modes. Play with airplane or do not disturb modes. Customise your Do Not Disturb settings. Customise whose calls you want to receive. (Side note on this – I’ve just discovered iPhone’s “Downtime” mode available in Screen Time settings. It turns off everything (including across devices, if you want) apart from those you select. I’m loving it, after a couple of days).
📱Download maps ahead of time. You can still have access whilst offline, without the temptation of checking your phone for other things.
📱Get a landline. If this is of interest, you can pay for a separate phone service! Or get a phone that works over internet VOIP. Forward all calls to landline, when you want time away from your smart phone.
📱Get in the habit of leaving your phone by the door, block all apps except the phone and turn on the ringer. This way your phone is still useful as a phone, without being a temptation.
📱Downgrade to a dumb phone… You can always go back to your smart phone!
Overall, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are no rules. Experiment with different ideas and adopt the ones that feel right to you and how you want to use your phone.
Day 28. Sunday. The 7 Phone Habits of Highly Effective People.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve put in a lot of effort so far – but realistically, sticking with it will be difficult. Phones are constantly being updated and in reality they’re probably going to get harder to put down!
We need a plan to stay on track with our intentions. Personalise your own descriptions for the following 7 habits:
- I have healthy phone routines. Eg keeping phones out of bedroom. These changes you’ve made are not yet automatic, and as a result are pretty fragile. We want them to become second nature. A good way to tackle this is to make decisions ahead of time about how we want to act, so we don’t have to think when the situation arises. Take some time to think about the following questions:
- Where do you charge your phone and when do you check it first in the morning?
- Where do you keep your phone while at work, during meals, at home? Where do you carry it?
- What do you use your phone for eg social, communication, education?
- What are situations in which you don’t use your phone? eg In a lift, in a queue, when bored.
- Which apps enrich or simplify your life?
- Which apps are dangerous and most likely to suck you in? Which ones do you block and when?
- I have manners and I know how to use them. Where do you keep your phone and how do you interact with it when you’re spending time with people, in meetings, driving, having a meal, watching a movie etc? How would you like other people to use their phones?
- I cut myself a break. First it’s important to realise you may slip back into old habits and the best way is to simply get back on track without judging yourself. You may also want permission to scroll daily. Give yourself a break! Decide that’s ok, and when you want to do it. Start small. Decide when you’ll give yourself a period of free phone time! Perfection isn’t the point. Everything in life is changing, and that’s ok. As long as we’re cultivating self awareness we’re on the right track.
- I phast. Now’s the time to put your intentions into writing – how and when will you phast?
- I have a life. How do you have fun without your phone? Take a moment to write a list of non phone-related activities that bring you joy, and how you’ll bring them regularly into your life.
- I practice pausing. Practice stillness. What will you do when you find yourself with a moment, a minute, an hour of downtime? Breathe? Meditate? Notice the sensations you experience? Do something you enjoy without your phone?
- I exercise my attention. We need to restrengthen our attention spans and engage in regular exercise to keep our brains in shape. Identify brain-building exercises you want to do regularly. Eg meditation; doing one thing at a time.
We’re almost at the end of our 30 day challenge…
Day 29. Monday. Keep Yourself on Track.
You’ve done so much hard work to get this far! One of the most effective things you can do to stay on track now is to schedule a regular check-in with yourself.
So today, schedule a monthly reminder to check-in and see how you’re going. Literally – schedule it into your calendar 😉
Some questions you might like to ask yourself during your monthly check-in:
🌸What parts of your relationship with your phone are going well?
🌸What things do you want to change?
🌸What’s one thing you could do to start?
🌸What are you doing (or could do) to do strengthen your ability to focus?
🌸What are your goals for the next 30 days?
🌸What fun plans could you make to spend time with the people you care about?
🌸Have you reinstalled any apps you’ve deleted, or let your phone back into your bedroom, or turned notifications back on? If so, does it feel like the right decision? Don’t judge yourself for your response – there’s no wrong answer. Only the right answer for you.
🌸What do you want to pay attention to in your life?
Day 30. Tuesday. Congratulations!
You’ve made it!
You’ve officially broken up with your phone and started a new relationship with it. Hopefully the past 30 days has made you feel good about how you now think about and use your phone.
☎️ You now have a clear view of how your phone makes your life better.
☎️ You’re aware of where and how it makes you feel bad.
☎️ You’ve changed old habits and created new ones and it’s gone from being your boss to being a tool!
☎️ You’ve joined the growing ranks of people overhauling their relationship with their phone, and given yourself an enormous gift, by bringing awareness to how you spend your attention.
The final exercise is to give yourself some love.
Write a note to yourself about what you’re proud of and what you’ve learned over course of this break up.
Consider how you have changed.
How do you feel about what you’ve done and experienced, and where you are now compared to where you were on Day 1?
Some prompts that may help you write your letter:
🌸I used to think my phone…
🌸Now I think…
🌸I’ve learned that…
🌸I’m happy to know that….
🌸I’m proud of myself for…
Compare it to the note you wrote yourself at the start of your break up and give yourself some credit for what you’ve accomplished!
Remember 30 days ago when you were scared of giving up control of your phone? Hopefully you’ve found that in relinquishing control of the thing that was actually the thing in control, you’ve gained more memories.
💗By putting down your phone around family, you’ve now learned how much longer and deliberate time with loved ones can feel.
💗By choosing to deliberately turn your phone off at night and not check it until your designated morning time, you’ve learned you never once missed an email that could make or break your work life the following morning.
💗By leaving your phone at home on walks, you noticed new things you’ve never noticed before.
💗By hiding your phone during movies, you had to struggle to figure out things (like where else you’ve seen that actor!) without distracting yourself from what you’re watching and disrupting the people you’re watching with.
In the end, you may still feel like your brain needs some scrolling every now and then, and that’s fine! But now you know how to limit it to whatever feels right to you.
And that’s the point of this entire exercise. You’re in control. You’re intentional. And you’re living your life on your own terms. 💗
The author’s conclusion is written a couple of years after her initial phone breakup, and she talks about how she’s still mindful of how she uses it, and her relationship to it. As a society we need to pay attention to the serious nature of the issue – the consequences of this type of mass addiction don’t look good. It doesn’t take much research to see that phones are changing the experience of being human.
We need to decide what we actually want our relationships with our digital devices to be.
The author still takes digital sabbaths, but can curb her use without going cold turkey as often. Spending time on offline pursuits is more likely to make her feel good than spending time on her phone. Spending too much time on her phone was sapping colour from her experiences. Spending attention on what’s happening around us brings back the vivid colours.
As I’m writing this, I’m literally on Day 30 so I can’t speak to the long term effects of this experiment on my own life. However, I won’t be surprised if the effects are long-lasting, and profound. The exercise has been nothing short of revelatory. My relationship with my phone is certainly not perfect, but I can also say that I certainly feel my phone is now more of a tool than some sort of family member, as it was being treated before I read this book.
I look forward to revisiting several of the exercises again and again.
The key is to keep asking yourself the same question. This is your life. What do you want to pay attention to?